Thinking like a detective in math, science and history class

Jan 24, 2013
Maybe it’s just me… But how can anyone NOT be fascinated by history? What I love about it are those times when I’m walking through my neighborhood and I see those little glimmers of history peeking through a cobblestone street, a decaying wharf, or an abandoned subway entrance. My mind wanders: Who walked here before me years ago? What were they thinking about? Where did they come from? What is their story? In a place like New York, it’s easy to feel like history is something real and close. I often wonder, if I peel back enough layers, maybe I’ll get a glimpse of what it was like that foggy, late summer night in 1776 when George Washington and the Continental Army retreated through my neighborhood after the Battle of Long Island and escaped to safety across the East River. Just thinking about that makes me want to dive into a book, or study a map. I didn’t always think of history this way. As a young student, I thought of it as something that fits in a book, that is there to be memorized, and that’s gone and done and in the past, instead of something that’s mysterious and about investigation and detective work and the imagination. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a historian or a scientist or a mathematician, and I think these three fields are actually quite similar. In many ways, they’re really just three different ways of solving problems. Take a look at what the Common Core State Standards for Mathematical Practice say about what students need to learn in math. They really are wonderful. Number two says, “Reason abstractly and quantitatively.” Number three says, “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.” Number five says, “Use appropriate tools strategically.” Number one says: “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.” When it comes down to it, math is about solving problems. So is history. So is science. Great teachers know this — and I hope a lot of students do too! Annie Murphy Paul quoted an article by Stanford professor Sam Wineberg yesterday where he wrote: “The funny thing is that when you ask historians what they do, a different picture emerges. They see themselves as detectives searching for evidence among primary sources to a mystery that can never be completely solved. Wouldn’t this image be more enticing to a bored high school student? It would, and that’s one reason why thinking like a historian deserves a place in the American classroom, the sooner the better.” (Flickr photo by Susan NYC)