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Barton, Keith C. “History is about People: Elementary Students’ Understanding of History.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Council for the Social Studies (Phoenix, AZ, November 1994).


This study examines the historical understanding of 22 fourth-graders and 11 fifth-grade students in two classrooms in a suburban community near Cincinnati (Ohio). The classes were homogeneous racially, with no students of Hispanic, African-American, Asian, or Pacific Island descent in either class. The school reflects primarily middle and upper-middle income families. Data were collected through participant observation, open-ended interviews with 29 different students, and analysis of 278 written compositions. The classrooms studied were innovative with activity-oriented instruction. A consistent feature of students’ historical thinking was their tendency to explain all historical events and trends in terms of the attitudes and intentions of individuals. Consistent with research on children’s understanding of economics and politics, these students did not understand the roles of political or economic institutions in history. This research suggests that exposing elementary students to increased historical content is unlikely to be effective unless instruction also focuses on helping students understand societal institutions and forces.