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Barton, K. C. “Narrative Simplifications in Elementary Children’s Historical Understanding.” In Teaching and Learning History. Advances in Research on Teaching 6, edited by J. Brophy, 51-83. Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1996.


This chapter is based on a year long study in which Barton examined fourth and fifth graders’ development of historical understanding in two American elementary school classrooms. Data collection involved interviews with the students, classroom observations including frequent conversations with the teachers, and analysis of students’ written assignments.

Results indicated that students’ understanding of history could be categorized into three narrative patterns: 1) students understood historical changes as following a logical trajectory towards the present; 2) historical developments were thought to progress linearly; and 3) students understood important historical events as being the result of a small number of people’s actions. Overall, the results of this study coincided with the results of previously conducted research which has concluded that students learn better when history is presented in story form.

To conclude, the authors provide suggestions for history educators. First, to counter students’ assumptions that all historical changes occur for logical reasons teachers should highlight the specific events that have brought about particular changes. Second, to counter students’ understanding of historical developments as a result of a linear progression teachers should highlight the diversity of experience in each time period. Finally, to counter students’ limited perception of historical changes teachers need to focus on long-term social, economic, and political changes rather than on specific people.

Ana Laura Pauchulo