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Thinking Historically: The Flat Earth

Students studying maps in the classroom. NHEC

As part of The National Research Council's How People Learn series, Bob Bain (now a professor of History Education at the University of Michigan's School of Education) described a classroom in which legitimate historical questions were at the center. Through this particular investigation, Bain's students learned about 15th-century Europe, Columbus's voyage, and the nature of history and historical accounts.

What Do Students Think They Know?

Rather than presenting a story of Columbus's journey to his students, Bain first elicited student ideas about the voyage and its context. "What do you know about Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492? What do you know about the people of Europe on the eve of Columbus's voyages?" After hearing students recall the standard flat-earth story about Columbus, Bain asked them how they knew what they supposedly knew. What evidence did they have for their Columbus stories?

Using Frameworks and Organizers

How do you know what you know was the unifying problem across Bain's entire curriculum and this question forced students to confront the uncertain status of historical accounts. Students initially saw no difference between "history"and "the past" and believed there was a one-to-one correspondence between what happened in the past and the history book sitting on their desks.

Bain explained to his students that the past is never fully retrievable and our histories are accounts of that past rather than its mirrors. To make this distinction concrete for students, Bain used an organizer from the outset of his course, "history-as-event" and "history-as-account," (H(ev) and H(ac)). Columbus's voyage is history-as-event; the story we tell about it is history-as-account. This distinction, which students learned and used as touchstone, introduced the necessity of questioning and comparing different accounts of the past.

At the unit level, examining historical accounts meant posing questions about historical stories. Students believed they knew Columbus's story, but could not summon evidence to support it. Successive sets of documents helped them create a more accurate and complete story about Columbus and his time.

First Bain gave students a set of short accounts consistent with their ideas—in other words he set them up. Then he challenged those ideas with a picture of a classical statue of Atlas holding a round globe and an explanation written by Carl Sagan about how Eratosthenes determined the world's circumference in the 3rd century BCE. Given these sources, students wondered why Columbus got credit for the round earth idea.

The next round of accounts, selections from Daniel Boorstin and Stephen Jay Gould, helped students sharpen the historical problem that subsequently guided their study of 15th-century European exploration. Was there a great interruption in European geographic knowledge? Did people in 1492 generally believe in the flat earth? What historical accounts explain European exploration of the Americas? How have those accounts changed over time?

History-Specific Strategies

Bain used history-specific instructional strategies to support and assist students in analyzing and synthesizing historical accounts. Students confronted questions like, When was this written? What other sources support or contest this source? See this example of small, carefully structured, reading and discussion groups.

Learning History: Content and Skills

Through Bain's instruction, students learned that the "flat-earth" story was disseminated by 19th-century writers. Students learned that historical accounts change over time, and that it is the historian's task to sift through evidence and construct a legitimate story warranted by that evidence. At the same time, they learned important content about Columbus's voyage and the context of 15th-century Europe.

Atlas Farnese, How Students Learn: History, in the Classroom, eds. M.S.

In the Classroom 

Seek out significant historical problems and questions to frame curricular units. Historians and other content experts can be helpful in identifying these.

Make historical reading and thinking strategies explicit. Use frameworks and organizers that allow students repeated practice with these strategies.

Surface student beliefs about what they think they know and challenge these beliefs when incorrect with concrete documentary evidence.

Plan instruction so students can distinguish between history and various accounts of it.

Sample Application 

The original article includes several sources that Bain used in this unit.

The first source below represents the popularity of the "flat earth"story in the 19th century. The second shows that knowledge of the round earth preceded Columbus and his voyage. And the third addresses one question generated by these two: Was there a great interruption in European geographic knowledge?

1. Columbus was one of the comparatively few people who at that time believed the earth to be round. The general belief was that it was flat, and that if one should sail too far west on the ocean, he would come to the edge of the world, and fall off. (Eggleston, 1904, p.12)

2. Scholars believe the sculpture, Atlas Farnese (above, left), was made sometime after 150 A.D. Named for the collection of which it is now a part, it was found in Rome in 1575. The globe's representation of the vernal equinox helped scholars date the sculpture.

3. Dramatic to be sure, but entirely fictitious. There never was a period of "flat earth darkness" among scholars (regardless of how many uneducated people may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth's roundness as an established fact of cosmology . . . Virtually all major medieval scholars affirmed the earth's roundness . . . (Gould, 1995, p. 42)

For more information 

M. Suzanne Donovan and John D. Bransford, eds., How Students Learn: History in the Classroom, (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2005).

Allan Collins, John Seely Brown, and Ann Holum, "Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible," American Educator. (Winter 1991).


Robert B. Bain, "'They Thought the World Was Flat?' Applying the Principles of How People Learn in Teaching High School History," In How Students Learn: History, in the Classroom, eds. M.S. Donovan and J.D. Bransford (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2005).