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Teaching for Historical Understanding in Inclusive Classrooms

A teacher helping her students understand primary sources. NHEC

Teaching historical thinking can be tricky, especially in classrooms of mixed ability. Yet it is possible for all students, even those with learning disabilities, to learn how to think about complex issues like historical evidence, bias, and corroboration of sources. Ralph Ferretti and Charles MacArthur of the University of Delaware and Cynthia Okolo of Michigan State University have shown that the right instructional techniques can help improve the learning of all children.

Description and Findings

The researchers designed a 5th grade social studies unit to teach historical content and historical thinking. The unit was taught in three 5th grade classrooms, where students with and without learning disabilities worked together to learn about western expansion.

Students were asked to investigate the experiences of one of three groups: miners, farmers or Mormons. Students answered the question: should these groups have gone west? Then they created a multimedia report about their investigation. Throughout the unit, students worked in groups that brought together students with and without learning disabilities.

As they worked on these projects, students were taught lessons to enhance their understanding of historical content and historical thinking, including:

  • An investigation of primary sources: diaries, drawings, photographs, memoirs, and letters.
  • A focus on historical thinking in which students learned how to evaluate evidence and corroborate sources, the importance of qualifying conclusions, and methods for understanding who wrote the source and for what purpose.
  • Direct instruction in cognitive strategies for retaining information about western migration such as the importance of understanding the people and the problems they faced.

At the end of the unit, the researchers saw improvement in all students' understanding of historical content and historical thinking.

In their understanding of historical content, both groups of students improved their scores on a series of tests. However, general education students improved more than their peers with disabilities. (This finding is different from the authors’ results in other similar studies that showed both groups were able to similarly improve at understanding historical content.)

In their understanding of historical thinking, both groups had comparable gains on a series of tests. In other words, students with and without learning disabilities increased their understanding of how to construct an historical argument based on historical evidence.

The study suggests that there are benefits of inquiry-based instruction for all students. The authors conclude that "students with disabilities can understand authentic historical practices and meet the demands of rigorous curricula."

Photo, Teaching a deaf-mute to talk, OK, Lewis Hines, April 1917, LoC

In the Classroom 

When working in heterogeneous classrooms, group projects focused on historical questions can help all students learn more about investigating and understanding the past.

  • Carefully select small groups that bring together students with and without learning disabilities.
  • Begin by framing history as a narrative, a story of what happened to a particular group of people living in the past.
  • Provide the student groups with primary source documents that shed light on the people and time period you are investigating, and guide them to think about the narrative elements of history: Who are the people we are investigating? What was it like to live in their communities during their time? What challenges did they face and how did they respond to those challenges?
  • Provide students a variety of ways to contribute to the group investigation—including but not limited to writing, speaking, and gathering written and pictoral evidence—to open more avenues for participation.

Sample Application 

History is a narrative, a story of what happened to people in the past. In some instances, as in the case of western expansion, it is the story of people who encountered problems that required them to take action. The researchers asked students to investigate the stories of different groups by gathering information about the following narrative components:

  • Who were these people? (Miners/Farmers/Mormons)
  • What problems did they face in their place of origin?
  • What were their reasons for deciding to move west?
  • What challenges did they face on their trip?
  • What occurred when they reached their destination?
For more information 

Ralph P. Ferretti, Charles D. MacArthur, & Cynthia M. Okolo, "Teaching Effectively about Historical Things," Teaching Exceptional Children, v34 n6 p66-69 Jul-Aug 2002.

Cynthia M. Okolo & Ralph R. Ferretti, "Knowledge Acquisition and Technology-Supported Projects in the Social Studies for Students with Learning Disabilities," Journal of Special Education Technology, v13 p91-103 1997.


Ralph P. Ferretti, Charles D. MacArthur, & Cynthia M. Okolo, "Teaching for Historical Understanding in Inclusive Classrooms," Learning Disability Quarterly, v24 n1 p59-71 Win 2001.

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