Digital Filing Cabinet: Secondary School History

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Several of the Information Age Education IAE-pedia pages are about Digital Filing Cabinets.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (George Santayana; 1863–1952.)

Very Brief Summary

History teachers and their students can benefit by building personal Digital Filing Cabinets—in essence, personal digital libraries—of material they find useful in the teaching, learning, and "doing" of history. Such collections are personalized through having been read, studied, used, annotated, and so on by the person creating the collection.



Filing cabinets have been in use for well over a hundred years. The widely used vertical filing cabinet was invented in 1898. It was designed to hold papers and folders of papers being used in conducting a business.

Nowadays, an increasing amount of the business office paperwork is being stored in computer storage devices. Business metaphors are used on computers, where we have a desktop, wastebasket, folders, and files. All computer users face the task of organizing their desktop and files in a form that meets their needs and facilitates easy storage and retrieval.

Now, think of teachers in a specific discipline such as history, and students taking courses in history. Current computer technology makes it relatively inexpensive for both students and teachers to have a Digital Filing Cabinet (DFC) to support their learning and teaching activities. A DFC might reside on one's personal computer, on servers, or on a combination of these two resources for the storage, manipulation, and retrieval of information.

Personal ownership is one of the most important ideas about a person's DFC. This distinguishes a personal DFC from the idea of the Web as a DFC. The Web contains the equivalent of tens of millions of books of information, and is far too large to have the "personal" characteristics of one's own DFC. Personal ownership comes from having personal knowledge about what has been stored, how to find and retrieve it, how to add to or edit the contents, and how to make use of the contents. Both students and their teachers may well have written parts of the contents of their personal DFCs.

This document focuses on a a personal education-oriented Digital Filing Cabinet (DFC) for secondary school history. The ideas are applicable to any student taking a history course and to any preservice or inservice teacher of history or related social studies courses.

For example, suppose that I am an Oregonian and that I am in a history course that is studying the Oregon Trail. I read various documents about the Oregon Trail and perhaps write a paper on this topic. The process of reading the documents, writing marginal notes or notes on separate pieces of paper, writing a paper, listening to the teacher and taking notes, participating in class discussions, and so on all personalize the material I read and write.

I can store (save for later use and for sharing with others) copies of these personalized Oregon Trail materials. I can write some personal notes about what, when, and why I am storing the information. I can store references and links to documents. All of this might go into an Oregon Trail folder in a History Drawer in my DFC. It is then available for use at a later date, and it can be added to or edited at a later date as I learn more about the Oregon Trail and related topics.

It is worth repeating that the personalization and personal ownership of the materials is very important. I don't need a DFC that merely contains the entry, "Use your favorite Web search engine and do a search on Oregon Trail." My DFC is used as a personalized supplement or extension of information that I have studied, thought about, and contributed to. Over time, much of the "in my own brain" detailed knowledge about the Oregon Trail will likely be forgotten. However, I will remember that I once studied the Oregon Trail and that it is an entry in my Digital Filing Cabinet. If I have a need or desire to refresh my memory on this topic, my DFC material is a good starting point.

This concept of a student's personal educational DFC, with a drawer (a collection of files) for each subject studied, cuts across all of a student's formal education. Such a DFC can contain an electronic portfolio—indeed, perhaps an electronic portfolio for each school year, or even for each subject area studied during a school year.

DFC for Students and for Teachers

A person creates, maintains, and adds to a personal DFC if the DFC is personally useful.

The value to a teacher seems clear cut. The DFC contains many of the materials that a teacher would have—in the past—accumulated in a physical filing cabinet. Electronic versions are easier to transport, update, make copies of, share with others, and so on. The value of a teaching-oriented DFC lies in how it directly serves the current and perceived future needs of a preservice or inservice teacher.

Now, think about a person who is not intending to be a teacher. What might go into a personal DFC for this person while he or she is taking a history course or other social studies courses? Answers lie in what might go into the DFC that will be of relatively immediate use and/or that might be of use in the future. Here are a few possible answers:

  1. A DFC can contain chronological lists of times, places, topics, course names, faculty members, and so on for one's formal studies in the discipline of history. It can prove helpful in the future to have a reasonably detailed description/summary of each course one has studied.
  2. The process of systematically collecting, organizing, annotating, and storing one's materials from a course can be helpful in learning the course content, writing papers, and preparing for exams.
  3. A DFC can be a repository for pieces of one's work that might later be useful in an electronic portfolio or in doing other writing.
  4. A DFC might well contain copies of or links to the reading materials used in a course. This would facilitate refreshing one's mind and/or relearning parts or all of the content in the future.
  5. A DFC might eventually be part of one's personal history that one wants to share with their children and grandchildren.

History Is Part of Each Discipline

I use the term discipline when I am talking about a large and inclusive discipline of study, a sub-discipline, an interdisciplinary discipline, and so on. Each academic discipline or area of study can be defined by a combination of general things such as:

  • The types of problems, tasks, and activities it addresses.
  • Its accumulated accomplishments such as results, achievements, products, performances, scope, power, uses, impact on the societies of the world, and so on.
  • Its history, culture, and language, including notation and special vocabulary.
  • Its methods of teaching, learning, assessment, and thinking. What it does to preserve and sustain its work and pass it on to future generations.
  • Its tools, methodologies, and types of evidence and arguments used in solving problems, accomplishing tasks, and recording and sharing accumulated results.
  • The knowledge and skills that separate and distinguish among: a) a novice; b) a person who has a personally useful level of competence; c) a reasonably competent person, employable in the discipline; d) an expert; and e) a world-class expert.

Notice the second and third bulleted items. History is an important component of every academic discipline. Every teacher has some responsibility to teach some of the history of their discipline. Thus, for example, a math teacher might well have a History of Math drawer in his or her Math DFC.

Somewhat similarly, a history teacher can incorporate into his or her teaching some of the history of the various disciplines students are studying as part of the content of history education. Thus, a secondary school history teacher's DFC might contain a drawer with materials on history of science, history of math, history of health and medicine, and so on.

Most people think of history as a collection of dates, places, names of people, names of wars, and other data that students memorize, regurgitate during a test, and later mostly forget. A person who is actually a history teacher can (should) help his or her colleagues understand that this is a poor model of the study and understanding of history.

A history teacher works to help his or her students and colleagues learn that a major focus in history education is on higher-order, critical thinking skills. Here are two examples of history test questions requiring critical thinking:

  • 9th/10th grade High School level essay test question (40-minute time constraints includes 5-minute planning period).
Identify and describe the causes of World War I. Be sure to distinguish between immediate causes and underlying causes as discussed in class.
  • 11th/12th grade High School level AP essay test question (60-minute time constraints includes 15-minute document reading/planning period).
For the following item, use the primary source documents and your knowledge of the time period in constructing your response. Discuss the changing ideals of American womanhood between the American Revolution (1770s) and the outbreak of the Civil War. What factors fostered the emergence of "republican motherhood" and the "cult of domesticity"? Assess the extent to which these ideals influenced the lives of women during this period. In your answer be sure to consider issues of race and class.

In both cases, students are required to spend some time thinking and planning before starting to write. In both cases, some memorized facts that one understands in a meaningful manner are needed to write good essay responses. However, the focus is on big ideas and understanding how these big ideas fit together. These are not "memorize and regurgitate" questions.

For example, four of the big ideas in history education are causality, legacy, responsibility, and investigation. [1] Here is some material from the investigation reference:

Historians have long defined history as investigation, casting themselves in the role of detectives seeking plausible explanations for historical events, trends, and controversies. Conducting historical inquiries demands knowledge, skill and “a modicum of irreverence toward the received wisdom” because “if you are willing to accept unquestioningly what ‘everyone’ says, then the story is over before the investigation begins.” Unfortunately, for most students study­ing history in our schools, the story is over before the investigation begins. Rarely do we find history classrooms defined by the detective’s love of a good mystery or passion to tease out the story, context, or causation from available evidence. Rarer still is the “modicum of irreverence toward received wisdom” as school history appears to be shaped by the assumption that “students learn best and most usefully . . . [when] being asked to master the conclusions of scholars about questions the students only dimly comprehend.” In reversing the historian’s logic of questions and answers, texts and teachers first definitively and confidently provide answers and then pose the questions. Suspicions are rarely raised, except the suspicion that the students have not yet mastered the facts found in the texts and classroom’s materials.

As a history teacher, you want your students to understand these four major concepts and to view various aspects of history through these lenses. Now, select a discipline such as science. Suppose that you are teaching American History. What do you want your students to learn about causality, legacy, responsibility, and investigation that relates to science in American History? (Bain, 2006).

This is a good question for you and your students to explore over the years. Create a physical folder in your physical filing cabinet, or a computer folder in your Digital Filing Cabinet, and accumulate useful information in this folder. In your day-to-day activities, look for materials to add to this folder.

Historical Information Overload

Steve Kolowich, at the University of Richmond has created a Wikipedia for undergraduate scholars. Quoting from the article:

Arlington, Va. — At what point does the volume of historical scholarship get in the way of our ability to make sense of history?
At The Chronicle Technology Forum on Monday, Andrew J. Torget, director of the digital scholarship lab at the University of Richmond, argued that we have already exceeded that point. He said that if a person were to read one book a day for the rest of his life, he would not even begin to approach the number of books that Google has already scanned into its database from college libraries. There is just too much information out there.
The current model for teaching and learning is based on a relative scarcity of research and writing, not an excess. With that in mind, Mr. Torget and several others have created a Web site called History Engine to help students around the country work together on a shared tool to make sense of history documents online. Students generate brief essays on American history, and the History Engine aggregates the essays and makes them navigable by tags. Call it Wikipedia for students.

Quoting from the History Engine website:

The History Engine is an educational tool that gives students the opportunity to learn history by doing the work—researching, writing, and publishing—of a historian. The result is an ever-growing collection of historical articles or "episodes" that paints a wide-ranging portrait of life in the United States throughout its history and that is available to scholars, teachers, and the general public in our online database.

The National Archives ( website has more than 3,000 digitized images and related lesson plans.

General Implications for Teachers of History

At the elementary/secondary level, it is obviously very useful to a history teacher to have a relatively comprehensive DFC of lesson plans, resource materials, handouts for students, and so on. The history teacher will likely want to have some of this material to be "private" and some to be "public." For example, tests and grade books are private, while "handout" materials to be read by students are public.

At the university level, teachers of teachers can (should) play a major role in getting their preservice teacher education students started in building a DFC. Indeed, think about the idea of an student being admitted to a preservice teacher education program. Upon admission, the student could be supplied with a DFC that is organized to meet the needs of both a student in the education program of study and the needs of a practicing school teacher. This DFC template might contain some sample materials that are relevant to the student's program of study. In a first preservice teacher course, all students would be expected to become familiar with the DFC template, to personalize it by reading the current comments and adding personal comments as appropriate, and so on.

A routine part of the required work in each course the students take would include adding to the course-related content of the student's personal DFC. A routine part of the teaching would be providing students with content for their DFC and assignments that help a student to personalize this content material.

Right now, we still make routine use of books in courses, with students being expected to read the books. When a course ends, the books are taken away from the students so they can be given to the next year's students. Contrast this with having much if not all of the reading material in a course being available electronically and students being allowed to keep an electronic copy of the materials.

We are at the beginning of a major change in the availability of course materials and materials to support exploration of a discipline of study. This movement is sometimes called the Open Source Textbooks Movement. Many primary source documents are being digitized and made available free on the Web.

Video and Audio in History Education

History education lends itself to the use of video and audio material. A possible model is use of short videos or a clip from a longer video. A particular topic is being studied. The teacher has access to a collection of short video clips. A day's lesson might include the whole class viewing a four-minute video, then discussing it in small groups, sharing the small group insights with the whole class, doing some reading about the general topic being studied and/or the specific topic of the video clip, and so on.

There is a large and steadily growing collection of suitable video materials that are available free on the Web. Here are a few examples. (n.d.). The National Archives. Retrieved 4/12/08:

Ease History (n.d.). An Experience Acceleration Support Environment. Retrieved4/12/08: (n.d.). Video Gallery. Retrieved 4/12/08:

HNC (n.d.). History News Network. Retrieved 4/12/08:

iCue (n.d.). Site sponsored by NBC News. Provides no-cost access to a large number of film clips, both student-oriented and teacher-oriented.

NASA (n.d.). Video Tour of Spaceflight History. Retrieved 4/12/08:

Seattle Cable Channel 21 (2006). Black History Month. Retrieved 4/12/08:

History-related Quotations and Sources

What Value Do They Have?

Here is one way to think about a short quotation. It is a very short story that conveys an important message.

Sometimes the message is clear without knowing much or anything about the person who wrote or said the message, or the time and situation in which it was created. Often, however, it is helpful to know the history and context of the situation. Thus, many brief quotes can be thought of as a brief tidbit of history that has survival value.

In terms of student learning, it certainly does not hurt a student to have memorized some of these bits of history. But history is far more than memorized tidbits. Thus, history teachers would do well to help students learn the context and possible purposes of the various quotations that they want their students to become familiar with.

Some Examples

As you browse through and possibly make use of quotations such as the following, think about the messages they convey. What might a quotation's message have meant when it was first written or uttered? What might it mean to today's readers?

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." (Chinese Proverb.)

"It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change." (Charles Darwin; 1809—1882.)

"An educated mind is, as it were, composed of all the minds of preceding ages." (Bernard Le Bovier Fontenelle; mathematical historian; 1657-1757.)

"Be the change you want to see in the world" (Mahatma Gandhi; 1869—1948.)

"I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led." (Thomas Jefferson; 1743—1826.)

“Children are the message we send to the future.” (Abraham Lincoln; 1809—1865.) (Also attributed to others, such as Marshall McLuhan; 1911—1980.)

"What we do in life echoes through eternity" (Maximus Decimus Meridius; 152—192.)

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." (Isaac Newton; English mathematician and physicist; 1642-1727.)

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (George Santayana; 1863–1952.)

"In the book of life, the answers aren't in the back." (From a Charlie Brown comic strip by Charles Schulz.)

"It is bad enough to reinvent the wheel. What really hurts is when they reinvent the flat tire." (Lee Shulman, Stanford University.)

"If women are to do the same work as men, we must teach them the same things." (Plato; Greek philosopher; 428-347 B.C.)

The Spatial History Project

[ The Spatial History Project at Stanford University, a part of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, is made possible by the generous funding of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Current projects include:

  • Shaping the West
  • Terrain of history
  • Critical habitat
  • Bay Area conservation and development
  • Between the tides
  • Tooling up for digital history
  • Project steel

Portfolios in the Study of History

In any discipline of study, it is possible to develop a portfolio that helps to represent one's progress in learning, understanding, and being able to "do"the discipline. Here is a good reference to work done by a college history department in portfolio assessment:

Meo, Susan Leighow (February 2002). Portfolio assessment for history majors: One department's journey. Perspectives, a Journal of the American Historical Association. Retrieved 9/25/08:

2014 Practice AP History Exam

See the PDF file at,d.cGU.

Please Contribute Materials to this Site

Many history teachers have extensive collections of material that would be of use to their fellow teachers. Some teachers have created very extensive DFCs. If you are such a teacher, please (please, please...) consider sharing your materials with preservice and inservice teachers throughout the world!!! Send materials to be added to this page to:

Grant Conway's website provides a good example of such sharing.

References and Resources

Bain, R.B. (2006). Rounding up unusual suspects: Facing the authority hidden in the history classroom. Teachers College Record. Retrieved 10/12/08: Quoting from the abstract:

Educational reform literature is filled with criticism of the omniscient tone that teachers and textbooks assume in history classrooms. Such widely acknowledged criticism often accompanies calls for more ambitious pedagogy. The focus on teachers and texts essentially ignores the ritualized and traditional deference that students afford to the authority of texts and teachers.

CHNM (n.d.). Center for History and New Media. Retrieved 12/5/07: Quoting from the website:

This award-winning site offers a range of resources, including 1000 primary documents in text, image, and audio; an annotated guide to 850 of the best U.S. History websites; guides to using various kinds of online primary sources, such as oral history and maps; and moderated discussions about teaching. Designed for teachers of U.S. History survey courses at high schools and colleges around the world, History Matters provides an excellent starting point for investigating American history online.

Conway, G. (n.d.). The Conway home page. Retrieved 8/16/07: Quoting from the website:

This is an example of an extensive website maintained by a secondary school history teacher who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. History and who also teach Social Studies Methods courses for secondary school preservice teachers.

CORDUS (8/12/09). Visual time machine offers tourists a glimpse of the past. Retrieved 8/14/09: Quoting from the website:

A ruined temple, ancient frescos and even a long-dead king have been brought to life by a “visual time machine” developed by European researchers.
The Palace of Venaria near Turin, Italy, and Winchester Castle in the United Kingdom have already benefited from the technology, which combines augmented reality (AR) content with location awareness on mobile devices to give visitors to historic and cultural sites a deeper, richer and more enjoyable experience. Other places of interest are also set for a virtual renaissance in the near future with a commercial version of the system being developed to run on smart phones.
Augmented reality allows people to see and discover much more than they would normally be able to by overlaying information and images in real time on photos and video taken using a mobile device. Innovative software matches the image being viewed with suitable AR content stored on a central server.

History (n.d.). Best of history web sites. Retrieved 8/31/07: Quoting from the website:

Best of History Web Sites is an award-winning portal that contains annotated links to over 1000 history web sites as well as links to hundreds of quality K-12 history lesson plans, history teacher guides, history activities, history games, history quizzes, and more.
BOHWS has been recommended by The Chronicle of Higher Education, The National Council for the Social Studies, The British Library Net, The New York Public Library, the BBC, Princeton University, -- and many others.
The Center for Teaching History with Technology (THWT) aims to help K-12 history and social studies teachers incorporate technology effectively into their courses. The Center provides a multitude of free online resources, including the Teaching History with Technology Newsletter, as well as workshops and consultation services. Click the top banner to learn more about our Teaching with Technology Workshops.

History Matters (n.d.). The U.S. survey course on the Web. Retrieved 5/16/08: This site contains access to a huge number of resources. Quoting from the website:

Welcome to History Matters, a project of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning of the City University of New York and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Visible Knowledge Project.
Designed for high school and college teachers and students of U.S. history survey courses, this site serves as a gateway to web resources and offers unique teaching materials, first-person primary documents, and guides to analyzing historical evidence.
We emphasize materials that focus on the lives of ordinary Americans and actively involve students in analyzing and interpreting evidence. We welcome your participation in expanding and improving the site.

Katz, S. (4/7/08). The emergence of the digital humanities. Retrieved 4/9/08: Quoting from the article:

The world is slowly but surely recognizing that the revolution in computing and information technology has began to transform the humanities. Other fields in the liberal arts were more obviously changed by the digital revolution, mainly through the capacity of computing to deal with massive quantities of digital information. The humanist version of number crunching occurred early in the field of linguistics, producing an entirely new discipline of computational linguistics. But other approaches ranging from computer visualization to the creation of hugely complex databases have slowly changed the ways in which humanists think about significant problems, as well as the manner in which they analyze them.

Kolowich, S. (4/7/09). U. of Richmond creates a Wikipedia for undergraduate scholars.

Library of Congress (n.d.) The Library of Congress experience. Retrieved 4/11/08: The U.S. Library of Congress is steadily making more of its material accessible online. In addition, it is developing virtual exhibits. Quoting from the website:

Now you can virtually handle historical artifacts like the Gutenberg Bible and original volumes from Thomas Jefferson’s library, listen to Library experts and play learning games – it’s all at your fingertips. Special features include:
  • Touch-screen technology
  • Virtual interaction with rare artifacts
  • Personalized exploration of the exhibitions

Metzger, S.A. (10/21/2013). Building student's historical literacy: Learning to read and reason with historical texts and evidence. Teachers College Record. Retrieved 10/26/2013 from

Quirk, K. (2007). Tracing computer history from “ancient” times to the latest technology. University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Retrieved 10/11/07: Also see the website of Thomas Haight at

Rheingold, H. (2005). 20-minute TED video: The new power of collaboration. Retrieved 8/16/08: Quoting from the website:

Howard Rheingold is a writer, artist and designer, theorist and community builder. Howard Rheingold is one of the driving minds behind our net-enabled, open, collaborative life.
Howard Rheingold talks about the coming world of collaboration, participatory media and collective action—and how Wikipedia is really an outgrowth of our natural human instinct to work as a group.

Shapira, I. (4/17/08). Hylton teacher is honored for helping students envision history. The Washington Post. Retrieved 6/17/08: Quoting from the article:

Lisa Racine, a history teacher at C.D. Hylton High School in Prince William County, does not care much for textbooks in the classroom. Instead of reading aloud from a monstrous history book, Racine instead will teach topics playing music, such as an Alan Jackson song related to the Sept. 11 attacks, or with photographs from the civil rights era that depict violent protests in Alabama.
"I have never, ever used a textbook during class time. There is not a bigger waste. They can use the textbook at home," Racine said. "You have them for 90 minutes and need to be teaching them something new. . . . I think teaching with pictures is very important. So many of us are visual learners."

Social Studies Resources. Retrieved 10/5/09: Provides links to resources in American history, world history, geography, archeology, government and politics, etc.

White House Archives. Retrieved 1/30/2009:*/ President George W. Bush retrieved 1/30/2009:; Retrieved 1/30/2009:

Wired Campus (1/29/2009). Head of British Library warns of 'a black hole' in the digital record. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 1/30/2009: Quoting from the article:

Lynne Brindley, the chief executive of the British Library, is worried about whether we’re saving enough—not enough money, but enough of the digital evidence of our times. In an essay in Sunday’s Observer, Ms. Brindley worries that whole chunks of national memory are being lost and that “historians and citizens of the future will find a black hole in the knowledge base of the 21st century.”


The initial version of this document was written by David Moursund.