Randy Ernst had one of those moments a couple of years ago.

A moment when he realized what he'd assumed for years wasn't true, a moment that set into play a series of events that led Ernst and the Lincoln Public Schools social studies department to the place they are now, in a partnership with Stanford University and a renowned history education scholar.

Their goal: to revamp the district's social studies standards -- and by extension the way social studies teachers teach -- so that students don't just know when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, but understand why and what it meant to the war.

It will, Ernst hopes, be a sea change: from simple multiple-choice tests and a focus on learning historical facts to a combination of multiple-choice and essay answers that will show teachers whether students are learning the skills they want them to learn.

What LPS teachers want their students to learn is how to think critically, to be able to look at a statement and assess its merits, consider who said it, the context in which it was said and what voices might be missing.

"We've taken this very seriously in terms of developing students who can think critically," Ernst said. "It's easy to say, but hard to define it."

Which brings us back to that moment when Ernst was asked to talk to a committee about how LPS social studies teachers taught multi-cultural education.

Ernst went into the meeting feeling confident. The district's eighth-grade standards required that students look at issues from multiple perspectives, a perfect example of how LPS taught multi-cultural education. No problem.

Until Leola Bullock and Lela Shanks -- two major figures in the civil rights movement in Lincoln -- asked, "How do you teach that? And how do you know if students are doing it?"

Ernst had no answer. The next week, he posed the same question to a group of eighth-grade social studies teachers.

"There was this kind of stunned silence in the room because we'd had it on there forever and it looked good but nobody was doing it," he said.

Teachers wanted to start, though, and the next week, one of them sent Ernst a book by Stanford University Professor Sam Wineburg called "Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts."

The book took issue with the ongoing debate about what content should be included in history standards and the public hand wringing about how little today's youth know about history.

The problem, Wineburg maintained, was not what students could remember when faced with a multiple-choice test, but the way schools taught history and how students were tested on what they'd been taught.

The focus on the minutiae of history missed the point, Wineburg argued, and overlooked the "grand narrative" of history, of putting events in context, of seeing how one event influences another. The point became clear to Wineburg years ago when his own son asked him whether the Korean War came before or after World War II.

"That's not missing a fact," Wineburg said. "That's missing a story."

To learn the narrative, though, students must learn to ask the right questions, to look at history from various perspectives, to engage in a debate. So Wineburg began to work to redefine how students learned history.

"We found out Sam was operationally defining what critical thinking meant for social studies and particularly for history," Ernst said.

Using in part Wineburg's research and work, LPS defines critical thinking as being able to source material, put it in context, corroborate it, use multiple perspectives and read text closely for better understanding.

As LPS began to define its standards and develop tests to see if students could use those skills, two LPS teachers at a national convention where Wineburg spoke had him autograph one of his books -- and struck up a conversation about the work going on at LPS.

He told them to call him. That led to another discussion. A partnership followed, in which Wineburg and his colleagues are helping LPS develop assessments for its curriculum now designed to foster critical thinking; and the district is allowing Wineburg to use Lincoln students to further his research and work on writing effective tests.

Multiple-choice tests teach students to move quickly, to eliminate answers, pick the best one and move on, which fosters the opposite of what social studies teachers should be encouraging -- delving into the complexities of history, Wineburg said.

"We are so drunk with the accountability brew of No Child Left Behind we're putting all our chips in these short, quick bubble tests," he said.

Wineburg first sent a packet of short assessments for teachers to use while they taught students, and last week, graduate students came to Lincoln to work with students. They will return in May.

Wineburg is trying to create tests -- those that can be given in the time-crunched reality of today's public school classrooms -- to responses where students have to justify their answers.

Wineburg -- and the LPS social studies department -- wants to cultivate "habits of the mind," or a way of thinking that students can use in every facet of life. That's especially important in today's information-saturated world.

"Regardless of what news outlet they're listening to, they're still looking at corroborating rather than taking what's said to them at face value," Ernst said.

The district is rewriting standards at all grade levels.

Wineburg, who spoke to more than 200 LPS social studies teachers Saturday, said he is partnering with LPS and the innovative work going on there.

"The question we ask is ‘do we think people are heading in the right direction?' The fact that we are here indicates our answer."

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com