Statement on Excellent Classroom Teaching of History (1998)
Endorsed by AHA Teaching Division, November 4, 1997, and approved by AHA Council, January 8, 1998.
The Teaching Division and the Council of the American Historical Association endorse the criteria presented in the following statement as an appropriate basis for evaluating the efforts of institutions at all levels of instruction to establish the prerequisite conditions for historians to provide excellent instruction. There are, of course, a number of important issues for which there are many viable solutions that make specific criteria, at least at this point, seem inadvisable. For example, this statement does not address which courses should form the basis of historical study or provide such specific measures as a precise student-faculty ratio in the classroom. Instead, the Teaching Division and the Council expect faculty and administrators to consider together the areas where their institutions meet, exceed, or fall short of these baseline criteria for excellence. Evidence and analysis rather than unsupported assertion should characterize these discussions. The American Historical Association, its staff, elected officers, and members stand ready to help departments work through these issues and to support historians in instances where these criteria are clearly not implemented by an institution. The statement was drafted by David Trask (Guilford Technical Community Coll.), AHA Council member sitting on the Teaching Division 1994-97.
American citizens are currently engaged in wide-ranging debates on educational policies affecting all venues where teaching and learning occur. These discussions have or can have significant impact on the teaching of history and, therefore, on the nation and its understanding of history in the coming decades. Some of these discussions seek to define the course work done by students by prescribing curriculums. Others focus on financial support for education and can lead to decisions to downsize departments by increasing instructional loads and class sizes or by mandating new formats for instruction. There are debates that address the relationship among different teaching settings by mandating, for example, that course work taken at community colleges automatically transfer to public senior colleges. States and regions are also exploring the expansion of new modes of instruction such as Internet use. All of these issues and others ultimately affect the environment for learning history--both its content and its perspectives on the past.
The need to reevaluate instruction--both its content and its techniques--is not a new development for historians. Teaching historians have a long, effective record of discussing and analyzing different classroom settings to assure that they are delivering the best historical understandings with the most effective teaching methods. Traditionally this analysis has been done informally by individuals or formally by departments; few efforts have reached beyond the boundaries of home campuses. In periods of strong institutional budgets, numerous students, and a supportive public, these efforts were sufficient. Recently the environment for teaching has changed. Legislatures are seeking undefended dollars for new programs; citizen interest in career-specific education is increasing; there are efforts to prescribe what should be taught in the classroom.
Historians must respond to this interest in educational assessment by developing approaches that measure the development of historical thinking and knowledge. Historians need to address these challenges by developing clear criteria that inform decision makers--both on and beyond campus--of those characteristics of historical study that are fundamental to students' formulation of meaningful historical perspectives. By facilitating the assessment of proposed budget realignments and the evaluation of new teaching technologies, these criteria will help society determine the long-term impact of policy alternatives on the nation's sense of the historical and on student abilities to deal with social and political data and issues. By adopting these criteria, departments will be able to clarify for themselves how well, individually and collectively, they are achieving their teaching goals. Traditional measures of instructional quality--basic teaching skills, faculty availability to students, a well thought-out syllabus--are necessary but by themselves no longer sufficient for assuring that the conditions for effective teaching and learning exist. Although the missions of educational institutions may vary, the American Historical Association affirms that legislatures, governing boards, school administrators, and historians must work together to ensure that the criteria listed below are clearly present in their history courses for both majors and nonmajors and are supported by the institution's operations and environment.
1. Course Content. All courses must contain sufficient factual material to enable students to understand the central themes and issues present in the course. Factual material must be based on the most recent research findings. Historical research has expanded our understanding of the past in dramatic ways over the last 20 years, and this process continues. History instructors must have opportunity and motivation to integrate relevant results in their course content. Historical facts should be treated, however, as the beginning rather than the final goal of historical study. Courses must explicitly present the analytical concepts characteristic of historical study. These concepts not only underlie the questions that historians ask of the past, they help historians organize evidence, evaluate its relation to other evidence, and determine the relative importance of different events in shaping the past--and the present. These concepts address sequence, change over time, cause and effect, the role of factors such as culture and technology in shaping the history of the period, and the importance of the insights of all major social and cultural groupings in the society being studied. A true examination of the past requires attention to the full range of human activities and institutions, including politics, society, culture, economy, intellectual trends, and international relations.
2. Historical Thinking. Textbooks and well-delivered lectures sometimes give students the impression that the study of history is the quest for the single correct answer, because these end products of study conceal the historian's struggle with the indeterminacy associated with conflicting evidence and multiple viewpoints. For this reason excellent historical courses go beyond the presentation of content and analytical concepts to provide students with multiple opportunities to do the work of the historian. Students need to be aware of the kinds of sources used by historians, and they should become adept at extracting meaning from these sources, comparing their findings with other evidence from the period, formulating conclusions about the issue under study, and testing these ideas against additional evidence and the ideas of other historians. Students should be taught to think historically, to have the opportunity to develop their own historical interpretations, because this transforms their formal study of the past into a true understanding of the ways that conflicting evidence, alternative perspectives, and society's concerns shape our evaluations of the past. For these reasons students should be given frequent opportunities for discussion and writing in order to learn to practice the art of interpretation and to see the implications of their own analyses. These experiences should be progressive with the work at each level or grade, building on the studies that students carried out in prior courses. Historical thinking also contributes to the important educational goals of producing a thoughtful citizenry and of providing individuals with the analytical skills suitable to a wide range of jobs.
3. Classroom Environment. The classroom environment must actively promote the learning of history. This includes the presence of an adequate supply of relevant and up-to-date maps and audiovisual materials as well as the necessary equipment. The number of students per class must not exceed the number that can carry on meaningful interactions over course issues. The reliance on large lecture sections must be accompanied by discussion sections that are small enough so that the instructor can realistically expect oral participation by all students. Alternative forms of instruction, such as television or the Internet, must also require significant communication between students and faculty and among students themselves. In addition students must be presented with the special issues related to the use of these technologies such as "visual literacy" with regard to film and "authority" in the evaluation of Internet sources. Instructor loads must not exceed the ability of the teacher to offer excellent instruction and to keep up-to-date with the latest research. Adjunct faculty should be held to the same expectations as full-time faculty and should receive the same institutional supports as faculty with continuing appointments. Although it is reasonable to expect that some historians will hold positions that involve duties in addition to teaching history, these instructors must be required to meet the same instructional standards as full-time teaching historians and must be supported in their work in the same way as full-time historians.
4. Evaluation of Student Performance. Although objective testing may be useful to prompt students to read assignments, it should never represent the bulk of student evaluation or be the final measure of student success. Because the work of the excellent history course revolves around analysis and interpretation, student evaluation must be based on written or other work that allows students to develop and present their own analyses--on tests, oral presentations, papers, or group projects. This should include student research projects in which the students seek out and weigh appropriate factual information and use it to answer significant historical questions at a level of difficulty appropriate to their level of study.