World History: A Report on the Philadelphia High School-College Collaborative

Howard Spodek, April 1995

Since fall 1993, 40 teachers of world history from the Philadelphia region have been participating in the Philadelphia High School–College Collaborative Project. The teachers, 20 from the high school level and 20 from the college level, have been exploring better ways of teaching world history and of preparing future teachers. The initiation of the project, which is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, was described in the September 1994 issue of Perpectives. The project will conclude in the summer of 1995; this report assesses what it has accomplished and what remains to be done.

Bimonthly Plenary Sessions

The full group of 40 has been meeting once every two months at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The group has focused on the following topics:

October 1993. The Philadelphia World History Project and its curriculum and pedagogy. The Philadelphia World History Project, sponsored by the School District of Philadelphia, was the catalyst for the Philadelphia High School–College Collaborative. The Philadelphia World History Project emphasized staff development and curriculum revision by history teachers.

December 1993. Textbooks. Group members examined three leading textbooks in world history at the college level and evaluated their strengths, weaknesses, and general usefulness.

February 1994. Sequencing of instruction. How do we teach a common topic—for example, the Columbian exchange, the global impact of the French Revolution, or colonization and decolonization—at different levels? In what ways are the content and pedagogies similar and in what ways are they different?

April 1994. Classroom observation. Before this meeting, each high school teacher visited at least one college class in world history taught by a member of our collaborative, and vice versa. At our full-group session we discussed what we learned.

June 1994. Values in world history. In small and large groups we discussed the relationship between the study of values and the study of history: the values of the people studied, of the historians writing about them, of the classroom teachers, and of the students. The group talked about how each individual understands the past in terms of his or her own values.

October 1994. Multiple perspectives. Group members agreed that, within the time available, the contributors and perspectives of all peoples should be included and acknowledged in the world history course: women, minorities, colonized groups, underclasses, subalterns, and slaves, as well as powerful males. World history is less likely now to be a triumphal narrative and more likely to be an analytic account.

December 1994. Interdisciplinary history. Three group members, two high school teachers and one college teacher, spoke of the usefulness of interdisciplinary history in their work and the problems they encountered in pursuing it. All three identified administrative turf problems, not intellectual issues, as the key obstacle to interdisciplinary research and training.

February 1995. Accessing and using museums for studying and teaching world history. Discussion focused on local museum collections and the computer accessibility of world museums. The final two full-group sessions will explore the following topics:

April 1995. Studying and teaching comparative history. What are the advantages, potentials, and difficulties of comparative history? How does it intersect with world history?

June 1995. Sequencing history teaching, K–20. Sequencing among these levels and within them. What is appropriate graduate training in world history? What is appropriate teacher training?

Bimonthly Small Group Study Sessions

In addition to attending full group meetings, participants in the Philadelphia High School–College Collaborative have been meeting in five small group study sessions every second month. These sessions, which foster valuable personal interaction between high school and college teachers, form the intellectual core of the project. The small groups have focused on five themes: historiography, gender and family issues, cultural and economic exchange, urbanization and empire building, and technological and political revolution. Each group chooses its own texts for discussion. Group members study the content, construction, place in the literature, validity, and usefulness of the texts—as they typically would do in a graduate seminar. In addition, each group member indicates how he or she might use the concepts and information in the texts in a course in world history. Finally, time permitting, each person might discuss pedagogical methods for introducing some of the material covered into a classroom.

A Week of Concentrated Work at the End of June

A week of concentrated work at the end of June 1994 consolidated the achievements of the group meetings that had taken place by that time. Each study group produced materials that other participants might use in their own teaching, and each group spoke about what it had accomplished. Some groups produced yearlong syllabi, at both the high school and the college level. Others produced shorter study units. Yet others cast the materials they had created into collective bibliographical essays. In addition, groups shared with one another what they had learned and how they had structured their learning.

What Have We Learned in the First Year and a Half?

From readings and discussions we have learned a great deal about the content, interpretations, and pedagogy of world history. We have gained from one another the courage and confidence to try new contents and methods in our teaching. As Sue Rosenthal (High School for Creative and Performing Arts) observed, "We teachers think the dialogue between our two groups has motivated some of the professors to think more, or differently, about student learning and their responsibility in this process. They now recognize that being concerned only about the content of a course is not sufficient." Lynn Lees (Univ. of Pennsylvania) echoed, "I have been forcefully reminded of the multiple skills historians need to foster among their students and of the great limitations of an approach that stresses the passive acquisition of `knowledge' from the expert." In evaluations at the end of our first year, several college teachers reported that they would "never teach the same way again."

In the process of preparing to train future schoolteachers of world history, college teachers discovered that they were in fact teaching themselves both the content and the pedagogy of this new field. World history must be thematic and comparative in organization. It must show interactions among different groups of people in different parts of the world and demonstrate the complexity of multiple interconnections in multicultural settings. Students and teachers of world history must find new kinds of comparisons across cultures and across cultural exchanges. Because the scope of potential content is so vast, the usual problems of deciding what to include and what to exclude are multiplied. Particularly because the field is new and not yet fully defined, its historiography must be part of the subject matter. As noted above, world history seeks to be comprehensive, restoring to the record peoples who have been omitted.

As a result of the collaborative project most of us have rededicated ourselves toward helping our students learn the historian's "habits of the mind": building models (synthesizing); framing hypotheses and testing these (analyzing); highlighting various methodologies; thinking critically; writing; reading diverse materials in different ways to seek diverse kinds of information; thinking chronologically; drawing inferences; selecting what is significant, deciding what to include and what to exclude; identifying causes, effects, relationships, and contingencies; and developing historical imagination.

The college world history course should be an introduction to historical thinking as well as content. Its students are most likely not history majors, and world history may be the only history course they ever take in their college years. Consequently, the world history course must emphasize "habits of the mind," interpretation, and general academic skills, as well as a rich knowledge base. It must demand that students master all these elements to the extent possible during a single introductory course. Such training will be especially useful to future teachers.

Where Do We Go from Here?

In addition to our remaining full and small group meetings, we have a major project to undertake: linking with colleges and departments of education. Until now we have been training ourselves—teachers teaching teachers. We recognize now that if our findings are to have influence beyond the two years of our project, and on teachers outside our own group, we must establish links with the education faculties of our institutions. They have the formal responsibility for training future teachers, and we must establish new procedures for working with them. In particular, we are eager to establish some form of mentoring procedures in which prospective teachers of world history take college-level courses with our participants and do their student teaching in the classrooms of our high school teachers. We are seeking ways in which we can accomplish this goal.

Beyond the Grant Period

We are also discussing ways of sharing what we have learned with others, exchanging with them suggestions for improvements in the study and teaching of world history and for the training of future teachers. We are discussing the possibility of convening a national seminar in Philadelphia. We are also seeking ways of translating what we have learned into print materials and perhaps other media. In our last session in June we will be formulating appropriate strategies for inviting history teachers and perhaps education faculty members from across the country to join us. We will begin seeking funding to make that possible.

Video Documentation of Our Project

We have produced a 30-minute videotape, edited from the proceedings of the plenary session of our October 1994 full group meeting, which initiated the second year of the project. The tape illustrates the kinds of issues we typically discuss and the flow of our conversations and deliberations. Discussions captured in the videotape touch on some 25 different issues on study, teaching, and preparation of teachers in world history—from the teacher's need to have a clear sense of personal values, to the habits of the mind that students must cultivate, to the need for historiography as an integral part of the course. The discussion is free flowing and the topics are not covered systematically, so we have prepared a brief outline that clarifies and systematizes the issues. Teachers who are considering similar dialogues or programs might find the videotape and print materials useful. They are available for $20 from Howard Spodek, Dept. of History, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122.

Howard Spodek is project director of the Philadelphia High School–College Collaborative Project and professor of history and urban studies at Temple University.