The Development of Benchmarks for Professional Development in the Teaching of History as a Discipline

Noralee Frankel and Peter Stearns, April 2004

The emphasis of the Benchmarks perspective—as set out in the Benchmarks document—is straightforward; it is to interweave content, pedagogy, and historical thinking, and to relate all three to classroom experience. The group of historians that developed the benchmarks hope that they will be useful to those involved in various Teaching American History (TAH) Grants projects as well as other collaborative programs among teachers at all levels.

In June 2002, Bruce Craig, director of the National Coalition for History, organized a meeting with staff from the U.S. Department of Education to discuss the Teaching American History Grants program. The executive directors of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Council for the Social Studies attended. One of the results of that meeting was a request by the Department of Education staff that the three organizations create a document setting out benchmarks for sound professional development for teachers of American history. They asked the organizations to describe what constitutes a good program and what outcomes should be expected. As a result, a small group (of K–12 teachers, faculty from history departments and schools of education, and public historians) selected by the three organizations, met in August 2002 to discuss professional development for teachers. At first they stressed American history because of the TAH grants, but very soon the group realized that their suggestions held wider implications and could be helpful to all professional development activities involving historians.

One of the intellectual concerns about professional development of history teachers was raised in an article by Katherine Medina, Jeffrey Pollard, Debra Schneider, and Camille Leonhardt entitled "How Do Students Understand the Discipline of History as an Outcome of Teachers' Professional Development?" The article analyzed results from a three-year study on professional development as one facet of the California History-Social Science Project. Discussing the central question—what is the impact of teachers' professional development on their students?—the essay examined how students receive and assimilate their teachers' knowledge. The study found that even after working on a research project themselves, teachers still had trouble effectively communicating the historical process to students. The working group drafting benchmarks grappled with the challenges of ensuring that students understood history as analysis as well as a narrative of factual information.

The group's consensus was that professional development must always relate to the classroom experience. By and large, the group was disenchanted with the traditional workshop model of presenting a narrative on a topic to K–12 teachers as if they were empty vessels that had to be filled up in as short a time as possible. When university professors deliver information using this model, K–12 teachers do not obtain any sense of what historians actually do, how they work, or the kind of central questions historians ask before they begin their research or writing. A solely narrative approach reinforces the idea that history is merely a concatenation of facts to be memorized and that content is neat and manageable without contestation. This reinforced assumption is then transmitted to the students in the K–12 classroom, thus perpetuating a cycle of misperceptions about the nature of history.

The Benchmarks document stresses the need to tie content to historical thinking in the classroom experience. Familiarity with local or state standards is essential for those discussing content since it helps faculty convey essential material. University faculty who possess a firm knowledge of the needs of K–12 teachers and students in a local area are best equipped to help provide content expertise as well as other guidance to their K–12 colleagues.

Ideas for how a subject should be taught need to be incorporated within even the most useful content-driven lecture. Moreover, instructors in a workshop have an obligation to explain how historians have learned what they know about a topic. They need to explain how historians' thinking about topics changed over time and what new source material or intellectual approach helped them see a topic in different way. Thus, historians must "unpack" or "uncover" for teachers what they do as professionals in the discipline.

The Collaboration Benchmarks document notes that professional development is not something that happens to teachers; it is a process involving teachers. Therefore, it is essential that teachers and faculty help plan the professional development from the beginning. Teachers' needs must be incorporated into the professional development program. For professional development to be successfully sustained, the postsecondary teachers involved must make a commitment to their K–12 colleagues to stay attentive to their needs for longer than a summer seminar. Historians within the same geographic area or who are willing to respond to e-mails promptly can be very useful for providing sustained professional development. Faculty need to commit to some ongoing interaction.

Content and Pedagogy Benchmarks

Discussion of teaching methods should always begin with content rather than being framed in abstract terms. In turn, participants in professional development programs need to realize that method is merely a tool for presenting intellectually challenging subject matter to engage student learning. The best teachers know their content thoroughly and they are more able to engage with different ways of presenting material to a classroom because they do not have to rely solely on the textbook for their information. Creative exercises devoid of content—both facts and analysis—do not enhance student knowledge or learning. They are merely entertaining.

Historical Thinking Benchmarks

The increasing emphasis on historical habits of mind, in a host of prescriptions for teaching and learning in history and the social studies, has been a remarkable development over the past decade. The Benchmarks document, the national standards statements in history, the specifications for Advanced Placement history courses, the assessments criteria for professional certification for social studies and history teachers, as well as many state standards, all touch this common base. While precise phrasings vary, there is considerable consistency in intent. Historical habits of mind include the ability to assess documents and build arguments from them, the capacity to handle diverse historical interpretations, and the ability to analyze change over time with accompanying ability to recognize continuity and to deal with issues of magnitude and of causation. World historians would add some comparative skills to this list.

Often a careful delineation of habits of mind is followed, in a prescriptive statement, by a far longer list of facts that must be covered. There are disagreements about priorities. Yet the ability to focus on historical habits can unite groups that might argue vigorously over content or other emphases. Social studies advocates can see the relationships between historical habits of mind and capacities as a citizen. Historians, whatever their coverage aspirations, can view the same habits as essential components for using historical perspectives in contemporary life. Conservatives and liberals may even agree, across the ideological fences, on the importance of habits of mind for a rigorous education—even as they debate other aspects of the curriculum—though this is admittedly a convergence still in the making.

Further, the news almost daily reminds us of the desirability of improving the grasp of historical habits of mind, whether the focus is on the general public, the policy maker, or the business analyst. The ability to assess documents can equally benefit president or plebeian. An experience in sorting out and evaluating diverse opinions—and, one might add, in insisting on access to them—is an obligation in an information age.

Experience in handling both data and claims about change rests at the center both of historical and of contemporary social and political understanding. History goals merge with those of citizenship and critical contemporary awareness.

Product

After discussing the nature of collaboration, pedagogy, and historical thinking, the working group formulating the benchmarks discussed the utility to teachers of creating a tangible product, such as a curriculum or a research paper at the end of a professional development program. Some members of the group pointed out that teachers become so involved in developing a finished product that they fail to concentrate on other aspects of what they are learning. The assignment turns into the end—not a means—of learning about history. Too often the assignments are started too early within the professional development program before the teachers have gained the expertise to delve into the material more thoroughly.

Professional development programs need to consider the timing of the assignment for an end product and how well the outcome connects to what is being learned or how useful the end product is. A curriculum developed as an end product cannot, for example, be considered finished until it has been tested and refined through repeated classroom teaching.

Conclusion

The temptation to focus on a single segment of professional development in history has been very strong. Although most commonly centered on a refresher course of updated factual narratives, it can also seize upon a particular pedagogical thrust. The Benchmarks project insists strongly on this more comprehensive approach, building in more systematic attention to historical thinking as well. This approach, because of its many positive aspects, is more likely to induce the teachers involved to stay the course and to continue implementing the new methods; and it relates more clearly to the best kinds of outcomes assessment as well.

—Noralee Frankel is AHA's assistant director for teaching, women, and minorities.
—Peter Stearns, a former vice president of the AHA's Teaching Division, is provost at George Mason University. He is the coeditor (with Peter Seixas and Sam Wineburg) of Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (NYU Press, 2000).

The authors want to thank the following: Bob Bain (Univ. of Michigan), Keith Barton (Univ. of Cincinnati), Bruce Craig (National Coalition for History), Frederick Drake (Illinois State Univ.), Fritz Fischer (Northern Colorado Univ.), Cathy Gorn (National History Day), Cynthia Mostoller (Deal Junior High School), William Weber (California State Univ. at Long Beach), Steven Minz (Univ. of Houston), Cliff Jacobs (AHA), and Stacy Kotzin and Alex Stein (Department of Education).