Why Should Historians Care about History Teaching?

Bruce VanSledright, February 2007

Teaching history to college students means—by extension—teaching history to students in grade school. Historians are not typically accustomed to considering their teaching in this sense. However, history teaching in academia is but one facet of a much broader, formal educational enterprise in which the subject and its disciplinary accoutrement are learned (or not). In order to understand the ways in which historians are complicit in and implicated through the endeavor, it helps to think of history teaching in such systemic terms. That system and how it structures learning experiences is the principal focus of what follows.

In any given college or university course a historian teaches prospective history teachers. Many may be only dimly aware of their future vocation regardless of whether they are first-year students, sophomores, or juniors. Some will become elementary school teachers, others secondary school teachers. The numbers are often few relative to the larger group of erstwhile history majors who have no inclination to teach history in grade school. The future teachers bear no visible incriminating evidence of their desire to teach school. But they sit in these history courses nonetheless, often largely invisible to the historians teaching them. Such circumstances make it easy to understand why historians seldom think of their role in terms of being teacher educators. For better or worse, however, historians, if they are teaching in a collegiate setting, cannot escape the fact that they are helping to prepare future teachers and are therefore teachers' educators in addition to being professional historians.1

In what ways does this matter? It seems almost too evident to mention, but it bears repeating that teachers teach as they were taught. And so the question has to be posed: How were they taught history?

Studies of history teaching that have accumulated over the past 30 years are instructive in this regard. History teachers, when asked about their preparation to teach the subject, explain that they experienced it as delivered primarily through the standard array of collegiate survey courses. Historians lecture to them in cavernous, ivy-covered halls. They impart revered nuggets of historical wisdom, piling them one atop another as they push to cover vast expanses of the past, guided onward by time-honored periodization schemes and colligatory temporal categories. In short, historians teaching those survey courses attempt to regale their audiences with stories about the past on the assumption that, if you tell them—that student audience—the story, they will know it. Rarely, if ever, because there is so little time, do those future teachers hear about how it is that this "hi-story" came to be. Few historians appear to pull the blanket back and reveal the debates and arguments the profession has entertained as practitioners sought to construct acceptable histories from the vastness we call the past.2

Unless these future history teachers go on to do graduate work (a rarity since most finish in four or five years and depart to the grade-school classroom), they receive few opportunities to come to understand how the discipline produces historical knowledge. Perhaps most important, the classroom-bound students fail to grasp the argument-based and peer-critiqued nature of historical scholarship and the powerful way it figures into how the discipline is structured and maintained. The embryonic teachers come away having learned virtually nothing about the unique, epistemic features of the discipline, the forms of thinking that are required, and the knowledge-generating practices prized (and debated) within the community of historians. For those future teachers who experience a course or two taught more in seminar fashion, a pedagogy of "coverage" still predominates. The operational assumption seems to be: So much to tell about the results of historical research and so little time to tell it. Teaching as telling, again on the quaint notion that telling results in learning and knowing.3

No doubt some knowing and learning do occur. The effort is not entirely futile, despite the otherwise glazed look in students' eyes and the fidgeting they do in those lecture-hall chairs as they play with all manner of hidden portable electronica while pretending to listen to the story. The research on what history teachers understand about what history is, and how it figures into the ways in which they teach, tells us so. The question is what do they come to know? The answer varies of course. However, common patterns have emerged. What is most striking is that many of these history teachers, particularly those that end up teaching the subject but were not history majors (almost all elementary school teachers and none too few secondary school teachers), have great difficulty knowing what to do when they encounter conflicting accounts from the past. A lifeblood of the discipline—that is, working on the problem of sorting through such conflicting accounts and testimonies in order to arrive at defensible interpretations—is not something they can tackle with much success because they are not equipped with the necessary tools nor acceptable judgment criteria for doing so. These teachers have a marked tendency to accept historical texts at face value and teach from them as though the texts possessed something approaching divine authorship. Ignoring conflicting accounts that do not square with what they think they already know or what's in the authorized school text, they present the past as a fait accompli. No ongoing historiographical debate, little argument, few questions. They repeat (and cover) the story to their grade-school charges much the way they remember it taught to them in those ivy-covered halls on the college campus.

For their part, the young people who learn about history from such teachers come to understand it also as a fait accompli, prepackaged into discrete chunks of time and delivered up on a gilded plate, authorized by unseen and unknown masters whose interpretive voices go unnoticed. In fact, few pre-collegiate young people ever come to realize that the production of history is indeed an interpretive enterprise. The entire process is further reinforced by tests that predominantly measure the capacity of the young people to recall bits and pieces of the story deemed important by other unseen and unknown authorities. Like their collegiate counterparts, they partake in virtually none of the questioning, argumentation, and wrestling with the past that so marks the vigor and fecundity of history as a disciplinary practice. All acquisition of others' ideas about what the past is and no participation in the activities that produce those ideas in the first place leaves them largely empty headed and seat-twitchingly bored with this school subject. Every four years or so, the National Assessment of Educational Progress U.S. history test results remind us how woefully inadequate this approach is in fostering deep understandings of history.

Those who later attend college or university and sit through those large, survey history lectures recognize them almost immediately as jacked-up versions of their high school history courses. More acquisition of predetermined storylines and supporting details, all on the time-honored, but cognitively outdated premise that students need to know the "what" of history before they can think intelligently about it, wrestle with its ambiguities, understand the discipline's dynamic nature, and make sense of what to do with competing accounts of the past. And so the systemic loop closes: from witnessing the historians' storyline coverage in collegiate survey courses via the model (and modal) lecture pedagogy, through an all-too brief formal teacher education program in which education school faculty, when they try, consistently fail to effect much change in understandings about either the disciplinary structure or the model pedagogy,4 back to the grade-school classrooms where these newly minted history teachers engage, yet again, in what they saw their historian mentors and previous history teachers do so often.

Forty years ago, historian Edwin Fenton observed that prospective history teachers could deduce four implications from their undergraduate course taking in history. Two bear noting here. First, that "expository teaching techniques, particularly the lecture, are best. [All] the great men [sic] use them." And second, that "in beginning courses, large classes of students should listen to lectures, and break up into small groups for discussion. [Even] if a teacher has a class of thirty students, he [sic] should still lecture most of the time." Fenton then drew his own conclusion: "Each of these implications is dysfunctional for future teachers…. Teachers…need excellent content courses. But content alone is not enough."5 I take Fenton here to be warning us of the educational and pedagogical consequences of failing to change the way we conceptualize the preparation of history teachers. With this mind, it is ironic 40 years later that historians can still be heard to complain vociferously about how ignorant their incoming undergraduates are of history. The question that remains is at what point will historians come to care enough about their complicity in the preparation of future generations of history teachers to rethink their modal pedagogical practices.

Some signs suggest that the present might be a promising moment. In part as a result of the growth of the Teaching American History grant program, historians are brought face to face more frequently with practicing history teachers. No doubt, this portends at least some self-reflection about teaching approaches. Historians who have been fellows at the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning have raised compelling questions recently about what a signature pedagogy in history could look like. These historians have also called for a scholarship of history teaching and have found receptive audiences and publication outlets among leading historical organizations such as the American Historical Association.6 We have also witnessed the growth of a history education scholarship that has begun to teach us much about what it means to teach and to learn history in meaningful ways.7 Yet, in the main I worry that Fenton's words still ring true today. Barring the few interesting exceptions I noted, we continue to forget them, a curious circumstance given that amnesia is something historians take pride in avoiding.

The old aphorism about finger wagging seems to apply in spades here. As historians point with disdain at the historical ignorance of their incoming undergraduates, they simultaneously point three fingers back at themselves. To care about teaching history, then, will require at a minimum acknowledging the crucial role historians play in preparing future history teachers, taking seriously the scholarship on what it means to teach and learn the subject, and engaging in a conversation with those in education schools about how to disrupt a dysfunctional system that so often contributes much to the historical ignorance in the first place.

—Bruce VanSledright is professor and head of the History/Social Studies Education program in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Maryland, College Park. A former history teacher, he has been studying how teachers teach and students learn history in public schools for more than 15 years. He is the author of the 2002 book, In Search of America's Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School, in which he describes some successes in deepening 11-year-old's understandings of the American past using an approach that engages the students in practicing history, in part, as historians might. He can be contacted at bvansled@umd.edu.


1. Historians I have talked to who have engaged teachers through roles as disciplinary specialists in Teaching American History grant programs have become increasingly attuned to this teacher educator role they play, in part, prompting increased interest in the complexities of teaching. As one example, in June 2006, the History Department and School of Education at the University of Virginia with support from their Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the National Council for History Education, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and others hosted a conference in Charlottesville to consider how historians and education-school teacher educators could work more closely together on the mission of preparing grade-school history teachers. A white paper is forthcoming from this conference.

2. There are, of course, variations to this common survey lecture approach. However, descriptions of them surface as rarities in the recollections of school history teachers.

3. See David Pace, "The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning," American Historical Review, 109 (October 2004), 1171–92. Lendol Carter, "Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey," Journal of American History, 92 (March 2006), 1358–70.

4. For example, see G. Williamson McDiarmid and Peter Vinten-Johansen, "A Catwalk Across the Great Divide: Redesigning the History Teaching Methods Course," in Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg (eds.), Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York, 2000), 156–77.

5. Edwin Fenton, The New Social Studies (New York, 1967). 110–111.

6. Lendol Carter, "Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy…" and David Pace, "An Amateur in the Operating Room…".

7. For example, see chapters by Peter Lee, Rosalyn Ashby, Denis Shemilt, and Bob Bain in Susan Donovan and John Bransford (Eds.), How Students Learn: History in the Classroom (Washington, D.C., 2005).