Guidelines for the Preparation, Evaluation, and Selection of History Textbooks

AHA Staff, January 1998

The centrality of the textbooks in history teaching has long been established. Texts address different specific topics and educational levels and they also appropriately reflect authors' particular tastes. At the same time, good texts must share certain general qualities, which broadly speaking apply to materials from grade school to college. It is vital to utilize these general criteria, along with other selection preferences, in evaluating the range of texts available at any level.

Textbooks play a vital role in history education, from elementary school through the college survey courses. As in other fields, good textbooks offer a distillation of available knowledge on major subjects in the discipline, with arrangements specifically designed for student use and with writing and exercises geared to the appropriate student level. For any given level, and for any survey subject, good textbooks can and should vary considerably.

Indeed, it is important that teachers have some choice in the particular approaches presented and that they be involved in the process of textbook selection. Teachers bring relevant knowledge and experience to textbook decisions, and should have some chance to pick among several options according to personal interest and commitment.

Accompanying the need for variety in textbook approaches, certain criteria define a satisfactory history text at any level. The most important guideline, from which more specific criteria flow, is the need to make sure that the text contributes to good history instruction.

Factual Coverage

Most textbooks primarily convey factual materials. No matter what the subject, or how large the book, these materials are necessarily selective, involving choices about what relevant historical data to include and exclude. A satisfactory history text establishes what the key selection principles have been, so that users can assess the validity of the choices and also have some awareness of potential gaps. For example, a world history text may downplay certain early periods or geographical regions and still measure up to coverage needs, but the choices should be briefly indicated and explained. In U.S. history, some sequences of presidents are often summed up without great detail; again, this kind of selectivity should be briefly noted and explained. In addition to explanations, adequate textbooks do not select coverage without attention to problems of bias and distortion not only in the accuracy of the materials presented, but in the choice of major topics.

Factual coverage in an adequate history textbook must reflect explicit attention to chronology. That is, it must help establish differences as well as similarities between past and present and it must deal with events and patterns in a sequence of time. For more advanced student levels, chronology must also be presented through discussion of periodization--that is, through discussion of key points of change--so that users can understand the choices involved in deciding on major breaks in chronological sequences.

Factual coverage must be up-to-date in terms of ongoing historical research. Significant improvements in the teaching and learning of history result from the systematic utilization of research-based knowledge. Regular adjustments in light of new research are essential for textbook accuracy and for achievement of necessary balance in group and topical coverage. At least brief indications of possible further reading, appropriate to the user level but reflective of recent historical research, should be included in any adequate history text.

Factual coverage should be balanced, in several senses. It should deal with several groupings (class, race, gender) in order to convey both shared and diverse reactions to key developments. The group experiences should be integrated in the larger analytical framework and narrative structure, not treated as isolated sidebars. It should also deal with several aspects of the human experience (political, social, cultural, and so on) and with interrelationships among these facets.

Appropriate global perspectives are increasingly important in defining textbook adequacy. Obviously, a world history text will have much different geographical coverage from a United States or an individual state survey. In all cases, however, an adequate text will place developments in some wider perspective, so that international trends and forces are given appropriate attention and so that principal distinctive features, for example in a particular national experience, gain some comparative treatment.

Factual coverage, finally, must not be defined by sheer avoidance of controversy. Indeed, an adequate history textbook must treat some topics about which debate continues to occur and must assist readers in balancing an understanding of diverse viewpoints with attention to the historical factor involved. Religion, for example, is a vital aspect of the history of virtually every society and time period. Its treatment must often acknowledge diversity of viewpoints, but the subject must be given appropriate weight for its role in the human experience.

Historical Habits of Mind

Even with a primary emphasis on factual materials, adequate history textbooks must actively encourage the development of appropriate historical habits of mind beyond memorization. Adequate history texts do not so overwhelm with the sheer volume of material as to discourage a variety of exercises and learning experiences. Presentation of data itself must promote an ability to see how historical facts can be used and recombined in coherent written or oral argument.

Textbooks should encourage critical thinking, with sections that help students understand how different kinds of arguments and interpretations can be assessed.

Textbooks should directly include or be readily compatible with primary documents and other materials, so that students gain skill in assessing different kinds of data, judging potential bias, and building arguments from various pieces of evidence. Sections that periodically discuss how historians developed data of the sort embedded in the text itself, and how different evaluations of data figure into historical controversies, will usefully further the ability to understand uses of evidence.

As appropriate to the grade level involved, textbooks should promote the capacity to assess change over time, the causes and impacts of change, and continuities that coexist with change. Textbooks that merely accumulate data, even across time, with no discussion of issues of change and causation are not adequate, even at beginner student levels. In many texts and for many grade levels, comparisons between time periods and/or between societies will also encourage analytical capacity.

In fostering appropriate habits of mind, from ability to develop arguments from data to the assessment of historical change, adequate history textbooks should insofar as possible promote active learning by raising issues and varying the types of information provided. Reliance on passive reception and memorization alone should be discouraged. Textbooks at many levels should provide guidance through exercises, essays, research projects, and other experiences that promote historical habits of mind and the use of historical facts to answer larger questions. No adequate textbook will encourage fact-based testing alone.

Other Criteria

Adequate history textbooks should include review procedures that involve active teachers and research historians. Critical evaluations of textbooks in professional journals should be utilized in textbook adoption procedures. Once adopted, textbooks should be evaluated for their effectiveness in promoting good history learning. Adequate history textbooks should also take advantage of research findings about history learning itself, including information about key student learning patterns and sequential development in history learning capacities.

While it is sometimes appropriate to develop history texts for specialized audiences, many history texts must also be evaluated in terms of their adaptability in various existing school settings, with different resource levels and capacities for supplementary materials. This is one reason that texts themselves must often include different kinds of materials and exercises.

Effective history learning has a variety of purposes. Its most essential goal, which any textbook must promote to satisfy criteria of adequacy, is to prepare users to encounter new data and new kinds of historical developments (including developments in contemporary history) with enhanced capacities for understanding and analysis.

—Approved by AHA Council, June 1997.