The Current State of History Education: "One Big School House"
Karen Halttunen, May 2012
Editor's Note: The forum of essays on the following pages, "Possibilities of Pedagogy"—introduced by Karen Halttunen in the essay on this page—evolved from a project for an article series that she had launched when she was serving as the AHA's vice president in the Teaching Division. During the project's development, the Perspectives on History editorial board decided to add two other articles on similar themes to the six contributions that came from the California History Social-Science Project, and to publish them all together in one issue. We hope that readers find the essays thought-provoking and helpful. Comments are welcome, and may be e-mailed or posted online using the "Comments" feature, available to members on Perspectives Online.
The current state of history education, as the essays in this issue of Perspectives on History make clear, situates us in the best of times and the worst of times. On the one hand, 20 years of cognitive research has deepened our understanding of the complex processes involved in historical learning and teaching. We have come to appreciate the importance of an inquiry-based instruction whose primary goal is to cultivate in our students what Sam Wineburg has called the "unnatural act" of historical thinking. The new paradigm for teaching history recognizes the active nature of the learning process, as we help students formulate meaningful, open-ended questions and develop the skills to sift through evidence, analyze conflicting perspectives, and form reasoned conclusions. The best history teachers, we are coming to understand, do not tell students seamless stories about what happened and why, but model the investigative process used by historians: reading closely and critically, thinking interpretively, and writing analytically. History education develops students' grasp of such difficult concepts as motivation and agency, causality and contingency, and provides students with lifetime skills for challenging assumptions and using evidence to support their ideas. As history teachers, we now have an abundance of educational research available to guide our efforts to improve the quality of our students' learning.
But even as this valuable research on historical learning has appeared, the older approach to history instruction is being reinforced by educational policy and structural changes in the schools. The school-reform movement, with its focus on "accountability" and high-stakes testing, tends to treat history as a process of memorizing names, dates, and what many teachers and students continue to regard as "facts." Though some teachers have moved beyond it, the standard approach to teaching history at the secondary level—lectures, textbooks, factual quizzes—persists, with the result that students continue to see history as a straightforward story consisting of objective facts strung together like beads on an endless string. At the same time, the No Child Left Behind Act has focused instructional energy and time on language arts and mathematics at the expense of history and the social sciences, a process that will only intensify with the wide adoption of the Common Core State Standards. The negative impact of NCLB has been especially pronounced in the elementary schools, where instructional time devoted to history has dropped dramatically during the past decade. Given the standard distribution of ancient, world, and early American history across the K–12 curriculum, the marginalization of history at the elementary and middle-school levels often means that students graduate from high school with minimal exposure to the pre-20th-century past.
As the following essays demonstrate, however, historians at all levels of the educational system are actively addressing these challenges on a variety of fronts. New resources in the form of digitized primary sources are being made available on the web through such initiatives as the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program, which also provides teachers with instructional tools for teaching those materials. Professional development organizations such as the California History-Social Science Project (whose participants have contributed most of the essays presented in this issue) offer in-service training in the disciplinary skills essential for teachers to enhance their students' critical thinking. Through after-school and evening sessions, summer institutes, and curricular-development workshops, CHSSP creates and disseminates creative new strategies for teaching historical thinking, and shares them on a website that annually receives hundreds of thousands of hits. CHSSP also held a three-meeting History Summit devoted to advocacy—identifying and promoting the benefits of history education not only to K–20 teachers, but to school administrators, elected representatives, and government officials. Academic professional organizations such as the American Historical Association have become increasingly involved across the entire range of these initiatives, opening our committees to history teachers at all levels, generating K–16 programming at our annual conferences, and keeping our membership informed about critical developments in history education policy, standards, and practices.
Colleges and universities can and should play a larger role in meeting the current challenges to history education. Even as the intellectual stakes of history teaching have been underlined by new cognitive research, future history teachers are not being as well prepared in the discipline as in decades past. And as VanSledright, Reddy, and Walsh observe in their essay in this issue, "You can't teach what you don't know." One of the fundamental problems with pre-service preparation of history teachers in our colleges and universities is the typical separation between academic history departments and postgraduate teacher-education programs. Because most history departments have no formal links to credentialing programs in colleges of education, the practice of history by professional historians often has little bearing on the training of future K–12 teachers. Without the active involvement of history departments in preparing K–12 teachers, the goal of introducing students to historical thinking will continue to elude us. My own department has recently established a special major in history and social science education—with a capstone seminar on teaching history in the secondary schools I am now teaching for the first time—but we have barely begun to integrate our work with that of our university's graduate school of education.
The key to all these initiatives, as the following essays make abundantly clear, is collaboration. Robert Moeller has rightly identified history instruction from kindergarten through graduate school as "One Big School House."1 The size of that school house is in fact suggested by the range of teacher-practitioners who have contributed to this volume: they include current and former K–12 teachers, professors of history and of education and of history education, doctoral students, a linguist who specializes in the disciplinary language of history, site directors and state-level administrators at the California History-Social Science Education Project, and an educational resources specialist at the Library of Congress. Like these educational movers and shakers, all of us who teach in the One Big School House need to work together to improve the quality and the value of the history education we offer. Instead of pushing history into the final years of high school, K–12 teachers can work together towards diffusing it throughout their curricula. College and university faculty, along with our graduate students, can contribute to in-service professional development programs for K–12 teachers. Academic historians should also become more attentive to the pre-service training of "the next generation of history teachers" (to quote Edward L. Ayers's compellingly argued white paper) now sitting in our own classrooms, and more open to partnering with schools of education in preparing future K–12 teachers to teach the challenging analytic skills involved in historical thinking. Because, as the California History-Social Science Project's History Summit recently emphasized, the state of history education is everywhere shaped by district, state, and even national standards and policies, our collaborative efforts must include advocacy to school administrators, elected representatives, and government officials. The provocative and thoughtful essays published in this issue of Perspectives on History do a superb job of setting us on this path towards more effective student learning in history.
Karen Halttunen is professor of history at the University of Southern California. She was vice president of the AHA (Teaching Division) from 2007 to 2010.
1. Robert Moeller, "Building One Big School House: A Community of K–23 Educators?" presented at 2010 AHA annual meeting in San Diego. Cited in Nicole Gilbertson, "Sites of Encounter in World History."