Teaching

Four Reflections on Teaching and Learning History

Peter J. Frederick, October 2001

"Course was great! Never have I learned so much in a history class and also had fun doing it. You actually took a rather boring subject, history, and made it interesting." In 40 years of teaching I have received hundreds of comments and feedback from students, many like this one from the second half of the survey that I taught last spring—backwards, as Annette Atkins suggested in her inaugural article for Perspectives. I liked this comment almost as much as one I received many years ago that said, "your methods are right out of kindergarten and your grades are right out of Hell!" I still don't know whether that was intended as a compliment or not, but I have chosen to take it as one.

Nearing the end of a long career that has intentionally focused on teaching, I am prompted to reflect on what in my ("kindergarten") methods have made history "fun" for students. My students are used to me putting things often in blocks of four, so for the purposes of this article let me briefly describe four moments from my classes and then explain four principles of learning, four sets of questions, and four concepts that inform my classroom practice.

Four moments. One: in a fixed seating lecture room students are clustered in small groups simulating a 1779 Massachusetts town meeting to instruct delegates to the state constitutional convention. Each cluster represents a social group: patriot landed elite, royalists, small and middling farmers, artisans, shopkeepers and merchants, lawyers and ministers, riff-raff, blacks, and Native Americans. Energy is high as the patriot elite has just failed to enlist the support of the increasingly rowdy riff-raff, who are upset that lands promised to them for fighting during the war have not actually been given. The royalists are in the back of the room enlisting Native American support for regaining their confiscated lands, and the lawyers and ministers are arguing about what rights to give the people.

Two: several students have just told the class how the assignment to interview a member of their family (who is of their parents' age or older) about the 1960s had led to in-depth conversations with their grandmother, or father, that they had never had before. "I never knew my grandmother was so cool."

Three: brainstorming on the first day of the second half of the survey (taught backwards), I have asked students to name the national issues and events "that matter most to you." After creating a list of some 18 items (health care, big government, the electoral college, technology, race relations, world globalization, moral change, the Indiana Pacers, etc.), I then asked them to identify themes and categories. The first two comments are, "some are older issues that have been around a long time," and "some of these problems are new and larger than the USA." Within 10 minutes of the beginning of the course, students had identified the key historical concept of change and continuity over time. Even more notably, they had set the conceptual themes of the course.

Four: in a role play of social groups in the 1830s and 1840s, after hearing the goals and strategies of bankers, merchants, southern planters, and free Midwestern farmers, I have not called on the groups of women, slaves, free blacks, or southeastern Indians. The students in these groups are frustrated and angry, until a member of the "Reformers" group stands up and eloquently makes the case why I should let them speak. However, no reformer helps frustrated students role-playing newly freed people in 1865. Their goal of migration (one of many they developed together when told they were now free) has been thwarted—first, by a work contract they refused to sign, and second, by a vagrancy code that prevented their free mobility.

These—and many other—moments of active learning are informed by four principles that have emerged from recent educational research. First, students learn best to the extent that they are actively involved with the material, in our case history, reading, interpreting, touching, listening to, feeling, role playing, and manipulating it. Second, students learn best when they are confronted with a compelling human historical problem, decision, or personal question. It is best to put the problem into a larger context (enduring historical themes and concepts, for example) that connects with problems, questions, and themes in their own lives. Third, learning occurs in a context of frequent and caring (or lovingly challenging) feedback and occasions for reflection, especially with others. Therefore, small groups. The fourth, and perhaps most important principle, is that every learner makes his or her own meaning by reworking prior learning and experiences in terms of new ones. This means that we must find ways of connecting what's already inside their heads with the concepts, ideas, themes, and yes, even the names, dates, and facts we want them to know. As Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Improvement of Teaching, says,

We now understand that learning is a dual process in which, initially, the inside beliefs and understandings must come out, and only then can something outside get in. . . .To prompt learning you've got to begin with the process of going from inside out. The first influence on new learning is not what teachers do pedagogically but the learning that's already inside the learner.

Therefore, the first task with any new class of students is to find out what's inside them, what their stories and issues are, and how their stories might connect to course concepts.

Given these principles (I have selected four from among many others), I deduce four sets of questions to inform my classroom practice. They are rather obvious and I know that many history colleagues teach from these same implied principles. I try to practice what I know and preach by consulting a note taped to the corner of my desk every time I leave to go teach a class. It says, "less of me is more of them, for authentic, deeper learning."

The four questions are:

  1. What do we know about who our learners are, and what's inside them? What do we know about their differing ways of learning and how they learn best?
  2. In what ways can we make the historical questions and issues we deem most important connect to student lives and prior experiences, to their goals and aspirations, to their fears and hopes, or to what's happening on campus that week, or in the news?
  3. In a typical classroom day, who is doing the talking? Who is analyzing the primary source? Who is interpreting the passage, document, photograph, letter, chart, map, graph, video clip, or artifact? Who is playing the historical actors? Who is making the meaning, identifying recurring themes, sorting out multiple perspectives? Who is doing the synthesizing, the connecting with other cultures, eras, events, and people? That is, who is doing the learning?
  4. Are the questions we explore in class meaningful and significant in terms of student lives and issues? Moreover, how are they placed into a meaningful context, and connected to course themes or concepts, or to some larger, conceptual framework? What are the four or five conceptual themes that inform our courses, upon which students can hang the myriad facts?

My four, primarily for the first half of the survey, are the following. The first is the mosaic of diverse cultures, peoples, and perspectives that has created the many variations of "E Pluribus Unum." Second is the centrality of the Land, notions of Place. The third is the differences and tensions between top down and bottom up approaches to history that we represent by a triangle/pyramid image of the whole American people, including the students and their families. The fourth is the continuing tension between the idealistic American sense of mission and hard-nosed, practical realities, a tension I represent symbolically by the concept of "God/cod." This refers to the second generation Puritan in Massachusetts who, upon being confronted by his minister late on Sunday at the wharf as he comes in with his ship filled with codfish, says, "my fathers might have come here for religion, but I came for fish!" Which of our students is not also struggling with the tension between "salvation" and "success," between idealistic, spiritual, communal goals and individual, self-interested, material ones?

How can we put these themes into a narrative story? Is the story the old Master Narrative of a consensus view of an unfolding, improving American history as a model example of liberal, progressive benefit for all peoples, within the nation and without? Or is it a newer, more inclusive narrative that incorporates women and people of color, and puts American history into an even larger global context? To what extent is the narrative we tell about American history our students' story too?

These four moments, principles, concepts, and questions are incorporated into the Plains Indian (Cheyenne, Lakota) Medicine Wheel, which divides into equal fourths the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual dimensions of learning. This symbol, which was given to me as a gift after doing some discussion workshops at Sinte Gleska College on the Rosebud Reservation in the 1980s, is a powerful model of holistic educational teaching and learning. It comes out of the American people, and with our students' good work, it is returned—fourfold.

Peter Frederick, who received the AHA's Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award for 2000, teaches American history at Wabash College. He has loved teaching undergraduates ever since he began his teaching career in 1960 as a TA in Berkeley. Although disliking lecturing in its traditional sense as a pedagogical method, he declares, he still struggles with "talking too much in class."