From the Letters to the Editor column of the October 2005 Perspectives

Teaching by the Playbook

Robert Shaffer, October 2005

To the Editor:

In History on Trial (1997), their incisive account of recent public debates over the history curriculum, Gary Nash, Ross Dunn, and Charlotte Crabtree rightly lament the lack of attention that university-based historians paid to teaching in the primary and secondary schools after World War II. It is heartening, therefore, to see articles in Perspectives about efforts by historians and by our pre-college colleagues to improve social studies education.

But I had mixed reactions to "Preparing Non-Historians to Teach History: The Coaching History Playbook," by Bill Shuttlesworth and William Edgington, in the May 2005 Perspectives, along with the web-based handbook that Shuttlesworth edited, available in PDF at http://www.esc6.net/programs/Curriculum/core/socialstudies/index.htm.

The authors note that many secondary school social studies teachers are also coaches, and that the presence of such teacher-coaches tends to sully the reputations of all secondary history teachers. (Nash, Dunn, and Crabtree recount in History on Trial "the old joke among educators" that "half the history teachers in the United States have the same first name—‘Coach.'") Rather than "throw up their hands in horror at the thought of underqualified coaches teaching high school history," Shuttlesworth and Edgington "have decided to work with coaches to provide them with the best professional development in history that we can." Coaches are not hopeless as teachers, they argue, because some of the attributes of successful coaching are equally applicable to teaching history. Their handbook seeks to bring to coaches, in language they can understand, some of the pedagogical techniques that go beyond lecture and textbook review, in order to motivate coaches to be more effective history teachers.

There are many good ideas in The Coaching History Playbook. As one who works with my university's social studies education program, I might very well assign some of the sections of the Playbook to students in my "Methods" classes and to my student teachers. There are, for example, helpful explanations of the need to design lessons and units around concepts, themes, and "essential questions," not just a series of "facts." The handbook presents a variety of lesson techniques, from historical simulations to analyses of primary source documents. While the project was motivated directly by the need to boost scores on statewide history tests in Texas, serious attention by coaches (and other teachers) to the Playbook will improve real learning as well as improve test results.

Nevertheless, I have three major concerns. (Four, if I include my disappointment over the astonishing number of grammatical and proofreading errors—a seemingly inevitable problem with web-based "publishing.") First, the Playbook basically uses sports terms (mainly from football) as metaphors for components of the teaching process; thus, "drives" illustrates the idea of "unit plans." But how does the term "reverse" illustrate the use of "graphic organizers" in class, and how does the phrase "quick pitch" relate to "document-based questions"? I do not see the connections. Coaches might become more motivated to vary their teaching style by using terms they know. However, the imprecision and inapplicability of so many terms serves to point up the differences between coaching football and teaching history as much as, if not more than, the similarities.

Second, neither the Perspectives article nor the Playbook seriously address what many observers say are the biggest problems with teacher-coaches. These are the lack of advanced knowledge of their subjects, and inattention to student writing. Both of these problems show the direct tension between the priorities of too many school districts and the academic needs of students, and the tension between time spent on coaching and time spent on such components of teaching as preparation and grading. The Playbook does note the importance of thorough knowledge of a subject when preparing lectures, but this is a single sentence of a 130-page handbook. There are no similar reminders when explaining how to conduct simulation or document analysis activities; these seem to be all about technique. Indeed, of the two examples presented of how to use the Gettysburg Address in class, one is vague to the point of meaninglessness, and the other fails to distinguish between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. A simulation exercise on Peter the Great's search for "warm-water ports" incorrectly includes the Gulf of Finland in this category—an error which garbles the point of the activity. The handbook, in short, could better exemplify knowledge of the subject.

Meanwhile, the guidelines for teacher assessment of student writing are quite good; they would be helpful to all teachers. But there is no acknowledgement that such work is more time-consuming than teacher-coaches—and far too many other social studies teachers—are accustomed to doing. Without explicit discussion of such problems, the mindset of secondary history teachers is not likely to change.

Finally, while the Playbook advises teachers to use "scouting reports" (sports lingo for "data-driven analyses") to see how their students and districts are faring on state tests and other assessments, there is a curious lack of discussion of how the techniques presented here have worked with real teacher-coaches in real school districts. The Playbook posted on the web is the second edition, but the only comments on the impact of the first edition are a fan letter from an undergraduate in Vermont and this one statement by Shuttlesworth that does not indicate direct contact with teacher-coaches: "I presented the Playbook at Texas Council for Social Studies in Lubbock and received comments about how useful it is for new teachers and that now they (the department head) have a way to communicate with the coaches in their department." Nor does the Perspectives article provide any data that coaches have improved their teaching by using the Playbook. In the absence of such evidence, the AHA's newly reawakened interest in the pre-college years may very well represent an accommodation with the undesirable features of secondary schools today, rather than a commitment to excellence in teaching at all levels.

I would like to believe that staff development as outlined in the Perspectives article and in the Playbook will make better history teachers of the many coaches who are in our discipline at the secondary school level, and I applaud the approach to pedagogy of Shuttlesworth and Edgington. Based on the evidence presented, and on my own experience with teacher-coaches who are assigned as supervisors to some of my student teachers, I remain skeptical.

—Robert Shaffer
Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania