The Historian's Role in Teacher Education
Laura M. Westhoff, September 2006
Over the past few years, historians have given greater attention to issues of collaboration with Schools of Education and practicing teachers. Several sessions at both the 2005 and 2006 annual meetings of the Organization of American Historians were devoted to such collaborations and an entire day was devoted in 2006 to examining the historians role in Teaching American History grants. The AHAs recent annual meetings also included several sessions devoted entirely to teaching and collaboration with schools. As an academic historian with a joint appointment in the history department and the College of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Ive worked to bridge the divide between history and education and am pleased to find so many others doing the same at their institutions. Increasingly, departments of history are involved in teacher education programs, with historians teaching social studies methods courses, working with student teachers, and offering professional development workshops to practicing teachers. Such collaboration is vital for the health of history education at all levels and is part of our professional responsibility. I offer below several ways to think about our role in teacher education.
Since strong content knowledge is one of the foundations of successful teaching, it is incumbent on both historians and teacher educators to work together to articulate the content knowledge and skills required of future teachers. Given the historical tensions between colleges of education and colleges of arts and sciences, this kind of collaboration can be difficult; yet it is critical if teacher education programs are to prepare their students to teach content. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) has standards regarding content knowledge, and while the value of NCATE standards is debatable, we might recognize that NCATE encourages teacher educators to work with historians to outline the knowledge and skills taught in content area courses.1 Such conversations might be a catalyst for more substantive discussion with our colleagues in education about the kind of content and skills preparation we should be offering our students. At UM-St. Louis, collaboration between the history department and the College of Education has resulted in significant content course requirements for our students. Most of our undergraduate students seeking certification are required to major in history. This includes upper-division coursework and the senior seminar, in which they must demonstrate writing skills, familiarity with historiography, the ability to read and analyze primary sources. Development of such skills is vital if history teachers are to foster them in their own students.
Beyond preservice education, historians collaboration with K–12 teachers must be built on a commitment to the needs of practicing teachers and must encourage the development of professional communities that include historians as well as teachers. Participants in the 2005 OAH session, "Tear Down this Wall: Building Collaboration between Schools of Education and Departments of History," confirmed what I have observed in my work: classroom teachers are hungry for content-specific professional development (which has been seriously compromised in many school districts), and they welcome interaction with practicing historians. This interaction has been the strength of the U.S. Department of Educations Teaching American History grants, Gilder Lehrman Institutes, National Endowment for the Humanities seminars, and National Council on History Education programs, all of which bring historians and teachers together. Opportunities offered by such interaction are magnified when historians are committed to ongoing work with teachers and are attentive to the challenges teachers face in turning content knowledge into workable and engaging lessons. Indeed, as a profession, we historians miss a valuable opportunity to impact history education when we take what some have described as a "parachute approach" to our interactions with teachers: dropping in to offer a lecture when called upon, but without engaging in real dialogue with classroom teachers about their needs and ideas about how to teach history. This approach does not build the kind of collaboration likely to positively affect history education. While we might include scholarly concerns in our interactions with teachers, we might also discuss how we wrestle with questions of what content and skills to emphasize in our own courses, what primary sources we draw upon to do so, and how we pique our students interests in seemingly remote events and cultures. Making the intellectual processes surrounding research and teaching more transparent not only models them for teachers, but also invites us to reflect on our own practices as we build professional communities that value rigorous standards for history education. Listening to college of education faculty and to teachers might even help us become more cognizant of our own approaches to teaching, more aware of what works and doesnt in our college classrooms, and more articulate about our teaching goals.
The historians role in teacher education extends beyond coursework and professional development, however, into current political debates about assessment and standards. Teacher education programs and history departments must work together to assert a stronger response to the way that history education has been politicized at this particular moment. Indeed, debates about history curriculum and standards at the state level (like the controversy over the national standards in early 1990s) have drawn historians into public conversations about the purposes and content of K–12 history education, and since its establishment in 1974, the AHA Teaching Division has had educational issues on the organizations agenda.2 Furthermore, in todays climate of high-stakes testing, history instruction that values critical examination of such issues and that stresses historians emphasis on reading sources and written argumentation that draws on plausible evidence places teachers in a bind. This was, in fact, one of the most disheartening parts of our conversation at the 2005 OAH, and in other history professional educational circles of late. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, which seeks to improve reading and math competencies and requires state testing in both subjects has cut into time spent teaching history, especially in elementary schools. The reallocation of precious school minutes has created a dilemma. I find that history teachers have rarely welcomed standardized tests that measure only one facet of historical knowledge, namely factual information, while ignoring critical reading, writing, and thinking skills. Yet, they now find themselves lobbying for the return of mandatory social studies assessments as a way to put more history back into the curriculum. Regrettably, the more important conversation about appropriate ways to assess the full range of historical literacy skills has taken a backseat to the priority of mandating any type of test as a strategy for increasing time devoted to history instruction.
While increasing students factual knowledge may be a laudable goal, the overemphasis on standardized tests undermines the ability of teachers to develop in their students the habits of mind and skills that are not only necessary to the historical discipline but are also of undisputed value in our democracy.3 These skills include the ability to think critically about information and sources, to recognize bias and perspective, to understand present events in light of those past. Furthermore, history as a discipline compatible with—indeed a vehicle for—developing reading and writing skills and encouraging critical thinking, goes unrecognized. It is perhaps an irony that legislation meant to improve childrens literacy skills runs the danger of depriving them of the historical literacy fundamental to their role as thoughtful, questioning citizens. When we remember that a majority of Americans never take a history course beyond high school, the importance of collaborating with teacher educators and practicing teachers is magnified. Historians and faculty in schools of education must work together to promote such quality teaching, appropriate assessment, and sound curricula that incorporate the best developments in the historical profession and encourages the disciplines attention to the value of history education in a democratic society.
In conversations with faculty from schools of education, we historians might more fully act on a cogent set of public responsibilities. While such public demands may not be appropriate for all institutions, closer collaboration is a laudable goal for both history departments and schools of education. Given the existing demands on us and the lack of institutional rewards, it is tempting to delegate responsibility for teacher education and professional development to a single faculty member or solely to schools of education. Yet doing so ignores our potential and our larger public responsibility to enhance the study of history. As recent events have made clear, a climate of high-stakes testing and on-going conflict over history curriculum requires a more concerted response; historians and teacher educators must build alliances in order to engage with the issues affecting history education at all levels in this country.
—Laura Westhoff is assistant professor of history and education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she works with history students and preservice and practicing teachers. Her book, "A Fatal Drifting Apart:" Democratic Social Knowledge and Chicago Reform, is forthcoming from Ohio State University Press. She would like to thank David Bristol, Deborah Cohen, Lessie Jo Frazier, Andrew Hurley, Dennis Lubeck, Darel Shelton, and Sam Wineburg for their suggestions on previous drafts.
2. See for example, Sara Evans and Lisa Norling, "What Happened in Minnesota?" OAH Newsletter 32:4 (November 2004); Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York: Random House, 1997). See also the debate on pages 41–45 in this issue on accreditation.
3. This is, of course, a contentious debate with a long history. See for example, Richard J. Paxton, "Dont Know Much about History—Never Did" Phi Delta Kappan (December 2003), 265–273; Sam Wineburg, "Crazy for History," Journal of American History 90: 4 (March 2004), 1401-1414; Richard Rothstein, "We are Not Ready to Assess History Performance," Journal of American History 90: 4 (March 2004), 1381–91; Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004).