How to teach history (and how not to)

History is fascinating but too often kids find it boring in history class. Here Larry Cuban explains why and what to do about it. Cuban was a school social studies teacher for 14 years, a district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, Va.), and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. His  new book is “Inside the Black Box of the Classroom: Change without Reform in American
Education.” This appeared on his School Reform and Classroom Practice blog.

By Larry Cuban

Here is how Theresa Johnston, writing in Stanford Magazine, described a class she watched a few months ago in a Northern California high school.

In the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein famously plays a high school teacher who drones on about the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act while his students slump at their desks in a collective stupor. For many kids, that’s history: an endless catalog of disconnected dates and names, passed down like scripture from the state textbook, seldom questioned and quickly forgotten.

 

Now take a seat inside Will Colglazier’s classroom at Aragon High School in San Mateo. The student population here is fairly typical for the Bay Area: about 30 percent Latino, 30 percent Asian and 40 percent white. The subject matter is standard 11th grade stuff: What caused the Great American Dust Bowl?

 

Tapping on his laptop, Colglazier shows the class striking black-and-white images of the choking storms that consumed the Plains states in the 1930s. Then he does something unusual. Instead of following a lesson plan out of the textbook, he passes out copies of a 1935 letter, written by one Caroline Henderson to the then-U.S. secretary of agriculture, poignantly describing the plight of her neighbors in the Oklahoma panhandle. He follows that with another compelling document: a confidential high-level government report, addressed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, decrying the region’s misguided homesteading policies.

 

Colglazier clearly is a gifted and well-trained educator, a history/economics major and 2006 graduate of the Stanford Teacher Education Program. But what sets this class apart from Ferris Bueller’s is more than the man; it’s his method—an approach developed at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education that’s rapidly gaining adherents across the country. At a time when national student surveys show abysmal rates of proficiency in history, trial studies of the Stanford program demonstrated that when high school students engage regularly with challenging primary source documents, they not only make significant gains learning and retaining historical material, they also markedly improve their reading comprehension and critical thinking….

 

Colglazier builds his thought-provoking classes using an online tool called Reading Like a Historian. Designed by the Stanford History Education Group under Professor Sam Wineburg, the website offers 87 flexible lesson plans featuring documents from the Library of Congress. Teachers can download the lessons and adapt them for their own purposes, free of charge. Students learn how to examine documents critically, just as historians would, in order to answer intriguing questions: Did Pocahontas really rescue John Smith? Was Abraham Lincoln a racist? Who blinked first in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Russians or the Americans?

Most history teachers do not teach like Will Colglazier or the cartoon figure teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”  Colglazier is an exception, albeit according to the journalist, one who joins many others in using  historical thinking to gain deep understanding of the past rather than a heritage approach, that is, using facts from the past to recreate a present that tells Americans who they are, who they were, and the nation they are part of.

As I and many others who have been in classrooms have pointed out, most history teachers tilt toward the heritage end of the spectrum of history teaching but many do incorporate historical approaches in their lessons (See here and here).

Why?

One answer looks at how external testing, state academic standards, federal accountability regulations, teacher certification, and the unofficial national curriculum of Advanced Placement influence what teachers present. These omnipresent structures in the policy terrain set the boundaries within which teachers teach. To answer the above question on why teachers tilt toward “traditional” teaching, then, I also want to identify other factors that often go unmentioned by those eager to improve the teaching of history in K-12 schools.

Consider that cultural beliefs about the function of public schools to socialize children and youth into the dominant civic and social values (e.g., honesty, respect for others’ values, cooperating) are anchored in age-graded school structures. They become a powerful organizational mechanism for carrying out societal expectations (i.e., kindergarten prepares children for the first grade, a high school diploma is essential to going to college or getting a decent job). Teachers operating separately in their classrooms move 25 to 30-plus students through a 700-page history text, and give frequent tests to see whether students have learned the required knowledge and skills.

Moreover, age-graded secondary schools have history teachers teaching five classes a day (with at least one planning or “free” period and lunch) usually involving up to three different preparations (e.g., world history, U.S. history, and economics) with a student load of anywhere between 125 to 165 a day. The sheer whirl of traversing these classes between 7:45 a.m.-3 p.m. is exhausting for 22-year-olds. Imagine what it is like for 62- year-olds. When grading homework, reading essays, and checking quizzes are factored into the workload of most history teachers—don’t forget most teachers see individual students before school, during planning periods and lunch, and then after school–the daily decisions and fast pace of the day, much less the unpredictable emotional ups-and-downs that accompany working with teenagers, exhilarate and exhaust teachers. These social beliefs and school structures added to the public expectation that every student passes a test to graduate and then goes to college merge to create intense workplace conditions that influence how teachers teach.

Yet history teachers are hardly passive agents that societal expectations and school structures pour into a mold. Teachers bring their life experiences, formal and informal knowledge, and personal beliefs about children, learning, and serving the community that also influence what and how they teach history. And this is where blends of heritage and historical thinking pedagogy enter the picture.

Both constrained and autonomous, teachers accommodate to external demands and organizational structures while carving out a niche for themselves in which they can make independent decisions about how they organize their classrooms, group students, and teach.  Most history teachers end up picking and choosing different practices to put a tattoo on their teaching yet fall somewhere in the middle part of a continuum of teaching practices.

While most teachers use a version of the heritage approach, a small minority like Will Colglazier work within the constraints of the age-graded school and make other teaching choices based on their beliefs about learning, children, and knowledge of history.

Consider New York teacher Linda Strait (a pseudonym). A researcher who observed her teach a hybrid of both traditions of teaching. She teaches U.S. history through lectures, guides discussions, and controls what content is taught and how.

Yet in her Civil Rights unit, she offered a series of lessons beginning with a videotape “The Shadow of Hate” after which students divided into small groups to discuss and list their reactions on wall charts; an ungraded quiz on a reading Strait had assigned; a roundtable discussion of four questions she posed to the class; a two-day simulation of a local skating rink that refused to admit minorities with the teacher role-playing the owner and students making pitches to her to keep or drop the policy. Then two days of reviewing notes, writing in-class practice essays for the 11th grade Regents tests that would draw from the Civil Rights unit.

Strait tells the researcher, “I try to throw in as many activities and projects, but I still feel that I am too heavily the center of it.” She has invented a hybrid of the two teaching traditions out of the choices she made within the constraints of state and school district policies, the structures of the age-graded high schools, her knowledge of the subject, personal experiences, and beliefs about how her students learn U.S. history (pp. 16-28).

Will Colglazier is part of a minority of teachers using historical thinking pedagogy. Most teachers of history blend both pieces of it and the heritage approach; they hug the middle.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · May 16, 2013