The History of History Teaching

What elements of historical thinking have remained at the heart of history teaching over the decades?

The major thread in the approach to teaching history over the past 100 years has been the emphasis on historical content over procedural skill. Despite research to the contrary (see Charles Homer Haskins’ 1906 report as mentioned in T. Mills Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age), “the recitation of authoritative knowledge continued to be the goal of a coverage-oriented history teaching that retained its dominance through the 20th century and persists today (“Measuring College Learning In History” by Lendol Calder and Tracy Steffes, pg. 46).”

From the 1980s onwards, the prioritization of rote memorization was accompanied by a mission to evaluate students on their ability to absorb information via standardized assessments. Since then educators at all levels of K-12 history education have felt pressured to “teach to the test.” These tests, meanwhile are designed to differentiate students from one another. Other possible measures of success in history — knowledge of widely accepted basic historical events and people (the Founding Fathers, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.), and critical thinking skills necessary to the production and understanding of history — are not taken into consideration in standardized tests. Assessments meant to evaluate American students’ grasp of history instead measure students’ inability to retain a large volume of loosely connected (often obscure) details of the past.  The standards set by these tests can be unrealistically high. The history of history teaching is also characterized by the overarching mission of creating engaged citizens unified through a virtuous American identity. This identity is meant to uphold  unchanging national triumphs and accomplishments. The past is believed to be fact and final, with no need for reexamination and reinterpretation.

Equally important to the elements that have been at the center of historical teaching over the past century are those elements that have been absent from the process. The belief that history is unchanging has left little room for the incorporation of pushback against the established historical narrative. Students are not encouraged to ask critical questions of the information they are presented with. Also absent is the element of hands-on work: as Kyle Ward writes in History in the Making, “science courses…math, physical education, band, choir, and industrial arts all have the opportunity to…be active and create things, history on the other hand, tends to be viewed as being more stagnant (xix).” This approach to teaching history over the years has made it one of the only (if not the only) subjects that places creative aspects within the field far out of reach of the beginner. Finally, the element of viewing the past through the lens of multiple perspectives has been noticeably absent from the process of basic history education.

History has been taught this way for many years and, unfortunately, shows no sign of changing any time soon. I am sad to report that my recent experiences in elementary classrooms are in line with the less-than exemplary elements listed here. Too often, teachers feel obligated to overwhelm students with content in an attempt to achieve benchmark scores for standardized tests.

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