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Teaching Of

History has played a dominant role in the broader social studies curriculum in the United States and in other countries for at least the past 100 years. For example, in most school districts in the United States, state, national, or world history is taught in grades four through six, grade eight, and at several points in high school. In England, history forms the backbone of the social studies curriculum from primary through secondary schools. History is also a curriculum staple in continental European countries, among post-Soviet republics, in China, and in such places as post-apartheid South Africa.

History in the school curriculum has not been without a number of recurrent debates and controversies. Many of them stem from disputes over the goals and purposes school history should serve (e.g., political socialization and nationalist identity formation versus teaching historical habits of mind). Other issues arise in connection with questions about how, from the vastness of history itself, to define what constitutes historically significant events that should be taught. The proper role of integrating social science disciplines (e.g., geography, economics, political science) in the teaching of history is also a point of debate. Finally, various parties argue over maintaining a relative balance between transmitting historical knowledge derived from the work of historians and teaching students to learn to think and investigate the past the way historians do. Taking time to do both often creates time-use dilemmas within an already surfeited school curricula. Choosing between them repeatedly pits those who would use history for sociopolitical ends against those who see history's importance as a means of teaching critical reasoning and a fuller understanding of the past.

Political Socialization of Historical Thinking and Understanding

The interest in securing a firm place for history in the curriculum frequently stems from its sociopolitical uses. This is especially true in the teaching of national histories. As George Orwell reminded readers in his book, 1984, control of the present (and the future) depends in good measure on control over the past. In many countries, a principal goal of teaching the nation's history is deeply linked to socializing future citizens, as defined by whomever controls the sociopolitical agenda at the time, conservatives, liberals, revolutionaries, or others. Perhaps no other school subject serves this political socialization purpose more than the study of history.

As political parties change or revolutions occur, new regimes attempt to rewrite history in general, and school history in particular, in order to cast themselves and their new politics and policies in a favorable light. Those disempowered by political change often resist such efforts to recast the past. Various groups use history in an effort to shape (or reshape) the nationalist identities of youth around whatever the prevailing view privileged by those in power is at any given time. In post-Soviet eastern European countries, for example, a major educational agenda has been to rewrite history textbooks and reconfigure the history curriculum since 1990.

Prior to the mid-1970s, little systematic research had been done on how history was taught in schools and what students learned from studying it. Since then, there has been a surge of interest in studying school history teaching and its learning outcomes, particularly among researchers in England and in North America. As a result, a sizable body of scholarship has emerged. Much of it challenges the practice of using school history to advance sociopolitical ends. In general, the research indicates that the sociopolitical use of history in schools warps students' views of what history is as a discipline and a subject matter, tends to turn history into a lifeless parade of someone else's facts, and otherwise drives away students' motivation to learn the subject. History education researchers have attempted to divert the teaching of history away from an exercise in socializing students to particular partisan views; instead suggesting the aim of history as an investigation of the past and the social world.

If one of the principal goals for teaching history is to socialize grade-school students to accept certain views of a nation's accomplishments as defined by those in power, thus shaping their nationalist identities, teaching history should take on a transmission approach. In other words, it is likely that in history classrooms teachers would lecture or tell stories about the past via lessons drawn from textbooks sanctioned by those in political control. Research bears out this image. For much of the past century, the teaching of history in schools in many places around the world has been dominated by textbook recitations and teacher lectures or storytelling. This has been especially true in the United States.

There have been moments of change is these traditional practices such as during the "New Social Studies" movement in the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s. During this period, historians and social scientists constructed curriculum units that were designed to assist students in learning more about how historical knowledge was constructed in the discipline. Teachers were to guide students in the process of investigating the past via study of primary sources, much the way historians do. However, such efforts to promote pedagogical and curricular change in history typically have not had lasting effects in the United States, and the traditional lecture-textbook-recitation-recall approach has remained dominant.

In England, the Schools Council History project had more lasting results. Educational and instructional changes there during the 1970s and 1980s in some ways mirrored the efforts of historians working under the auspices of the New Social Studies in the United States. The goal was for teachers to learn to teach students the reasoning process of historical investigators. Not only were students to study important ideas in English history, but also to learn how to read primary sources, judge their status relative to other sources, draw inferences about the past from them, and construct historical accounts of their own making. Research on the results of approaching history that way were generally favorable, indicating that students typically progressed in their capacity to learn to think historically as modeled by experts in the discipline itself. Data also indicated that students developed deeper understandings of English history. The project largely succeeded in changing the way teachers taught history because teacher educators and teachers along with education researchers were all involved in changing pedagogical and curricular practices.

In 1988 the Thatcher government attempted to reverse this trend. Alarmed that children in British schools, in their view, were not receiving adequate instruction in the stories of British national and international successes, the education establishment mandated significant changes in the British national history curriculum. Those changes called for more emphasis on teaching stories drawn, for example, from the days of the British empire. Less stress was to be placed on teaching historical-reasoning processes. The changes brought on by the Schools Council project and by the work of teacher educators and researchers however, had been institutionalized in many places. Reverting back to teaching history in lecture-textbook-recitation fashion became difficult. Many of Great Britain's history programs in schools therefore remain among the few in which history is taught more as a way of learning to think historically (as a way of knowing) than as a socialization exercise in memorization and recall of a nation's grand accomplishments and celebrations.

This debate continues. Cognitive scientists interested in history education and researchers in general who study how history is taught and to what result stress the importance of teaching history more closely aligned with the way in which history operates as a distinctive discipline. Researchers such as Peter Lee and Rosalyn Ashby point to gains in students' capacity to learn important thinking processes and habits of mind as they learn to understand the past more deeply. Those who are more interested in the power of using history to forge particular nationalist identities among youth remain skeptical of teaching history as an exercise in educating thinking processes and critical habits of mind. Generally, they prefer an approach that favors transmission of favored views of the past via lectures and textbook recitations, and a focus on stories that celebrate chosen accomplishments and historical successes.

Historical Significance

The debates about the purposes, goals, and uses of school history are exacerbated by the problem of choosing what constitutes historically significant events worth teaching. The very breadth and vastness of the past from which school history lessons must be chosen coupled with the finiteness of the school day and the press for curricular room by other subjects makes this issue difficult. It would be convenient if those who devise the history curriculum in the schools could turn to the discipline and to historians for help in addressing which events and historical actors of significance to choose. The debate within the discipline over what constitutes historical significance is perhaps even more intense than in school history. This has been especially true since about 1970 and advent of postmodernism with its deep skepticism about the veracity of Western knowledge-production projects rooted in the scientific method. The issue of historical significance has been further exacerbated by the multiculturalization of many Western societies, rendering questions about "whose" history to teach as important as "which" history.

The problem of defining historical significance leaves history teachers, curriculum designers, educational policymakers, and politicians without much firm ground upon which to anchor their decisions about which or whose history to teach. The inability to resolve this issue, however, gives history education researchers some support in their efforts to press the importance of teaching history primarily as an exercise in habits of mind.

Time in the Curriculum

Teaching history as both knowledge about a nation's history and its place in world history, and as an approach to learning a way of reasoning about the past requires more time than doing one or the other. Debates between advocates for the importance of subjects other than history can have the effect of reducing the time teaching history might otherwise have in the overall school curriculum. To the extent that politicians exercise greater control of textbooks and history curriculum and assessment approaches (e.g., in states, provinces, or countries where a centralized curriculum dominates), teaching history is often pressed into the service of socialization. History taught as historical reasoning and understanding tends to languish in the context of overabundant time pressures.


In some countries, educational policymakers and curriculum developers see the teaching of history as an opportunity to integrate the social science disciplines into history syllabi. Issues arise over the right mix and relationships of such disciplines as geography and political science to the teaching of history. Some express concern that such interdisciplinary approaches effectively water down the actual teaching of history, reduce its value for students, and contribute to confusion about how to conduct appropriate assessments of student learning. Others argue that history already draws from the social science disciplines; therefore, calling attention to its interdisciplinarity makes good sense, opening up learning opportunities for students. Much like the controversies over historical significance, this issue of interdisciplinarity has not been resolved. The time factor also plays a role in this debate.


The aforementioned issues and debates also intersect with questions about how to properly assess what students learn from being taught history. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, many Western countries moved closer to centralizing assessment practices in many school subjects including history. What consequences these tests hold vary from county to country. In the Unites States, a national test of history learning (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which also tests other subject learning as well) was developed in the 1980s. It tests students' capacity to both recall elements of American history as well as construct short answer responses to written prompts. As of 2001 this test was voluntary and was considered to hold low stakes for participants. However, the U.S. Congress is engaged in a debate to make the NAEP a required national test, thus making it a high-stakes test with sanctions and resource allocations related to outcomes.

Between the late 1980s and 2001 the history portion of the NAEP was given three times. During the administrations of George Bush and Bill Clinton, the data suggested that students in grades four, eight, and twelve recalled low to moderate levels of historical knowledge about the United States. Some critics, such as Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn Jr., argued that this level of recall meant that students effectively knew very little about their country and thus required even heavier doses of American history to overcome the deficits in their knowledge. Based on the growing number of in-depth studies of teaching and learning history, educational researchers such as Linda Levstik countered with the claim that more history, particularly if taught as lecture and textbook recitation, would do little to solve the problem. Reminiscent of the debates described above, the U.S. researchers called for immersing students in a pattern of historical study characterized by investigating history using strategic knowledge borrowed from expertise displayed by historians as a means of developing more powerful substantive understandings about the American past.

This debate over the most productive pedagogical approach to teaching history (e.g., more drill in the substantive knowledge of history versus instruction into and exercise of historical thinking practices to foster deeper knowledge about history) continues largely unabated.


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