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From the Viewpoints column of the May 2003 Perspectives

Building Bridges between Historians and Educators

Peter Stearns, May 2003

The growing number of collaborative projects for strengthening teacher training programs has made it necessary to examine the criteria for such collaborations—especially those between historians and nonhistorian members of education programs who, often as social studies experts, help train history teachers. The criteria that I discuss below emerge in part from my own periodic interactions in this field. I've often worked with K–12 history teachers in workshops, particularly on Advanced Placement programs, where I've learned a great deal—though admittedly in frameworks that are often skewed to college-level curricula. I also spent quite some time in a more difficult negotiation with social studies educators in devising a history–social studies component for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, where the fact that we ultimately had to forge a compromise was in itself instructive. And more recently I've worked on a benchmarks project for the training of history teachers, again with a collaborative component.

The first thing to recognize is that historians, over a considerable period of time, downplayed formal attention to teachers and their training, thus leaving the door open to other professionals to an extent unusual in American education. Even today, amid much greater recognition of the teaching function, some characteristic gaps can still be noticed in historians' approaches to training issues. But the hesitations about history among many social studies professionals also compound the problem—which is why collaboration must be discussed as a project with possibilities but also several challenges. Historians have much less structural connection to teacher training than do members of math or English departments, in a pattern both anomalous and undesirable. The proper but usually arms-length relationship between the American Historical Association and the National Council for Social Studies is both symptom and cause of an imperfect linkage.

But, if I look at some promising trends in light of my own experience, I can discern some potential intersections (among history teachers at all levels) in teacher training that provide the basis for further progress, both initial training and in professional development of existing teachers. It seems to me that the key components for building better bridges between historians and educators are fivefold: (1) a shared interest in intelligent assessment; (2) participation in developing active connections between social science disciplines and history; (3) teaching and its scholarship; (4) new understandings of learning; and (5) a commitment to inculcating relevant habits of mind.

Assessment Methods

One of the most interesting recent developments involves the dismay shared by social studies educators, practicing teachers, and most interested historians over purely fact-based and memorization-testing "standards of learning" as assessment devices to check what students know about history and how well teachers have performed. All major parties concur that purely multiple-choice assessments not only fail to capture the range of historical thinking of which students should be capable, but also, as a result, stifle creativity in teaching. Admittedly, these critical reactions have not yet reversed the assessment trend, or stopped the periodic warnings of dire deficiencies of factual knowledge in students. But they do provide welcome indication of the growing recognition that history training need not and should not be based simply on factual coverage alone. The next step is to articulate more clearly and effectively what the alternatives are, and here the two professional groups can cooperate.

Facilitating a more constructive collaboration between historians and educators in teacher training does involve striking a better balance in demands for factual coverage. The National Standards documents, another result of historian-teacher collaboration, but on terms dominated by the historians, clearly suggest—in their bulk and detail—the tendency to overdo in terms of what teachers are expected to know and transmit to students in the factual domain. Of course, it is legitimate to urge that history teachers should have taken a variety of serious history courses in college, and that they should have adequate grasp of key data plus a knowledge of where to get additional factual information. But insisting on specialist-level knowledge, sometimes combined with a capacity to identify historiographical issues in terms of the names of historians involved, risks pressing too far. Indeed this kind of insistence implies that college specialists know more about their subject field than high school teachers (or their educators) do, and emphasizing such a pecking order will not necessarily advance good teacher training. What we need is a balance between the expectations and the reality of what is possible, without entirely giving up all claims to the necessity of expanded empirical knowledge.

Interdisciplinary Links

Another way historians can facilitate more realistic and effective teacher training is by becoming more active in pointing out, establishing, and developing interdisciplinary linkages. Too often, high school teachers are left to find their own ways to discover relationships—or worse still, not to find any relationships at all—between teaching tasks that may range from economics to sociology, with history in between. Even teachers of social studies, though eager to integrate the various social science disciplines, too often treat them one by one, failing to provide vivid examples of their interaction. There's no reason why history courses and their preparation cannot be used as opportunities to show how social science approaches can combine to elucidate historical developments. After all, the best historical research in recent decades has used sociology, anthropology, and at least some geography, psychology, and economics, and there's every reason to press such a multidisciplinary approach even further in teacher preparation, incorporating, but improving upon, social studies training in the process.

Scholarship of Teaching

One of the really encouraging, if still tentative, developments at the college level in recent years can also facilitate new collaboration in teacher training. Some academics are increasingly waking up to the fact that good teachers can to some extent be made, and not simply born, and that there is more to teaching than simply walking into a classroom. Movements such as Preparing Future Faculty, in which graduate students are given real exposure to issues in teaching and academic governance, along with research, have produced historians (and members of other disciplines) eager to place teaching—and teacher training—at the forefront. Some of these people operate in history departments, others in education units; in either location, they have unusually great opportunities to serve as bridges between historians and teacher training, hopefully with the potential to modify business as usual in both camps. The larger movement toward the scholarship of teaching holds similar promise. As historians are encouraged to write or participate in conferences about teaching, their findings will surely spill over into teacher training, and their own willingness to collaborate in teacher training will expand. The recent improvement of journals in the history teaching field, and the addition of new ones—in world history teaching, for example—point in similar directions. These developments will not, in themselves, demolish the older barriers—of research historians who pay little attention to teaching needs or teacher-trainers whose vision of training is banal and discipline-free. But they offer possibilities of change and new potential.

Learning about Cognitive Capacities

This potential will be further enhanced if historians interested in teaching acquire greater interest in and exposure to what some had called the "cognitive revolution" in education. Even good history teachers can learn new things about how students learn. Certainly, we need to recognize, in talking about training teachers dealing with K–8, or even K–12, that knowledge about cognitive capacities of students and the sequential acquisition of relevant skills is absolutely vital, not instead of, but alongside, a suitable command of disciplinary knowledge. This conjuncture will be enhanced as the need for learning about learning capacities is perceived as applicable to college teaching situations as well. Again, we're not talking about unidirectional concessions. Historians need to grant a role for new learning, but social studies educators also have to demonstrate that their training focuses heavily on these components, and are not trapped by older taxonomy models or vague formulas of social studies contributing to the development of citizenship. The whole idea of "sequencing" needs more discussion, in teacher training and the relationship between K–12 and college teaching alike, so we can establish some clearer building blocks that students can carry to their next stage of history learning.

Historical Thinking

It is crucial for historians and educators to come together to emphasize historical thinking or habits of mind as the learning outcomes we most wish students to carry with them after an exposure to history. Here is a real opportunity for a coordinated focus: historians combining the emphasis on historical thinking with appropriate but not overwhelming levels of factual knowledge, and educators bringing appropriate and focused levels of concern about cognitive development and development of citizenship. The components for such coordinated collaboration are already available. Most of the recent formulations of history goals, whether National Standards or Advanced Placement requirements, have roughly comparable lists of skills, aimed at interpretive abilities, formation of argument, and understanding of processes of change. The issue, therefore, is balance—making sure that these goals can be achieved, again in appropriate linkage with other goals. Exploring the "cognitive revolution" can play a vital part here, in helping history teachers at all levels learn more about how to promote wider and faster acquisition of habits of mind, based on classroom experiments that are, in turn, disseminated through the scholarship of teaching. And, of course, we historians and educators must join forces also in working to make habits of mind a fundamental part of assessments of history learning outcomes, rather than an afterthought amid an avalanche of memorization tests.

My own experience, and that of several colleagues, suggests that when historians can cut back their fact lists, and social studies educators can limit (without entirely jettisoning) interests in general citizenship exercises, both groups can find real and valuable common ground in this area of historical abilities. Historians can benefit from knowing about the linkage, for example, between student capacity to identify bias or point of view in a document and larger goals of historical understanding; similarly, their social studies counterparts can gain from seeing a relationship between this kind of student learning and the fostering of responsible citizenship. The same common interest applies also to improvements in identifying the magnitude and causes of change, the balance between change and continuity, and, of course, to gaining experience in dealing with conflicts of interpretation.

It's idle to pretend that utopia is around the corner. Despite many exercises in collaboration, the groups involved have different professional interests and frames of reference. But some commitment to compromise, a willingness to pare down the sheer scale of some of the most discordant elements, and an attempt to emphasize increasing commonalities will yield useful results. It is possible, without being naïve, to emphasize the positive in an arena vital for the development of historical perspective and historical thinking among students.

—Peter Stearns is provost of George Mason University. He was vice president (1995–97) of the AHA's Teaching Division, and is the author of many books, of which the most recent is Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America (New York: NYU Press, 2003).