A Most Pressing Challenge: Preparing Teachers of World History

Robert Bain and Lauren McArthur Harris, October 2009

Editor’s Note: The editorial board of Perspectives on History decided that the arguments advanced by the authors of the following essay were important enough to warrant a thorough and comprehensive debate of the various issues involved in a forum. The board commissioned, therefore, three more articles (by Sharon Cohen, Peter N. Stearns, and Barbara Tischler) to critique the essay by Bain and Harris and discuss the questions posed by them, and in the process, present their own views on the proper preparation of teachers of world history. We invite readers also to offer their own comments in the form of letters to the editor.

Preparing skilled and knowledgeable world history teachers has become history’s most pressing educational challenge. Though typically unacknowledged by the public, politicians, or the profession, the problems involved in filling our classrooms with well-prepared teachers of world history is analogous, if not equivalent, to the challenges of filling classrooms with qualified math and science teachers. This essay briefly explores why this is so pressing a need, and how we might begin to meet the challenge.

World History Education: Supply and Demand Issues

There is a supply and demand problem regarding world history teachers. World history is the fastest-growing subject in the social studies if not in the entire school curriculum, and its growth over the past 20 years has been remarkable. Over three-quarters of all high school students earned world history credits in 2005 as the subject has more than doubled in popularity since 1982.1 All state standards include world history in some form and about 60 percent of the states require it for graduation. The College Board first offered the Advanced Placement (AP) World History exam in 2001 and has seen a steady increase in students every year. The over 124,000 test-takers in 2008 made world history the seventh most popular AP test.2 Additionally, the federal government is considering adding world history to its National Assessment for Educational Progress exams. In short, a consensus has formed about the value of world history in the education of American students. State legislatures, local school districts, parents, and students have made it almost co-equal to U.S. history in popularity. World history’s champions must be pleased with this growth.

However, the supply of teachers has not kept pace with demand. Few teachers have had any formal world historical training—a perilous situation caused by out-of-field teaching3 and thin certification requirements.4 Professional development opportunities are sparse. College-level world history has lagged behind the precollegiate growth, and there are comparatively few world history resources for teachers or teacher educators. Unfortunately, there are no national programs—like those we have for American history—to raise teachers’ knowledge of world history.5

Thus, the absence of well-prepared world history teachers undermines the increasing presence of world history in the schools. However, simply increasing the number of world history teachers may not meet the “coherence” problem facing both teachers and students of world history.

The Coherence Problem in World History

World history is perhaps the most difficult course for history teachers to organize, plan, and then teach. Of course, developing coherent history courses at any scale, whether regional, national, or local, is a challenge. However, our research with teachers and in classrooms has led us to think that the problems are more acute in world history. Why?

First, there is great variation in the ways states, standards, textbooks, and teachers present world history. The main approaches to the subject vary greatly in regard to periodization schemes, significance, units of analysis, and the temporal-spatial scales used to frame the history of the world.6 Thus, although world history as such is ubiquitous in the school curriculum, its nature and content differs greatly from state to state, school to school, and textbook to textbook.

Not surprisingly, teachers’ ideas of the content to be included in world history courses also vary. Most try to fit more “stuff” into a world history course than they do for courses with a national or regional scope. Our research suggests that teachers of world history often lack proper criteria for determining what, from among all that “stuff,” they should include. For example, we often begin professional development workshops by asking world history teachers to create a five-minute history of the United States, Europe, and then the world. The teachers typically get right to work on U.S. history, creating a story of development involving familiar events such as European settlement and colonization, the war for independence, the Civil War, the world wars, civil rights, and more recent events. Likewise, they craft a familiar and clear story of Europe rising from river valleys through classical civilizations, through the Middle Ages and on to today. Most history teachers seem to have useful “big pictures” of the history of the United States and of the West, and they use these pictures to narrate change over time and locate details within a larger frame.

However, such is not the case when teachers turn to offer a history of the world. They struggle over where to begin the story, what to include, how to incorporate the stories of different regions, what constitutes the major turning points, and typically confess a lack of knowledge for certain eras or regions of the world. The result? Compared to what they created in U.S. or western history, their history of the world is in pieces.

Now, this is not a cry for creating a grand narrative in world history, but rather a reminder of the instructional importance of having a “big picture” to help situate all the details that so define history at any level. If teachers cannot make the necessary temporal and spatial connections, it is difficult to imagine that they will be able to help their students make these links.

In a recent study of 10 world history teachers (veteran as well as prospective), Harris found discernable differences in how the teachers built meaningful connections between world historical events for themselves and for their students.7 She asked teachers to develop connections and interrelationships between a seemingly random stack of historical events and concepts—such as the Atlantic Slave Trade, Bantu Migrations, the Renaissance, and the Cold War. The teachers created concept maps—on note cards—by drawing connections between events and categories to group events, and they “talked-aloud” about their decisions. Teachers first sorted the cards to capture their own understanding and then thought about how they might structure these for students.

The differences were stark. Some developed multiple connections, showing a fluid and rich understanding of the events, whereas others simply placed them in chronological order or according to “themes,” such as economics. Variation among participants was not necessarily related to number of years teaching world history or to courses taken as one might have expected. Instead it appeared that participation in a curriculum and professional development program—such as the AP program—specifically focused on teaching and learning world history on a global scale may have better prepared these experienced world history teachers to create coherent organizational schemes both for themselves and for instructional purposes. Those without this experience may have approached the task from within a more familiar nation-state or civilization frame, thus facing challenges in organizing events spanning large amounts of time and space. Harris found that teachers were better equipped to make connections across historical events if they had both knowledge of the events and an understanding of how to make crosscultural or causal connections over hundreds or even thousands of years. Certainly historical content knowledge mattered in this task, but it alone was not sufficient to create meaning across diverse events.

Meeting the Challenges

So what does this mean for historians and those charged with preparing teachers to teach history? At the outset we must recognize the critical need to prepare the next generation of teachers, and work both to increase and improve our efforts in world history teacher education.

Can we expect Congress to take up this challenge just as it did through the Teaching American History (TAH) grant program? The motivation for the TAH program, according to its chief officer, Alex Stein, was to “to reverse [three] limitations in history education”: (1) the weak position of history in elementary and secondary history curriculums; (2) the lack of content knowledge and poor content preparation among too many history teachers; and (3) poor student performance on history assessments. To reverse these deficits, Stein asserted, the TAH grant program offered a “bold new idea” by delivering “history content . . . directly to United States history teachers through ongoing partnerships with providers of history expertise.”8

We think that world history teachers also need such “bold new ideas.” One immediate way to draw attention to the problem and to begin to meet the challenges would be for Congress to expand the TAH program to include world history—turning it into the Teaching American and/or World History grant program.

However, it is dangerous to depend upon or wait for Congress to pass legislation to improve history education, while ignoring the opportunities that historians, history teachers, and their professional associations currently have to shape and define history education policy. What, then, might history departments and history educators do now to meet the challenges of world history education?

For one thing, teachers need more course work in world history. We join with others in the profession who urge teachers of secondary history to have majored in history, but wonder if we should further insist that at least half of the course work includes world history. Or at the very least, require the equivalent of AP world history knowledge for all teachers of K–12 history.

However, course work is just a proxy for what teachers need to know. Our research indicates that the quantity of knowledge in world history—while necessary—does not seem to be sufficient. Indeed, many teachers with whom we work know details about the events of world history, but are not able to fit the pieces together or make them cohere around intellectual problems or big questions to drive inquiry. Too often, world history is, in the minds of teachers and students, a fragmented study of civilizations and nation-states, with little attention to interconnections except for an occasional comparison to emphasize political and cultural differences.

Second, teacher preparation programs, both for prospective and practicing teachers, must help world history teachers understand challenges students face when learning history across such temporal and spatial scales while also helping teachers develop meaningful links between global history and stories occurring on more familiar historical scales. In short, teacher education in world history should focus on helping teachers understand the relationships between macro- and micro-explanations of historical change, make formal comparisons, consider relationships between structure and culture, and understand what it takes to pursue historical questions at different temporal-spatial scales.

Thus, world history teachers need to consider different temporal-spatial “containers” or lenses they would use to help their students to view history at different scales. For example, in a recent study we conducted of the effect on teachers’ use of a global history curriculum, we found that developing a conceptual frame large enough for other stories to come into focus was a critical step in designing coherent instruction.9

Ironically, TAH as currently structured offers a wonderful vehicle to situate American history within different temporal-spatial containers and look at it with lenses of varying focal length. “Globalizing” familiar stories in American history makes sense and fits with current trends in the profession as typified by the La Pietra report, in work by Tom Bender and Carl Guarneri, and the 2009 AHA annual meeting theme “globalizing historiography.”10 In keeping with the spirit and letter of TAH legislation, globalizing U.S. history would expand teachers’ knowledge of U.S. history by helping them to locate the distinctive and the common, while having an added benefit of expanding teachers’ knowledge of the world outside the United States. Even a quick read of Bender or Guarneri’s work reveals such dual value. Of course, such an effort would require an increased collaboration of world historians with U.S. and other regional/national historians to exchange historical expertise.

But we also need to keep in mind that knowledge of world history—even coherent knowledge—is not enough to improve the quality of teaching. Beyond setting the national story in global context, we need to help teachers set history within the instructional context—that means in real classrooms, with real students, using real materials, standards, texts, curriculum and assessments, and paying attention to real time demands. Teacher education for world history must help teachers place things not only in global time and space, but also in instructional time and space.

However, a crucial question remains: What knowledge of world history is most valuable for teachers of world history? To answer, we need more research and collaboration between world historians and scholars of teaching and learning.

Conclusion

In 2004, Senator Robert Byrd explained to readers of Perspectives his abiding interest in history and why he has been arguably history education’s strongest political advocate:

Chesterton put it far more eloquently and succinctly than I when he wrote: The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present. History is a hill or high point of vantage, from which alone men see the town in which they live or the age in which they are living.11

If, however, the historical hill is not sufficiently high enough to allow us to see beyond our nation’s borders, then it fails to meet the Chesterton criterion. Consequently our citizens are denied the chance to properly see the nation in which they live or the age in which they are living. Coherent and comprehensive world history teacher preparation is a critical feature in extending our horizons of vision beyond the nation’s borders. It is the history profession’s most pressing educational need.

—Robert Bain is associate professor of history and social science education,
— Lauren McArthur Harris is a postdoctoral fellow in teacher education in the
School of Education at the University of Michigan.

Notes

1. Sean Cavanagh, “World History and Geography Gain Traction in Class: Seeds of Internationally Themed Lessons Were Planted in the 1980s,” Education Week (March 21, 2007), 10.

2. College Board, “AP Exam Grades,” Summary Reports: 2008, online at www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/ap/exgrd_sum/2008.html.

3. Out-of-field teaching occurs when teachers teach without either a major or minor in the content they teach. While this affects all subject areas, history and the social studies are impacted more than other content areas. About 60 percent of students in history courses have teachers who have not majored or minored in history—any history, let alone world history. See Richard Ingersoll, “The Problem of Under-qualified Teachers in American Secondary Schools,” Educational Researcher 28:2 (1999), 26–37.

4. Diane Ravitch, “Educational Backgrounds of History Teachers,” in Peter Stearns, Peter Seixas and Samuel S. Wineburg (eds.), Knowing, Teaching & Learning History: National and International Perspectives. (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 143–55; Peter N. Stearns, “World History: Curriculum and Controversy,” World History Connected 3:3 (2006),www.historycooperative.org/journals/whc/3.3/stearns.html.

5. The Teaching American History Grant Program provides professional development for teachers of U.S. history. To date, the U.S. Congress has made almost $1 billion available to deepen teachers’ content knowledge of U.S. history. There is nothing like this in world history.

6. For example, Bain and Shreiner’s review of state standards revealed four distinct patterns for what states term world history: what they called Western Civilization Plus, Social Studies World History, Regional History, and Global World History. They argue that a Western Civilization Plus pattern follows the story of Western Civilization at times adding regions beyond Europe without dramatically changing key events or the underlying narrative. The Social Studies pattern aligns with the National Council for the Social Studies’ curriculum standards by including world history as one strand among many in a curriculum. Thus, in the Social Studies pattern world history content is often lost at the expense of broader interdisciplinary themes. In the regional pattern, standards treat one or more region of the world separately without necessarily making connections between them—for example courses or units on Africa, Western Civilization, or Asia. The Global World History pattern most reflects the scholarly field of world history by focusing on large interregional and global patterns across time and space. The AP world history course is the best example of this approach to secondary world history. See Robert B. Bain and Tamara L. Shreiner, “Issues and Options in Creating a National Assessment in World History,” The History Teacher 38:2 (2005).

7. Lauren McArthur Harris, “Building Coherence in World History: A Study of Instructional Tools and Teachers’ Pedagogical Content Knowledge” (PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 2008).

8. Alex Stein, “The Teaching American History Program: An Introduction and Overview,” History Teacher 36:2 (2003), 179.

9. See the World History for Us All web site at http://worldhistoryforusall.sdsu.edu for a good, developing model of a global history program.

10. Thomas Bender, ed., La Pietra Report, online at www.oah.org/activities/lapietra/index.html; Thomas Bender ed., Rethinking American History in a Global Age (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2002); Thomas Bender, A Nation Among Nations (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006); Carl Guarneri, America in the World: United States History in Global Context (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2007). See also Peter Stearns and Noralee Frankel eds., Globalizing American History: The AHA Guide to Re-Imagining the U.S. Survey (Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 2008).

11. Raymond W. Smock, “In Conversation with Senator Robert C. Byrd,” Perspectives (January, 2004), www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2004/0401/0401con1.cfm.