National History Center

Conference on History Education: A Report

Andrew Britt, September 2007

A day-long conference was held on June 12, 2007, by the National History Center in collaboration with the American Historical Association, the National Council for the Social Studies, the Newberry Library, and the Organization of American Historians to explore different dimensions of history education and discuss current research on teaching and learning and its impact on policy (details about the conference, text of the briefing papers, and video of some presentations are available online at www.nationalhistorycenter.org/conferences.html).

Entitled "Reforming History Education: New Research on Teaching and Learning," the conference, held in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., grew out of an earlier meeting at the Newberry Library in 2005. At this meeting a working group was created to explore the historical context of developments in teaching and learning history, including such aspects as assessment and the role of history. The June 2007 conference was the venue for the presentation, in summary form, of the results of the research conducted by the working group, and brought together historians, educators, and others working to shape public policy on history education.

In his opening remarks at the conference, Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein spoke about the necessity of effective historical education, proposing it as a means for "coherent citizenship." Weinstein emphasized the link between history education and the vitality of society—a link that experts echoed throughout the day as they discussed the challenges involved in shaping history education policy.

James Grossman, vice president for research at the Newberry Library, and a member of the National History Center's board of trustees, described the aims of the conference and explained that among the issues that the working group tackled are the relationship between research, policy, and practice; the question whether history education is likely to benefit from assessments such as those in the No Child Left behind programs; and the distinctions between (and the ramifications thereof) teaching and learning. He indicated that the National History Center hoped to continue conversations on these matters in state capitals where many of the crucial educational policy decisions—especially in terms of assessments, curricula, and standards—are made.

The first discussion panel, chaired by Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University (and member of the National History Center's board of trustees), was devoted to exploring "The Problem with History Education Policy."

Speaking on the topic, "Historians, Reformers, and the Science of Learning," Robert Orrill, executive director of the National Council on Education and the Disciplines (and whose article—coauthored with Linn Shapiro—on history education in the June 2005 American Historical Review in some ways inspired the conference), declared that a "richer conversation" needed to be developed among those seeking to reform education, scholars researching learning processes, and discipline-based faculty, to address the question of improving student learning. One way, of doing this, Orrill suggested, was to radically reorganize traditional collegiate education to base it on how students learn rather than on how faculty want to teach. Learning researchers emphasize that effective learning occurs within disciplinary environments where students develop deeper subject knowledge and higher thinking skills and that learning is an interaction of learner and expert.

Orrill went on to say that a focus for history should be on rethinking the introductory survey and articulating the historical habits of mind. "Historians' sense of what constitutes ‘historical mindedness' and why it matters can add an important dimension to the debate over student learning," he said, and urged experimentation even in introductory courses as well as secondary school advanced placement courses to avoid relying on teaching methods that are "at odds with the goal of historical thinking.

In her presentation entitled "How Can Historians Contribute to the Certification and Accreditation of History Teachers?" Suzanne M. Wilson, chair and professor in the department of teacher education and director of the Center for the Scholarship of Teaching at Michigan State University, pointed out that because the training of teachers was shaped by a combination of state certification policies, accreditation standards, and university teacher training programs, historians have many opportunities to influence the policies and practices at the many stages. They can:

Shape teacher training at their own institutions by creating meaningful and attractive majors and minors, collaborating on programs for elementary school teachers, building bridges between history and the education programs, and being informed about how their teacher training program responds to state requirements;

Participate in program accreditation and inform themselves of how accreditation standards shape teacher preparation at their universities;

Lobby for needed changes in state requirements for certification in order to eliminate bloated requirements and ensure high quality content preparation;

Participate in the review and revision of history content exams for teachers;

Participate in preparing teachers through alternative routes which are rapidly growing in number and importance; and

Collaborate on research that investigates the effects of various teacher preparation and certification regimes.

The education of history teachers was the focus of the luncheon talk by Robert B. Bain, associate professor of history and social science education at the University of Michigan. He said that the assumption that simply increasing teachers' content knowledge would improve student achievement—as the Teaching American History grants program appears to assume—was questionable. "To improve history teaching, we must not only improve teachers' content knowledge but also help teachers learn to use this historical knowledge in classrooms to increase students' understanding," he said, urging that it was necessary to link content, pedagogy, and practice. Toward this end, Bain suggested:

Making history teacher education a coherent university wide task and break down some of the institutional compartmentalization;

Building spaces that connect content, pedagogy, and practice;

Using research and theory on teaching and learning to inform policy;

Contributing to research and theory on history teachers' learning and history students' learning.

The first session after lunch was a panel entitled "Toward a New Future for History Education," which was chaired by Robert L. Harris Jr., vice provost for diversity and faculty development at Cornell University, and a member of the advisory board of the Society for History Education and of the board of trustees of the National History Center.

In his presentation entitled "The Impacts of History Learning Research: Achievements, Gaps, and Implications," Peter Stearns, provost of George Mason University, and a former vice president of the Teaching Division of the AHA stated that new research on student learning in history offered exciting potential to generate more effective teaching strategies and to improve student learning. But, he cautioned, it was necessary to acknowledge current limitations in the research and in its actual implementation. Sketching out the policy implications of research on learning, Stearns argued that:
We need to extend the research to explore the broader habits of mind to be cultivated;

This research should pay more attention to recommending teaching strategies;

Innovative teaching approaches should be encouraged and rewarded through changes in textbook standards, certification requirements, and evaluation of teachers;

We need to develop new methods of assessment that evaluate these new goals instead of continuing to measure only the memorization of facts;

Teachers and historians can make important contributions by embracing this learning research and experimenting with new methods and practices in the classroom.

In his presentation entitled "History Assessments and Elementary and Secondary Educations," Maris A. Vinovskis, Bentley Professor of History and professor of public policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, declared that history was in danger of being left behind in national efforts to reform education and that it was necessary to conduct serious research into history teaching, standards, and evaluation if history education was to be improved. What is needed, according to Vinovskis, was:

More research about what history tests actually measure and whether a causal relationship connects test scores and good citizenship.

Investigations of history standards, courses, and assessments including the NAEP standards and AP tests to determine whether they are well crafted and reliable indictors of students' knowledge.

Examination of the impact of No Child Left Behind program on elementary history training and rethink its goals and rationales in light of cognitive development research.

Studies of the effect of rigorous academic standards for teachers and explorations of the different ways in which teacher training, recruitment, and academic standards can contribute to better teaching in the classroom.

More careful research that scientifically demonstrates the value of history to fostering goals of good citizenship, patriotism, and academic skills and guides curriculum construction.

In the final session of the day, the panelists were Larry Cuban, professor of education at Stanford University, and Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education and history at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University.

Speaking on the theme, "Across the Great Divide: American Historians and Their Publics," Jonathan Zimmerman pointed to what he called the growing divide since World War II between professional historians and the lay public, and suggested that historians can reconnect to the public through their classrooms. Other ways in which professional historians can bridge the divide were, according to Zimmerman:

Engaging the public in other ways outside the classroom.

Recognizing the differences in how academic historians and the lay public approach and understand history.

Aiming to infuse popular forms with intellectual heft, to reconnect with earlier professional pioneers who sought to both edify and entertain.

Creation by universities and colleges of coherent intellectual standards for evaluating and rewarding historians' teaching and public-service activities (so that working to bridge the divide is also recognized)

In his presentation entitled "What History Should Be Taught and How Is History Taught?: Persistent Disconnects between Policymakers, Historians, and Teachers," Cuban spoke about a different divide —the disconnect between actual classroom practice, policy debates, and academic historians' assessments about content taught in school classrooms and how it is taught—one that explains why historians and policy elites failed to significantly alter how history teachers teach. Cuban suggested the following steps for the future:

Policy-minded historians need to examine the "ecology" of teaching history for overt and covert influences on teaching, including federal and state testing policies, the textbook industry, and commonplace structures of daily schooling.

Historians need to analyze more carefully the connections between policy talk, action, and implementation, and should involve teachers in decisions about implementation.

Historians should look more carefully at their own undergraduate survey courses. These survey courses also tend to rely on "traditional" teaching despite the fact that professors have significantly lighter teaching loads and are trained with the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that should enable them to offer "good teaching."

The minority of teachers who vary from "traditional" history teaching by incorporating innovative practices (an estimated 10–15 percent) should participate in initiatives that use their expertise to help other teachers.

Concluding remarks by James Grossman brought the conference to a close. The essays on which the presentations were based will be collected into an anthology to be edited by Robert Bain and Robert Orrill.

This article is based on an a report written by Andrew Britt for the AHA blog, AHA Today, and on the conference briefs prepared by Tracy Steffes (Brown Univ.) from the draft essays written for the anthology in preparation.