Noteworthy

Notes from the Field: Starting a Conversation between Historians and Educators

Nikki Mandell, September 2007

It began as an airport conversation. Steve Kercher (Univ. of Wisconsin-Oshkosh) and I had booked the same flight from the Teaching American History (TAH) Project Directors' meeting in Cleveland last October. As we waited to board the plane our conversation turned to the lack of conversation between historians and faculty in schools of education. Both groups are engaged in training history teachers. Yet, too often, neither group knows what the other does. Too rarely do we incorporate or ask our students to incorporate what they are learning in their pedagogy classes with what they are learning in their history classes, or vice versa. Our students, future history and social studies teachers, are expected to put the historical and pedagogical pieces together on their own as they manage classrooms of energetic children, a list of mandated standards, and a test regimen that combines expectations of high scores with less time for history. Wouldn't it make more sense, not to mention produce better history teaching, if historians and educators worked collaboratively to train the next generation of history teachers? What was needed, we both agreed, was to get that conversation started.

This is the point at which we began imagining a "pie-in-the-sky" conference. What if someone organized a statewide conference for this purpose?—a conference for historians and educators?—a conference designed expressly for the purpose of discussing history education and teacher training in history education? As far as we knew this had never been done in Wisconsin. We knew that historians involved in the TAH programs around the state were at least interested in this issue, but would they make the time in their busy schedules to attend this kind of conference? More importantly, would others? Will historians and educators who have not actively participated in TAH workshops and institutes be sufficiently interested or concerned to participate in this conversation?
Fast forward five months.

On March 9, 2007, 45 historians and educators gathered in Madison, Wisconsin, for a one-day conference on "New Directions in History Teaching." These teachers and scholars represented nine University of Wisconsin campuses, one private college and one technical college, two public museums, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. University and college faculty were about evenly divided between history and education faculty. The purpose of the conference was to foster a conversation among historians and educators about teaching history. More specifically, we wanted to

  • promote discussion about how the disciplinary and pedagogical sides of our teacher training programs fit together (or don't fit together)
  • provide an opportunity for both historians and educators to become more familiar with the emerging research on historical thinking and history teaching—and to consider the implications of this research
  • share scholarly and professional interests in history and teaching

The conference began with a free-flowing discussion about contacts and collaborations between history and education departments. Faculty shared specific initiatives, questions, and concerns. We learned of a program at one campus, housed in the school of education, in which the required class in social studies methods is team-taught by a triad consisting of one educator, one historian, and one classroom teacher. We learned of a program at another campus in which the required class in social studies methods meets at a local high school, ensuring that both education faculty and their students are attuned to classroom realities of the 21st century. We learned that some history and education faculty collaborate on student advising, but little else. We heard from history and education faculty who do not have any dialogue with their counterparts in the "other" department. Table conversations during the opening session took this discussion in a variety of directions, ranging from the different meaning of "artifact" as used by historians, educators, and museum curators to the intricacies of the state's licensure and professional development requirements.

This opening session was followed by concurrent breakout sessions. Conference organizers drew on the TAH experience to build panels that represented a diversity of voices, experience, and expertise. In addition to university faculty from history and education departments, panelists included a high school teacher, the state archivist, the social studies specialist with the state department of public instruction and museum curators. We selected panel topics with the interests of both historians and educators in mind. Conference participants had the opportunity to attend two panels of their choice. The options included: "The Teaching Experience, K–12: What Should We Be Preparing Future Teachers For?" "New Directions in Historical Scholarship: What's New in the Field?" "Careers outside the Traditional Classroom: How Can We Mentor History Majors?" and "History Education: What Makes a Good Travel Study Teaching Experience?"

Following more lunchtime conversation, everyone gathered for the keynote talk. Bob Bain (Univ. of Michigan at Ann Arbor), proved an excellent choice as keynote speaker. His talk, "Toward a Logic of History Teaching," explored the differences between "doing history" and teaching history and the inadequacies of teacher preparation conducted by the "dysfunctional family" of historians and educators. Fortunately, Bain did not leave his audience in that unhappy space. Having exposed the depths of the dilemma, Bain drew on philosophies of history to argue that the path to a more functional family and better teacher preparation lay in using "historical ways of knowing the world." These include problem framing, organizing information around meaningful categories, and using cognitive tools uniquely fitted to historical thinking. Bain's talk went far beyond a call for closer collaboration between historians and educators. He challenged his audience to rethink both the objectives and content of that collaboration.

In fact, his keynote talk, in combination with the morning conversation and panels, provided an excellent springboard for a final group discussion of major issues and next steps. Not surprisingly, this discussion ranged widely from individual commitments to read in new areas, introduce new teaching strategies, and invite public historians into the classroom; to collaborative ideas for conversations with colleagues within and between our home departments; to an interest in continuing the day's conversation with another statewide conference or workshop for historians, educators, and classroom teachers.

In sum, the conference was highly successful, with real potential for carryover into our work with students, into history department program development, and into collaboration between history and education departments.

—Nikki Mandell is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is project director for a Teaching American History grant program in southeastern Wisconsin. She teaches women's history, business history, freshman-level world history and senior research seminar.