The teaching of history is not getting easier. Teachers in our elementary, middle, and high schools find themselves bound to new statewide standards and ever-increasing expectations for topical coverage.
There are reasons to be optimistic, however. History teaching has become more democratic and inclusive over the last several decades; a broad range of people and subjects long neglected now play significant roles. Textbooks and standards acknowledge the importance of gender, ethnicity, religion, and other topics in ways they did not before. Document-based questions on the Advanced Placement tests have shifted attention to the intrinsically interpretive quality of history. In fundamental ways, the field has been redefined.
Specialists in history education now describe a vision for lower grades very much in keeping with what happens in our best college classrooms. Content and pedagogy are fused. Students actively engage the substance of history by doing history: analyzing primary sources, juxtaposing perspectives, exploring the reasons some historical accounts seem more compelling at some times than at others.
A pedagogical continuum of active and engaged history learning now stretches from the elementary classroom to the advanced seminar. As students become more skilled and nuanced in historical understanding, teachers of history pull back the curtains a bit farther at each step until we reveal all the ropes and pulleys of our craft.
Past debates aside, today no one denies that history teachers need to know history. No one denies that teaching is a professional practice that can be developed and improved. No one denies that the best history teachers are driven by a passion for their subject as well as by concern for their students. And no one doubts that passion for history often comes to young teachers from their history professors.
As a result, we believe that departments need to create new opportunities for the people in our classes to begin thinking like history teachers as well as history students. They need to be exposed to historiographical thinking sooner rather than later, explicitly defined and carefully elaborated. Underlying this recommendation is the conviction that the best preparation for future history teachers is the best preparation for all history students. By performing this central task more effectively we can improve all the teaching we do.