Publication Date

January 1, 2003

The past several decades have seen a growing separation between the professionally trained historians' understanding of what history is and the ideas about history held by the general public—including school board members, business leaders, politicians, the media, and parents. This divide influences the conclusions that people draw about the role of textbooks in the history classroom and about the value of standardized tests as a means of assessing what students have learned.

Today the historical community generally accepts that there is a variety of viewpoints and perspectives that can be brought to bear on the same sources, and that the working historian's interests and values always influence the ways sources are analyzed. A "real" past certainly existed, yet what is "seen" in the same sources as well as the conclusions drawn from those sources vary from historian to historian.

Many others, however, believe that history is, or should be, about an agreed upon past. This is often termed the "master narrative." From this perspective, the teacher's task—it is argued—is merely to present the narrative accurately. Changes to the narrative that add interesting highlights, such as the emphasis on the women's rights struggle or changes in gender roles, are considered worthwhile additions as long as they don't move the primary focus of history away from the master narrative. It’s all right to study Mary Wollstonecraft, for instance, as long as that doesn’t detract from the main story of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.

Those who believe that history is, or can be, about an actual past that can and should be determined without reference to contemporary issues naturally see good textbooks and standardized tests as appropriate ways to teach history and to determine what has been learned.

Those who believe that the historical record is too complex and nuanced to be compressed into a single "true" narrative and that contemporary perspectives have always played a role both in research and in teaching, view an objective type standardized test as an inadequate benchmark to evaluate students’ learning of history.

The Role of the Textbook

It is difficult to teach a history course without a textbook, or some textbook-like materials. Textbooks offer a framework that students can use to organize what they're learning; they streamline what to students often seems like an endless stream of information.

What's gained from relying on textbooks, however, is also the problem with using textbooks. It's too easy for high school (or even college students) to conclude that the narrative offered in the text is the story they are supposed to learn. In other words, what’s in the textbook is the history of the past; it’s what really happened. After all, that’s what students most often need to know for tests (and especially for standardized tests). Why would students spend endless hours studying a variety of viewpoints and accounts of an event—Custer’s Last Stand, for example—when they know that what they’ll be tested on is the “right” answer? Few students come into history classes with a well-developed sense of the complexities involved in doing history. Very few ever grasp the highly political nature of a historian’s work, or the diversity found in current interests in the field. They do not know that the study of the past has expanded to include diverse topics from the changing conceptions of childhood to changing conceptions of the environment.

By assuming that history is a given, a collection of facts and dates to be learned, too many young adults come to see the field as static, as finished, as something to be memorized. Students believe that the facts given in the textbook present a complete and unbiased picture of history. Whether they are memorizing relatively straightforward information such as the genealogy of Tudor monarchs or more complex analyses such as the causes of the American Civil War, the hard thinking work belongs to someone else; it has already been done before the students get to class. And without having to do the work to develop history, students will not be able to understand what history means. They will not learn to appreciate their textbook for what it is: only part of the story.

Young people should be given the opportunity to understand that "doing" history is to exercise a rigorous and disciplined power over the past that has important consequences for our understanding of our world today and of our future options. Doing history on a grade appropriate level should be the basis for the benchmarks to evaluate history classes. That cannot be done using today's standardized tests.

A serious deficiency in the Standards of Learning history test that is required in our state (Virginia) is its failure to acknowledge the complexities of history. To students, the design of the test suggests that there is nothing more to learning history than memorizing dates and facts. Students who do well on the history SOL test do not necessarily understand that history is much more than this.

Studying history requires reading comprehension skills, the ability to analyze evidence, formulate questions and discover valid answers to those questions, and the ability to put down one's interpretations on paper. About a decade ago the AHA approved guidelines for what they termed the "excellent" teaching of history, pre-collegiate through college. Naturally, learning the designated historical content for each course was included. But the guidelines clarified, however, that content should never be the final goal. It is only part of the process. The most important aspect of history that any teacher can pass to students is the experience of being a professional historian, to see how the "facts" are laid down and to understand the power and natural bias that goes into reporting history. In other words, they should learn history by becoming student historians.

From our experiences in a modern world history class, we have concluded that students should learn history by:

  • Generating questions of interest
  • Understanding the importance of developing their own questions
  • Recognizing that some questions can be answered historically while some cannot
  • Grasping what it means to analyze a (relatively) large database of accurate information, draw conclusions based on that information, and then validate those conclusions from relevant sources
  • Understanding what it means to analyze critically the sources that they are using while they are using them.

These, it seems to us, are appropriate benchmarks for evaluating a high school history class.

The Students' Experience

Such work sounds complicated, and in our experience, in many ways it was complicated. However, the instructor was able to spread these important points over many projects, gradually building on the many aspects of a historian’s work.

Crucial to the development of student historians was the way in which the history itself was presented. For example, after doing a unit on primary sources, we relied on a short list of basic rules to help the class discover how to detect and solve problems working as historians. The "rules" are:

  • Have accurate information (sources).
  • Use it.
  • Don't misuse, or abuse, it. (That is, when drawing conclusions one must not ignore information that may contradict the conclusions.)

By following these rules, most students in the class were able to solve the problems that they faced when doing history.

The project that we've chosen—to demonstrate what can be accomplished when a class moves beyond the textbook—was part of the class's study of the creation of nation states and increasingly centralized governments in areas that previously had not necessarily seen themselves as a "nation". We began with a broad assignment: to examine the varied effects of the use of power on developing nations using relevant primary and secondary sources. Students were to address the teacher-posed question, "Is the use of power—that is, internal and external aggression—a necessary part of politics?"

In the first stage of the project, we three students—Sarah Faulkner, Laura Nally, and Stephanie Lai—chose one topic, Tudor England, from a list of acceptable, suggested topics. We then discussed ways to approach the subject we had chosen. We decided that using women in the time period as case studies would provide interesting insights to demonstrate how power was exercised in Tudor England. Because women at the time were rarely given real power to any great extent, we assumed as a "tentative hypothesis" that the effective female monarchs of Tudor England must have had an overabundance of the abilities, attitudes, and styles necessary for leadership.

As our research progressed, we found ourselves adjusting and narrowing down our objectives. We decided to focus on three female queens: Elizabeth I, who was popular and widely respected during her reign; Mary I, who was not as successful; and Lady Jane Grey, who only managed to retain the throne for nine days. To ensure that women in England from all walks of life were included in our study, we also researched common women and noble, but not ruling, women.

Following up on questions posed by our teacher, we tried to determine whether Tudor politics embodied the principles in Machiavelli's book, The Prince. We highlighted specific points in the book that we felt were directly related to Mary, Elizabeth, Jane, and Northumberland (Jane Grey’s father-in-law, who was responsible for her rise to power). After listing and explaining Machiavellian characteristics and “un-Machiavellian” characteristics for each, we were able to conclude that to a fairly significant extent, politicians in Tudor England embodied the principles illustrated in Machiavelli’s The Prince.

In addition to research, the project called for an "interactive presentation" of our findings to ensure that all students in the class would share the questions posed, the research done, and the conclusions drawn. We decided to create a web site that would demonstrate—using these women of England as case studies—the power involved in politics. To do so, we first had to synthesize the information into digestible, informative conclusions. For each of the three queens, our group created a page that gave an overview of who they were, how they came to power, what they accomplished during their reigns, and how they accomplished it. A link from that web page listed their Machiavellian qualities along with their "un-Machiavellian" qualities, with supporting quotes from Machiavelli, and with historical context, for each queen.

In addition, we added a page that depicted the influence of socioeconomic class on women and power in Tudor England. Using the research about common, noble, and royal women, we drew conclusions about the basic rights of a typical woman in each of these categories. This page was linked to three different pages, each with a picture of Elizabeth in different styles of clothing. One portrayed her in her queen's robes, one in those of a noble woman, and one in those of a peasant woman. Each was accompanied by a paragraph about what Elizabeth's rights were or would have been had she occupied each of these stations. The user could note the remarkable differences between the rights and privileges of women in each of the different classes.

By creating an interactive interface, our group was able to present research in a way that appealed to other students in the class (who were required to use the site), and to synthesize the great amount of information available into usable conclusions. More important, however, we were able to approach history not from the perspectives of students reading from textbooks to ascertain the facts of history, but of student historians, reading from primary and secondary sources to interpret the facts, generating questions of our own that were both important to us and historically significant, and creating validated conclusions for our history. The project web pages can be seen at

The ability to learn history by working as student historians, we believe, should form the basis for benchmarks to evaluate history classes. That knowledge and those skills can neither be learned primarily from a textbook, no matter how "good," nor evaluated by taking an end-of-the-year standardized test. Different teaching methods are required, as well as strikingly different evaluation instruments, to determine a student's understanding of how history is constructed and why that matters. To continue to rely on textbooks to teach and standardized tests to evaluate is to perpetuate a misunderstanding of the nature of history as a subject to be studied, taught, and learned.

—David Kobrin teaches history at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, VA. He is the author of Beyond the Textbook: Teaching History Using Documents and Primary Sources, as well as a number of other works. He received his PhD in history from the University of Pennsylvania.

—Sarah Faulkner and Stephanie Lai are studying at Harvard College and Laura Nally is studying at the College of William and Mary. All three graduated from TJHSST in June 2002.

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