Publication Date

May 1, 2003

Recent and unprecedented congressional funding for the Teaching American History grants (which are intended to encourage collaboration among K–12 teachers, post-secondary faculty, and public historians) has sparked new interest in history teaching within the schools. Although historians at all levels have been involved to some extent in professional development of K–12 teachers, more and more historians are now participating in such collaborative programs because of this important federal initiative.

In June 2002, Bruce Craig, director of the National Coalition for History, organized a meeting with staff from the U.S. Department of Education to discuss the Teaching American History Grants. The executive directors of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Council for the Social Studies attended the meeting. These three organizations have encouraged and supported collaboration among teachers at all levels for many years and have produced materials including publications and pamphlets that integrate sound historical and pedagogical scholarship with suggested classroom practice.

One of the outcomes of the meeting was that the Department of Education staff asked the three organizations to create a document that sets out benchmarks for sound professional development for teachers of American history. They asked the organizations to address what constitutes a good program and what outcomes should be expected. As a result, in August 2002, a small group of K–12 teachers, faculty from history departments and schools of education, and public historians, selected by the three organizations, met to discuss professional development for teachers of American history. The following document reflects their thinking and experience.

History is the study of the past (including the study of change and continuity over time). According to historian Peter Stearns, "the past causes the present, and so the future. Sometimes fairly recent history will suffice to explain a major development, but often we need to look further back to identify the causes of change. Only through studying history can we grasp how things change; only through history can we begin to comprehend the factors that cause change; and only through history can we understand what elements of an institution or a society persist despite change." Studying history not only trains students to place events in historical perspective, it also develops research skills and sharpens student analytical thinking. Professional development projects should be reviewed over time to insure that these thinking and research skills are being met.

This document suggests that collaboratives for professional development in history teaching need to be planned and viewed from several vantage points. First, they must be set up according to certain general criteria, in terms of planning procedures, participation and duration. Second, they must involve sound approaches to historical content. Third, they must pay due attention to pedagogy and to active learning. Fourth, they must emphasize several definable habits of mind, ranging from uses of evidence and interpretation in forming arguments to understanding issues of change over time. Fifth and finally, collaborations must help teachers deal with appropriate methods of assessment. Above all, the collaborative programs must rest upon two fundamental assumptions:

  • Content, pedagogy, and historical thinking should be interwoven

  • Content, pedagogy, and historical thinking should be related to classroom experience

Collaboration Benchmarks

For sound professional development, K–12 teachers should be involved at the beginning of planning.

Collaboration should involve K–12 teachers from the beginning as part of an Advisory Committee to consider the interests for their schools and how they perceive development of their history program. The Advisory Committee should consider whether an entire department (either in the university or in the K–12 school), or only teachers of certain grade levels or specific subjects (American history, World history, Economics, Geography, Civics, and other social science disciplines) will be involved. The discussions should include potential books, articles, web sites for colloquia; speakers to be invited for institutes; and requirements and expectations of teachers.

Content and classroom needs of teachers and students should be assessed at the beginning

The collaboration should consider the strengths and weaknesses of content knowledge of the students and teachers in the program and availability to them of teaching materials.

The goals of teachers and students as determined through the assessment should be the central focus of the program.

The collaboration should involve teachers in writing the goals for the grant and/or responding to the goals of the grant for revision.

Professional development programs should be sustained over time.

The collaboration should include arrangements (perhaps through the university partners) to invite teachers to annual symposiums and conferences for further professional development so the grant emphasizes sustainability.

Professional collaboration of teachers with their colleagues should be encouraged.

The collaborations should include discussions at colloquia and seminars (and their virtual versions on web sites), collaborative publications, and presentations at professional conferences.

Workshops conducted by master teachers for their colleagues at home institutions should be a requirement.

The collaboration should provide opportunities for in-service training or programs, conducted by master teachers or department members, on use of primary sources and content drawn from monographs and the application of content to the classroom. The in-service opportunities should include a summary of the content gleaned from readings and speakers and sample lesson plans based on the material presented that teachers can implement in their teaching.

Teachers with strong abilities as facilitators should be identified and given leadership roles within the project.

As many university/college history faculty should be involved in the project as is possible, especially those with experience in primary and secondary school education.

If the professional development program is focusing on a particular school district, the coordinator of history and social studies in that school district should be consulted at the start of planning a project. In such cases where specific schools and colleges are involved, activities should be held both at schools and the college. Those responsible for training new history teachers should be included in these activities.

Content Benchmarks

Teachers should be provided opportunities to maintain awareness of major new research in the field.

Teachers should discuss main periodization schemes applied to U.S. history content, and issues involved in these schemes.

Because content is more than a dry recitation of historical "facts," teachers should be enabled to develop ways of enriching content.

Teachers should be helped to utilize sound content models already available. Documents such as the U.S. History Framework for the 1994 National Assessment of Education Progress can be helpful guides. Professional development in history can conform to state standards when history is a distinct subject within the standards.

The program should provide a sound reading list.

Reading lists should include relevant primary, recent secondary sources, and web sites on the historical topic. It should also include sources that discuss how children learn history.

Teachers should be helped to place U.S. history content in the appropriate global perspective, including comparisons where applicable.

Examples could include understanding the 1930s Depression in terms of global forces as well as a national event. Comparisons can also be global-comparing, for example, patterns of violence in settler societies and the American frontier society or comparing the end of slavery in the United States with the Russian emancipation of serfs.

Pedagogy Benchmarks

All pedagogical presentations should be framed with student learning in mind, and methods to analyze this student learning need to be included in the professional development plan.

A prime goal of professional development needs to be the engagement of participants so that they will convey their excitement to their students.

Participants should be given opportunities to learn how historians conduct research, and, in particular, how they evaluate the reliability of sources.

Pedagogy needs to focus on the use and interpretation of primary sources. Presenters need to formulate activities that engage participants in primary source evaluation, using both traditional paper methods and web-based primary source materials.

Pedagogy needs to focus on placing primary sources in historical context and interpreting those primary sources.

Presenters need to model such activities as discussion, lecture, group activities, role-playing, and simulations that place primary sources in the proper context.

Discussion of teaching methods should always begin with content-presenters and participants need to realize that method is merely a tool for presenting intellectually challenging subject matter to learners. Method should never be presented in a vacuum, divorced from content.

For example, PowerPoint or other presentation software programs should not be used just because they are available. Rather, such programs might be used as a tool for fostering historical thinking by displaying otherwise inaccessible primary sources in an appealing format.

Methods need to begin with the latest content and scholarship. Presenters should model how to frame a presentation around historical scholarship rather than on terms from a textbook.

A variety of methods should be presented. This is to accommodate different learning styles and provide for the presentation of multiple perspectives, a critical component in the understanding of the current field of history.

Presenters need to introduce active methods as part of the variety of methods presented. Presenters need to model active learning techniques that go beyond lectures and discussion-group activities, role-playing, simulations, and debates, etc. Presenters must show the intimate relationship between these activities and in-depth historical content.

Historical Thinking Benchmarks

Analysis of primary and secondary sources.

For example, using primary and secondary sources on the experience of 19th-century immigrants, teachers can look for different points of view or bias (for instance, in comments by immigrants themselves compared to comments about immigrants by the press or politicians). Weighing the representativeness of certain kinds of sources such as diaries and considering a mixture of quantitative and qualitative (visual as well as textual) sources would be another important exercise on this kind of topic. Discussing how to rate different levels of reliability in sources on the immigrant experience might round off an exercise on this skill.

An understanding of historical debate and controversy.

Working on the diverse interpretations of United States involvement in the Cold War, for example, could focus the issue of how to sort out conflicting interpretations, including examining the ways different "sides" build their argument and adduce evidence.

Appreciation of recent historiography through an examination of how historians develop differing interpretations.

For example, shifting concepts about race have changed the way historians interpreted key aspects of slavery and reconstruction in United States history, as well as the kinds of evidence and theories they used. What, in fact, are the main differences from earlier approaches?

Analysis of how historians use evidence.

For example, examining recent articles in leading historical journals in several different fields-political history, diplomatic history and social or gender history-would be a good way to look at different kinds of evidence but also to examine any patterns in the ways historians build arguments from evidence.

An understanding of bias and points of view.

This skill applies most obviously in assessing primary sources, but it is vital also in dealing with secondary accounts. Teachers can compare textbook treatments of controversial topics, such as slavery, and how they have changed over time, as a means of testing for bias or point of view.

Formulation of questions through inquiry and determining their importance.

There might be two ways to work on this aspect of historical thinking: first, take a work regarded as seminal, such as several of the pathbreaking studies of slavery, and tease out which two or three major questions guided the work; or second, simply think through two or three questions about U.S. history that seem open-ended, not yet answered or even directly addressed, and discuss how their importance might be assessed.

Determination of the significance of different kinds of historical change.

For example, a teacher might take any 25-year slice of U.S. history, undoubtedly filled with new developments, and determine which two or three of these developments are the most important changes-and how these can be defended against other options, discussing, for instance, how other outcomes or changes are less likely given the initial conditions.

Sophisticated examination of how causation relates to continuity and change.

For example, how does one go about explaining the historic shift in the work patterns of married women in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, which so dramatically altered women's lives and family structures? And how does one determine, amid such a striking shift, elements in women's roles that persisted-and why they persisted?

Understanding of the interrelationship among themes, regions, and periodization.

For example, a topic such as the nature and role of cities can be explored in terms of major American regions (south, west, northeast), using comparative techniques, and also in terms of periodization. Two questions that can be asked are: When did major changes take place? What is the relationship between periodization for this topic and conventional survey history periodization more generally?

Understanding that although the past tends to be viewed in terms of present values, a proper perception of the past requires a serious examination of values of that time.

For example, what aspects of the Federalist Papers seem particularly hard to understand in terms of current political issues and values, and how can we appreciate why they were important at the time? How can we appreciate why many parents tried to "break the will" of disobedient children, by isolating them in their rooms often for days, in the early 19th century-and how can we try to understand the impact of this experience on children themselves?

Assessment Benchmarks

1. Assessment of the professional development program

Learning outcomes on the part of all participants (K–12 teachers, post-secondary teachers, and public historians) in the program should be assessed.

For example, classroom observations are used to assess the extent and quality of the use of primary and secondary sources as evidence. In focus group interviews, students should be asked about the ways in which they formulate inquiry questions in their coursework, and the amount of attention devoted to conflict and controversy.

Student historical understanding should be tested prior to and after conducting collaborative programs.

The tests should be performance assessments, examining student understanding of historical thinking and important, in-depth, contextualized subject matter rather than discrete historical "facts." Professional development needs to provide participants the tools to administer such assessments to their students. Pedagogical presentations need to include discussions of historical reading and historical writing. Presenters discussing professional development need to provide methods to make relevant assessments useful and manageable.

Assessment should be directed toward the continual and constructive improvement of teaching, learning, and professional development. Program goals and procedures should be adapted as necessary based on assessment evidence.

Program participants should meet regularly to discuss examples of student work and to develop plans for further developing students' historical thinking. Program participants should also meet at the midpoint and at the end to discuss the results of classroom observations and focus group interviews, and to develop procedures to meet needs that have been identified through these discussions.

Assessment should provide aggregate data on students, teachers, and other participants, not summary evaluation of individuals.

Classroom observations should be combined to provide overall portraits of the range of practices among participants rather than descriptions of individual teachers. Participants' collaborative analysis of student work should be confidential and should not be used as a basis for assigning grades or determining promotion.

All assessment measures should be developed, implemented, and analyzed with the full participation of teachers, historians, post-secondary educators, and when possible, students.

The use of assessment evidence to develop and adjust program goals should result from joint discussions among teachers, historians, and other participating educators. Teachers should share assessment criteria with students before the activity begins, help students understand how to apply these criteria to their own work, and engage students in creating their own assessment measures.

Assessment should provide evidence of learning over the course of the professional development program by including measures of student achievement or teacher performance both before and after participation in the program.

Examples of student work from the beginning and end of each year of the program should be analyzed and compared for evidence of improved achievement in historical thinking. Classroom observations from the beginning and end of each year of the program should be analyzed and compared for evidence of improved teaching.

2. Assessment of Teachers and Students

Teachers' classroom practices should be assessed on the extent to which they incorporate the "Pedagogy Benchmarks" and are directed toward students' achievement of the "Historical Thinking Benchmarks."

For example, classroom observations are used to assess the extent and quality of the use of primary and secondary sources as evidence. In focus group interviews, students should be asked about the ways in which they formulate inquiry questions in their coursework, and the amount of attention devoted to conflict and controversy.

Student assessment should be tied directly to elements of historical thinking as outlined in "Historical Thinking Benchmarks." Additionally, assessment may include attention to state or local curriculum standards.

For example, students should be assessed on the extent to which they collect primary and secondary source evidence to reach conclusions about controversial events in U.S. history. Students should also be assessed on the extent to which they can describe how particular historical interpretations maybe influenced by the incompleteness of evidence or by biases that are part of surviving evidence. Aggregate data from local or state tests should be collected and used as a supplement to other assessment measures.


Sound professional development must involve real collaboration between different partners. Meaningful collaboratives can enhance the quality of history teaching and provide mutual insights to teachers at all levels. Collaboratives offer a chance for mutual dialogue about teaching and scholarship productive to everyone involved. Professional development should be planned from the beginning with teachers at all levels and teachers' needs must be considered. The object of professional development in history is to train teachers for intellectually sophisticated best practices in the classroom. Therefore, professional development for teaching history must include three interrelated and integrated parts: Content, Pedagogy that includes Student Learning, and Habits of Mind for History/Thinking Historically. These three parts should be mutually enforcing rather than separated. Training in content and thinking historically must be connected with pedagogy. Lastly, assessments must be directly tied to the goals of professional development, most importantly the “historical thinking benchmarks” that are, in turn, dependent on content and pedagogy.

Members of the Working Group

Peter Stearns (chair), George Mason University

Bob Bain, University of Michigan

Keith Barton, University of Cincinnati

Bruce Craig, National Coalition for History

Frederick Drake, Illinois State University

Fritz Fischer, Northern Colorado University

Cathy Gorn, National History Day

Cynthia Mostoller, Deal Junior High School

William Weber, California State University at Long Beach

Noralee Frankel, American Historical Association

Cliff Jacobs, American Historical Association

Stacy Kotzin, Department of Education (observer)

Alex Stein, Department of Education (observer)

For further information, contact

Noralee Frankel
American Historical Association
400 A Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003-3889
202-544-2422. Fax: 202-544-8307.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.