Publication Date

April 1, 2002

One of our goals as history teachers is to encourage our students to use their historical knowledge to become more effective, self-aware, and ethical participants in the civic lives of their communities.1 But we never really know how well we are accomplishing this goal. When the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) selected us as Carnegie Scholars for 2000–01, it gave us the opportunity to study the effectiveness of our pedagogies by applying the rigorous standards of traditional scholarship to the collection and analysis of evidence from our class.2

We are especially interested in two principles laid out by Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.3 The first recognizes and values the knowledge students bring to the class from their lived experiences. We call this an “assets model” of education in contrast to the more traditional deficit model that emphasizes fixing the students’ deficiencies. This is closely related to, and in fact inseparable from, the second principle, which is “praxis.” In short, praxis is the process by which people reach deep understandings of themselves and their world by cultivating a conscious, active, and purposeful engagement with that world. Praxis also emphasizes that how an individual is positioned relative to systems of power strongly influences how the individual understands those systems of power.

The Praxis Cycle

Our course is modeled on a simple praxis cycle. It begins with self-reflection about our relation to the world. Out of this self-reflection we draw understandings of issues that are of importance to us. The second point on the cycle is study, research, and discussion with others on one or more of the issues we have identified as important to us. The third point is action that we take, informed by our understanding of ourselves in relation to our world, and by our study, research, and discussion. We then engage in more self-reflection about the whole process, and move through the cycle again. From beginning to end, every activity we planned for our class was designed to encourage students to live in this praxis cycle.

We tried to provide students with strategies and methods to help them learn California history through praxis. We began by asking them to explore their own personal histories and to connect those to broader histories. We hoped they would be able to see themselves first as products of history, and then to see themselves as actors in history. As Gerda Lerner suggests, history "gives us a sense of perspective about our own lives and encourages us to transcend the finite span of our life-time by identifying with the generations that will follow. By perceiving ourselves as part of history, we can begin to think on a scale larger than the here and now. We can expand our reach and with it our aspirations."4

We also helped them learn how to think thematically—to find themes in California history that would help them understand their political issues better. Another strategy was to help them learn how to analyze historical evidence. In conjunction with that, we tried to help them use the evidence to deconstruct systems of power, and to understand how such systems evolved over time.

The Political Project

We named the major assignment for the class, the "Historically Informed Political Project," or HIPP. Understanding themselves as products of history, students would also become historical actors and carry out a political project during the semester. This is, in fact, one of our university's general education requirements for all our students, so our curriculum uniquely supports our praxis pedagogy.5

We created a set of weekly assignments for the students to complete as they were carrying out their political actions. Each of these became a piece of the final HIPP. Early pieces included a brief self-reflective essay in which they were encouraged to begin thinking about issues they might want to do a political project on, and an essay in which they define what counts as "politics" for them.

During the semester, as they worked on their written parts of the HIPP and did the assigned reading for the course, the students carried out their political projects. Some chose to work individually; others worked in groups. This is the action stage of the praxis cycle. We value the action stage both for what it can contribute to greater equity and justice in the world and for what we believe is a more effective way for the student to connect their learning in history to meaningful citizenship in a diverse democracy.

Following the action phase, students revisited their values, assumptions, and passions, and reflected on what they have learned about themselves and their communities. Each new praxis cycle should make the student a more thoughtful, ethical, and effective citizen whose public and private acts are informed by a more sophisticated and self-reflective understanding of the issues they are studying.

Lara Pierson's political project was to try to stop or change the logging practices of a major lumber company that harvests old growth redwood trees in the northern California region where she grew up. In this passage from her HIPP, Pierson explains her understanding of historical process by which California Indians were forced to abandon an ecologically friendly way of living in the natural world and to adopt European exploitative practices. For her, both the social and environmental damage caused by this transformation is a parable that she hopes can help people understand why certain corporate approaches to logging should be changed:

"In 'Brutal Appetites,' Douglas Monroy describes the Christian European view of life as they separated themselves from animals: "Humans and animals no longer coexisted in the European spirit world as they still did for the people of the California coast before 1769. Animals were no longer companions but others that humans could utilize as they did the trees." (36). . . We have explored the theme of looking at nature for not its inherent value of beauty and being, but as a commodity for us to utilize. I feel this attitude has contributed significantly to the way we have and continue to devastate the land, from the Gold Rush to corporate empires which dominate control over how we utilize our environment."

We believe that seeing ourselves as connected to all that goes on around us is a key to living joyous lives on a sustainable planet. We attempt to catalyze connections in our classrooms, to kindle communities of teachers and learners. We take seriously students' responsibility to teach each other. They talk about ideas, they read each other's work, and they present their ideas to the class. We facilitate. We help them find interesting, provocative material and we help them think about how to derive interesting, provocative ways to explore that material. We help students acquire tools that they can use to hone their thoughts, to grow as scholars. We try not to dispense wisdom; rather, we try to turn students on to our material so they will want to learn more about that material when they leave the classroom.6

How Effective Is the Praxis Cycle Pedagogy?

Does our research confirm the effectiveness of our pedagogy? We think it does, although we were unsure at first. As we read our students' final HIPPs for the first time we had the impression that they had not learned very much history. But, we decided we needed to do more than one reading of our students' work, and that we needed to be more systematic in the way in which we read it. In rereading, we looked just for ways in which students used history, or ways in which history was present in their final essays. When we let students' own work determine our categories, rather than imposing our own, we found to our delight that they had used history in many different ways, and that, in fact, their essays contained a great deal of history. We made a taxonomy of 10 different ways our students used history in their HIPP reports. Most of them actually used history in all, or nearly all of these ways (see box below).


Recent studies have shown that student interest in politics is at a historical low. We believe those studies define "politics" too narrowly. We also believe that through careful teaching that helps students bring historical perspectives to the issues that matter to them, students can become more committed, effective, passionate actors in the lives of their social, familial, spiritual, neighborhood, scholarly, and ecological communities. It is just possible that our history teaching can increase political participation while it revitalizes the relevance of history in the university curriculum. We are committed to continuing our work to find the best pedagogical means to accomplish this goal.

—Gerald E. Shenk is assistant professor of history and David Takacs is associate professor of earth systems science and policy at California State University, Monterey Bay.


1. Fortuitously, the directors of the Carnegie Moral and Civic Learning project have taken great interest in our work. Thus, we would like to thank Tom Ehrlich, Anne Colby, Elizabeth Beaumont, and Jason Stephens of The Carnegie Foundation for valuable advice and encouragement. On the concept of Moral and Civic Learning, see Anne Colby and Thomas Ehrlich, eds., Higher Education and Civic Responsibility (Arizona: The Oryx Press, 2000). For more information on the project, visit its web site at:

2. The scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL), as it was articulated by Ernest Boyer and then by Pat Hutchings and Lee Shulman of the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL), asks that as teachers we conduct scholarly studies of our own teaching, make our work public, and make ourselves accountable for our work. As Hutchings and Shulman have written, part of the definition of scholarship is that “it invites peer collaboration and review.” Or, as Marvin Lazerson, Ursula Wagener, and Nichole Shumanis put it, “a scholarship of teaching—like research—is characterized by its public nature, susceptibility to critical review and evaluation, and accessibility for exchange and use by other members of one’s scholarly community.” Pat Hutchings and Lee S. Shulman, “The Scholarship of Teaching: New Elaborations, New Developments,” Change (September/October, 1999): 11–15; Marvin Lazerson, Ursula Wagener, and Nichole Shumanis, “Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 1980–2000,” Change (May/June, 2000), 13–19.

3. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York, 1972). We were also influenced by bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (New York, 1997), which provides more specific suggestions for applying Feireian principles in the classroom.

4. Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (Oxford University Press: New York and Oxford, 1997), 201.

5. In addition to meeting the general education requirement in U.S. Histories, our course meets the general education requirement in “Democratic Participation.” It is the unique application of the American Ideals and American Institutions requirements contained in the California Education Code for Bachelors Degrees as defined at California State University, Monterey Bay. For the texts of these requirements and the specific outcomes students must demonstrate under them, see and click on University Learning Requirements under Academics.

6. For an interesting debate on pedagogies for history classrooms, see Daniel D. Trifan, “Active Learning: A Critical Examination;” James W. Oberly, “Comment on Daniel D. Trifan’s ‘Active Learning: A Critical Examination;'” and Roland Marchand, “Further Comment on Daniel D. Trifan’s ‘Active Learning: A Critical Examination,'” all in Perspectives 35:3 (March 1997), 23–30.

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