Publication Date

August 17, 2021

Perspectives Section


When I read through the results of the AHA and Fairleigh Dickinson’s “Surveying the Past” study, one set of answers stood out to me. Across all age groups, respondents indicated that they associated high school history classes with the teaching of “names, dates, and other facts,” while their college classes tended to be “about asking questions.” In other words, adults think high school history is about “content knowledge,” while college history is about critical thinking skills.

Katharina Matro (center) tried something new in her ninth-grade world history class. She brought historians into her class discussions as scholars, writers, thinkers, doubters, and humans themselves.

Katharina Matro (center) tried something new in her ninth-grade world history class. She brought historians into her class discussions as scholars, writers, thinkers, doubters, and humans themselves. Caitlin Taylor, courtesy Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart

I have to believe that future respondents to this survey will answer differently. High school history lessons today, the ones I have seen and taught myself, emphasize critical thinking, reading, and writing skills. After five years of teaching, however, I know that treating content knowledge and historical thinking skills as separate does not serve students best.

When I started teaching ninth-grade world history in a private school five years ago, I knew little to nothing about cuneiform, ziggurats, or Hammurabi’s Code, of oracle bones or the Shang dynasty. That did not concern my department chair, however. Colleagues reassured me that all I had to do was “be a chapter ahead of the students” and that my main task was to teach them “skills.” As one senior colleague put it, “They need to learn how to read and write critically, how to take notes, how to follow instructions, and how to stay organized. You know how to teach all that. The content doesn’t matter so much.”

While I humbly accepted that I had much to learn about teaching in a high school classroom, I felt increasingly uneasy about the de-emphasis of “content expertise.” I did not feel confident standing in front of my students to teach a lesson about Sumerian cities with barely any content knowledge under my belt. I knew I could be an enthusiastic and witty teacher, deftly entertaining students’ questions and critical commentary, prodding them to think more deeply, and pushing their inquiry in new directions—when I knew my material well.

I am sure my students noticed when I was unable to answer their questions confidently. I could also sense that they were frustrated by the amount of time I spent on critical reading and writing “skills,” leaving little time for studying “real history.” In response to a survey I distributed halfway into my second year, one of my most engaged students wrote, “I really wish we could go deeper into the cultures and really learn about the people instead of sometimes just glossing over a time period with the major events. Maybe as the year goes on, we could spend less time with writing workshops and learning how to analyze sources, etc. and really get into the really rich and interesting parts of history.” In other words, this student wanted more content and fewer skills.

I resolved to fix things. I began reading scholarly histories about the topics I taught. If I was confident about teaching the subjects I had studied in graduate school, I figured I needed to approach the subjects I was teaching now more like my oral examinations; I was going to read lots of books, become familiar with scholars’ questions and arguments, and know their source base. I made some progress. When I shared anecdotes from a book on ancient Eridu and described how the author had handled different pieces of evidence to make her argument, students retained more information. Similarly, reading several histories of the Silk Road allowed me to guide students through different historical arguments about globalization in the ancient world—a lesson they enjoyed and valued. Still, I realized that I could not acquire graduate-level expertise in every topic I was expected to cover while also planning lessons and grading.

The skills-versus-content debate rests on a false dichotomy.

But my wide reading in global history reminded me of how exciting I find it to watch historians work: to see their questions take shape, follow them into the archives, and watch them piece evidence together into a consciously crafted narrative. What I needed to do, I realized, was bring into my classroom not only the scholarly content but also the scholars, as writers, thinkers, doubters, and humans themselves. Making their work visible would deliver more comprehensive content to the students, while also providing an opportunity to study and practice the skills most historians agree are important.

When I shared my classroom experience in a conversation with Bob Bain, professor of educational studies and history at the University of Michigan, he stressed that the skills-versus-content debate rests on a false dichotomy. We cannot separate content knowledge from the thinking processes that have produced that knowledge, he said. That kind of separation makes the history we teach seem artificial.

In the spring of 2021, I tried something new. For a unit on the history of immigration to the United States, I had students read Erika Lee’s America for Americans and reverse-engineer it. My favorite moments in graduate school had been my professors talking about their work: sharing sources from their archival trips or being open about arguments they were struggling with. For my own research, I read dissertations and learned just how many decisions separated a finished thesis from a published book. The textbooks my colleagues and I were using obscured all this historical work, and I wanted to share these processes with my students. We spent a long time discussing Lee’s preface, including her motivations for writing the book. In order to get to know her and how she works, we looked at her acknowledgments and list of archival sources. Then I sent students to some of the online archives Lee used to support her arguments. I asked them whether they would have written about other sources instead. I also asked if they could imagine different interpretations of the sources Lee used. We examined Lee’s narrative choices: What did it mean, I asked them, that she’d chosen to begin her account of the long history of US xenophobia with a quote by Benjamin Franklin? Finally, I solicited students’ views on the merits of Lee’s argument. When I surveyed them at the end of the unit, they said they were surprised by how the author’s questions had managed to make them reevaluate a story they thought they knew well.

Students were not aware that historians had relied on historical thinking skills to produce their textbooks.

Students’ experiences reading Lee differed significantly from their experience reading textbooks (which they read for content only). Through her work, students got to know Lee as a person. They realized that the content they read was produced by someone they could relate to. And they appreciated how much she seemed to care about the present and used history to illuminate an issue that was also important to them. In contrast, they shared that they had rarely thought about the fact that their textbooks were written by “real people” as well. In other words, they were not aware that historians had relied on historical thinking skills to produce their textbooks in the first place.

Their reaction to Lee’s interest in the present made me think of another false dichotomy that Bain highlighted in our conversation: most students experience the “content” in history class as completely divorced from the present in which they live, when instead teachers should be open about the fact that how we tell the stories about the past influences our present and helps us make sense of it. I had managed to bridge that gap between past and present by sharing one scholar’s recent work.

And this may be the answer to my five-year struggle trying to balance the teaching of skills and content: high school teachers can and should bring active scholars and their work into their classrooms to the extent they can. While not all teachers have the time to spend an entire unit on a scholarly text as I did, shorter texts by historians that describe their processes are available and might be paired with collections of primary-source excerpts that an author used for their research. The Journal of American History’s “Teaching the JAH,” for example, combines primary sources and classroom exercises with recent scholarship.

And scholars can help. Academic historians should not expect simply to share content expertise with teachers; they should make visible how they arrived at that content: How did they think of their research questions? What were their most frustrating research experiences? What parts of their texts did they enjoy writing? What parts were difficult to write? And importantly, why should young people care?

In addition to recognizing the false dichotomy of “content knowledge” and “skills,” scholars and teachers should aim to bridge the institutional divides that separate us and become aware of the goal they share: helping students gain a usable knowledge of the past to comprehend their present.

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Katharina Matro
Katharina Matro

Walter Johnson High School