History Teacher Forum

The California History–Social Science Project: Developing History Education

Edward Berenson, December 1993

It is nothing new for academic historians to wish for more and better history education at the precollegiate level, but over the past few years they have begun to acknowledge a responsibility to work with their K–12 colleagues. In 1988 the Bradley Commission on History in Schools published a booklet urging that history should once again "occupy a large and vital place in the education of the private person and the public citizen" and that professional historians should join with K–12 history and social studies teachers to improve and expand the curriculum. The commission, chaired by Kenneth T. Jackson of Columbia University, argued that historical study is essential not only to understanding the origins and ideals of modern democracy but also to preserving them in an increasingly divided society. In a country without a common religion or ethnicity, those ideals play a fundamental role in binding Americans together as a people.

The Bradley Commission, now known as the National Council for History Education, is not the only group trying to improve history education through school-university collaboration. Programs at the University of Chicago, the Yale–New Haven Teachers Institute, as well as history-teaching alliances in Florida and elsewhere have all joined the effort. Here on the West Coast we have established the California History–Social Science Project (CH–SSP), a collaborative arrangement linking the public schools with the University of California, the community colleges, and the California State University.

In the fall of 1990, I took leave from the UCLA history department to become executive director of the fledgling state-funded project. My role was to construct a set of programs to help teachers meet the challenges of a new state curriculum framework that grounded social science education in historical study. The authors of the California History–Social Science Framework (1988) recognized that history is the discipline best able to integrate the social sciences, literature, and the humanities into a coherent whole for the purposes of K–12 education.

The new curriculum enables students to begin their historical explorations in the primary grades, rejecting the largely discredited notion that our youngest students cannot conceive of a past different from their own era. After gaining a general sense of historical time during grades K through three, students go on in grade four to study the history of California. Then, beginning in grade five, students embark on an in-depth six-year course of historical study in which three years are devoted to United States history and another three to world history. So far as I know, there isn't another public school curriculum in the country that requires such extensive work in both United States and world history.

Because the California History–Social Science Framework emphasizes the diversity of cultures not only within the United States but throughout the world, teachers now find themselves required to offer course work on such topics as the ancient African kingdom of Kush, the rise of Islam, and medieval Japanese civilization, topics for which their own training and education have often left them unprepared. At the same time, the California curriculum reform also calls for the development of new materials and strategies in the teaching of history and related disciplines, emphasizing the use of primary sources and the examination of a given historical event or period from multiple points of view. The framework urges teachers to have students develop judgments about the meaning of historical phenomena by considering the conflicting interpretations always associated with pivotal events.

These curricular developments marked a major break from the old social studies approach; they also required a herculean effort by K–12 teachers to learn a vast new body of content and the interactive classroom techniques that would help bring it to life. They had to do so in a state in which growing numbers of students enter school speaking little or no English. An excellent series of framework-oriented textbooks coauthored by Gary Nash helped a great deal, but the books only covered grades K through eight. They were expensive, moreover, and mired in an unpleasant controversy over whether they devoted sufficient attention and respect to the heritage of a wide variety of racial and ethnic groups. Fortunately, most of the major school districts in the state ultimately adopted the books—perhaps the best ever written for those grade levels—but no text, no matter how good, can provide the hands-on practical experience teachers need to make curriculum reform a vital classroom reality.

To genuinely change the way they teach, K–12 faculty members need an intensive professional development experience in which they can work with new areas of historical content, do research with the aim of preparing new lessons for their students, and practice classroom techniques that rely less on lecture and more on student participation. The California History–Social Science Project is devoted to providing just such an experience. We set out to do so in part by creating islands of collaboration between universities and the schools. Our hope is that as the years go by there will be more and more of these islands until the state becomes so dense with them that they will help reshape the educational landscape as a whole.

The kind of collaboration we create has as its purpose the effort to improve teaching at all levels, kindergarten through the university. Professors have a great deal to learn from their K–12 colleagues about the art of teaching itself, while teachers can benefit enormously from the scholarly expertise of the university faculty members who participate in our work. These roles, however, are not always so neatly defined. As a Europeanist I knew embarrassingly little about U.S. history when I became director of the CH–SSP. Over the past few years, I have learned a good bit about this field, and teachers in our projects have taught me much of what I know. By the same token, K–12 people have learned something important about teaching from university professors skilled in the classroom use of primary sources.

Although we are part of a California network of professional development projects in eight subject areas, our project differs significantly from several of the others, especially the California Writing Project, the oldest and most successful of these programs. Since there is no particular content in writing, members of that project are free to devote virtually all of their efforts to developing ideas about how best to teach students to write. To be sure, these endeavors require members of the writing project to pay considerable attention to the question of what good writing is, something that inevitably forces them from the practical to the theoretical. But even so, most of their work turns on teaching the skills of writing. We, on the other hand, do not have the luxury to think purely about classroom practice. History and social studies teachers have to grapple with a large and complex curriculum framework that demands more of them in terms of content knowledge than any of the other seven California state frameworks. We must, therefore, devote a great deal of attention to history, geography, and the other social sciences. By this I do not mean that we design our summer institutes as three-week-long intensive courses in some particular subject; we are not a sort of Berlitz for history teachers, dishing out Tudor-Stuart England or precolonial Africa in fifteen fun-filled days.

Instead, our approach has been to encourage our project sites to choose a topic or set of themes that will enable teachers to explore the disciplines of history and geography by delving into a single exemplary area of study. One of our sites, for example, will consider how to link history and geography by looking at the meaning and nature of urbanization. They plan to do so by focusing on one pivotal city during each of three periods in world history, ancient, medieval, and modern. Another site will take up the history of immigration by comparing the experiences of two largely nineteenth-century immigrant groups with two others whose members have come to the United States more recently.

In all of our institutes, we encourage teachers to view history as the study of change over time and geography as an inquiry into the meaning of place, movement, and space. History, of course, is not concerned solely with change; our participants ask why certain things do not change or change only at a glacial pace. In doing so, they come to understand history less as a chronicle of events and more as a set of questions about how to analyze sources, how to evaluate conflicting arguments, and how to make interpretations and construct narratives based on the best evidence possible.

Our participants also come to see history and geography as fundamentally about culture; both disciplines inevitably raise the question of how different cultures have interacted over time, why some have become dominant and others subordinate, and why people with different backgrounds so often find it difficult to live together in a semblance of harmony. In asking these questions we come necessarily to the vexed issue of multiculturalism, the effort to understand and acknowledge the diversity of American society and the variety of peoples who encompass the globe. All of our institutes emphasize the idea that approaches to history and the social sciences must embody a broad variety of viewpoints and experiences: those of women and children as well as men, of underrepresented groups as well as influential ones, of non-Western as well as Western peoples, of the poor and middle classes as well as the elite. We devote as much attention to world history as to United States history, acknowledging that good citizenship requires historical and social scientific understanding in a global context.

Our work in U.S. history embodies the notion that American society is pluralistic, that Americans have forged their cultural identities from conflict and negotiations among diverse groups, each with its own racial, ethnic, regional, or religious traditions and cultures. But amid this diversity, Americans—whatever their origins— possess in common a set of political institutions and democratic ideals, a popular culture and an economic outlook that do much to join them together. History education, we believe, is most successful when students are able to consider both what binds Americans into a whole and what sustains pluralism and diversity.1

The participants in our project approach history in this way, but they do so not solely for the intrinsic pleasure of learning about the past or for developing the cultural understanding of their students. Central to their work is the effort to make the subject accessible and exciting to young people who commonly dismiss history as their least interesting subject. To fulfill this purpose we have been doing our best to chip away at the old dualism of content and pedagogy, marrying the two by encouraging teachers to develop classroom units that ask students to discover historical meaning for themselves. In doing so, we create settings in which teachers do the things professional historians do, namely, interpret primary sources, explore cause and effect, write historical narratives, and analyze key aspects of social, cultural, political, and economic life. Our intention is that teachers will learn a good deal about a particular subject from this historical work and that the settings in which they carry out their research will serve as models for what they can do with their students.

A typical day of one of our summer institutes illustrates how we try to accomplish these goals. Over coffee and rolls, participants begin each morning with their reflections about the activities of the day before. We proceed to a content presentation on, say, certain social and political aspects of ancient Near Eastern civilizations given by a historian from a nearby university. The session is structured around primary sources such as marriage contracts, commercial correspondence, administrative texts, land sales, and legal codes. After a brief introduction, participants break into cooperative learning groups, each responsible for analyzing one of the documents. Working together, members of a group develop a sense of what the text says about the nature of the society in question; after making their interpretations, each group's reporter explains the document to the rest of the participants. In this way, teachers learn about a whole set of sources even though each participant works directly on only one. From this single lesson, therefore, teachers can learn something significant about the ancient Near East by engaging in a basic form of historical work: analyzing primary texts.

This procedure also serves as a model for what they can do in their own classrooms. And it helps them develop their own lessons on the ancient Near East, as, for example, one of our participants has done in a superb piece of work on "Gilgamesh's Mesopotamia." This particular lesson, like those of all our teachers, is based on the participant's own library research; it asks students to consider in cooperative groups and other settings some of the very documents the teacher consulted in learning about Mesopotamian society. As participants develop their own materials, they work with our resident historians who give content presentations and spend several days at the institute. Teachers also divide into grade-level groups to discuss the material and develop ways to adapt it to the age and abilities of their students. In all these tasks they enjoy the assistance of several master teachers expert in the themes and pedagogy of the institute.

Another of our central concerns is developing methods for presenting rigorous subject matter to students with limited English proficiency. The goal is to avoid "dumbing down" the curriculum for young people whose problem is not an inability to learn but a still incomplete grasp of English. Our participants endeavor to reach these students by using a great deal of visual material, including images stored on laser discs and CD-ROMs. These images are linked to texts written in an English rich with cognates understandable to Spanish-speaking and other language minority students. Other techniques helpful in this realm include activities in which classes create simulations and dramatizations of historical events as well as collaborative learning situations in which students from the same language group can help each other.

In the midst of all this work, our participants find the time to discuss articles they have chosen or been asked to read. They consider research on teaching innovations and school change as well as articles on multiculturalism and the intellectual themes of the institute. To support these endeavors and their individual research, teachers have access to graduate-student research assistants who locate library materials, help with bibliographies, and do photocopying and other chores. At the end of the institute, teachers are expected to submit a draft of the lesson or unit they have developed and then to present part of it to colleagues in their grade-level groups.

The teachers' presentations are particularly important. Not only do they enable participants to show each other the results of the research they have done; they also provide all concerned with a wealth of ideas about how best to engage students in the learning process. Most of those who attend our institutes are accomplished in the art of eliciting student involvement in their lessons, and it is always illuminating to see the ingenious strategies they use. By the end of each institute the K–12 teachers have learned a great deal from their colleagues, both about content and pedagogy. They have also had the opportunity to practice teaching approaches that others have found successful.

Meanwhile, the resident historians and other university faculty members benefit from these demonstrations perhaps even more than their K–12 colleagues. Most professors operate within an extremely narrow pedagogical range, limiting themselves almost exclusively to lecture and discussion. After observing the work of K–12 teachers over the past few years, I now realize that there is so much more I can do. Already, I have begun to divide my classes into cooperative learning groups as a way of encouraging student participation, and I am now working on ways to make even the large lecture hall more interactive. In addition, I conducted a workshop in September 1993 to introduce the UCLA history department's seventy teaching assistants to pedagogical approaches I have learned from public school teachers. Not all of these techniques are appropriate for university students, but the principle of making the classroom more interactive could not be more relevant to undergraduates bored by "discussion" sections in which little discussion takes place. Cooperative learning also encourages students to come to class with the reading done because they know they will be responsible for explaining parts of it to the members of their group. Undergraduates often seem unconcerned when professors and TAs realize they are unprepared, but they seldom want to let down their peers.

Our programs have already done a great deal to improve pedagogy in K–12 classrooms; as my experience and that of other academics makes clear, the programs are beginning to encourage change in the university as well. The day-to-day work that has helped produce these innovations takes place throughout the state in ten institutes to which we invite a select group of teachers for three weeks each summer. Our sites are evenly divided between California State University and University of California campuses, with activities taking place at Cal State Dominguez Hills, Pomona, San Jose, Bakersfield, and Chico; and at UC San Diego, Los Angeles, Riverside, Davis, and Berkeley. The director of each site is a university historian or geographer who works with the vital collaboration of codirectors from the schools. There is, in addition, a group of teacher-facilitators, individuals with strong backgrounds in both historical content and pedagogy, who provide guidance for the participants at their particular grade levels and mediate between the postsecondary and K–12 faculty.

Our sites each select between thirty-five and forty-five teachers for the summer program and its academic year follow-up activities. Interest among teachers is high; we commonly receive more than one hundred applications to attend an institute. The project directors, aided by local advisory boards composed of teachers, professors, and curriculum specialists, try to choose a group of participants representative of the state's demographic diversity and balanced among the elementary, middle, and high school grade levels. This directorate also chooses a historical theme or set of themes to shape the institute's work. Topics for the summer of 1993 included immigration in U.S. history, Mexican American history, the question of citizenship and democratic participation, the family in world history, and local history.

Despite California's disastrous budget crisis, the governor and the state legislature have maintained their commitment to our efforts to improve curriculum and instruction at the K–12 level. Thanks to California senate legislation, we can provide each of our sites with between $90,000 and $150,000 per year. The more highly funded campuses operate the year round, extending the work of the summer institute into individual schools and districts where we hold workshops for history and social studies teachers from September through June.

When our participants return to their classrooms in the fall, they introduce the new lessons to their students, making the necessary changes as they go along. In November they come back together at the site of the summer institute to discuss their efforts to apply the new content and pedagogy they have learned. They also give presentations to each other based on their revised lesson plans. We pay considerable attention to presentation skills in an effort to prepare our participants for leadership roles in their schools and districts. Fellows of our project disseminate the ideas and approaches developed at the institutes by leading workshops for members of their departments and other colleagues. Our participants also become involved in preparing new curriculum materials, and they take the lead in efforts to improve their schools, whether by creating interdisciplinary connections or by helping to develop forms of assessment that eschew multiple choice.

As a result of these activities, CH–SSP alumni are becoming increasingly visible both in their local schools and in statewide educational reform initiatives sponsored by the California Department of Education. Later this year, one of our fellows will become chair of the state's powerful curriculum commission, the body that decides which textbooks and other curriculum materials will be officially adopted for use throughout the K–12 system.

In more than three years of existence, the California History–Social Science Project has been able, I think, to make an impact on teaching and learning in our state. We have helped return history to the center of the school curriculum and have begun to develop ways of making our discipline more interesting and appealing to students. Problems nevertheless remain. Among them is the project's inability, due to limited resources, to work directly with more than 350 to 400 teachers each year. The multiplier effect that operates when our fellows teach their colleagues expands our audience quite a bit, but our work would be more effective if we could accommodate one thousand teachers in perhaps twenty summer institutes.

Beyond the problem of resources is the reality that our efforts to bring university and K–12 teachers together can hardly erase overnight the barriers that have long existed between higher education and the public schools. Part of the reason for this divide is cultural: school and university faculty members live in very different worlds, each with its own expectations, values, and relationship to the wider society. Some of the divisions result from one of the most enviable aspects of university life: professors' relative independence from the day-to-day pressures of political constraint. This independence often leads, however, to a certain isolation, even indifference, with respect to the enormous problems facing our educational system. Given the high stakes and precarious funding of public education and the need to integrate a growing immigrant population while respecting the newcomers' culture and values, it will not do for university professors to view public education as somebody else's responsibility. The California History–Social Science Project has tried to do its part, however modest, to involve historians and social scientists in the effort to improve our schools.


1. On the question of multiculturalism, we have found enormously helpful a statement by the Organization of American Historians on diversity and the teaching of history. See the public statement of the executive board of the OAH, February 1991.

—Edward Berenson is professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and executive director of the California History–Social Science Project.