Organizing and Globalizing the Scholarly Teaching of History

Keith A. Erekson | Sep 1, 2007

For as long as history has been practiced, historians have thought about how to present their scholarship to peers, students, and the public. In recent decades, developments in several nations have directed such thinking toward increasingly systematic study of how teachers teach and how students learn history. In November 2006, a group of historians met in Washington, D.C., to found the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History. This essay traces the international developments that led to the society's formation and invites readers to take part in an important new field of historical scholarship.

Converging International Developments

A variety of factors have induced historians in many nations to pay increasing attention to the teaching and learning of history. In the 1960s and 1970s, they began to share teaching strategies in periodicals such as The History Teacher (published by the Society for History Education since 1967), Teaching History (the Historical Association, London, 1969), and Teaching History: A Journal of Method (Emporia State University, 1976). In the 1980s and 1990s, the British government provided substantial funding to encourage "enterprise and innovation" in higher education. That resulted in the establishment of 24 national subject centers dedicated to discipline-specific pedagogic development. The Australian Federal Government sought to improve teaching and learning on a nationwide basis by tying some Commonwealth funding to research that produced verifiable results—an effort that produced primarily generic, university-level initiatives. In the United States, a series of studies over the past two decades have highlighted student ignorance of history and prompted both calls for reform and federally funded programs. In all three countries, debates over representations of national pasts have grown increasingly publicized, politicized, and polarized, thereby keeping the teaching of history in the news.1

The decade of the 1990s witnessed a growing impulse among academics to conceptualize teaching as a scholarly activity in its own right. A handful of educational psychologists began to publish analyses of the cognitive activities involved in historical thinking and writing. With the publication of Ernest Boyer's Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (1990) and of Robert B. Barr and John Tagg's "From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education" (1995), a new field of "the scholarship of teaching and learning" (SoTL) coalesced around a central notion that practitioners within a discipline were the most competent to conceptualize pedagogic methods and to assess learning achievements.2 The American Historical Association participated in a nationwide effort to create Preparing Future Faculty programs, and the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning provided a venue for two cohorts of historians to articulate programmatic issues related to SoTL in history. In London, the government-funded Subject Centre for History, Classics, and Archeology began to host an annual conference on "History in Higher Education" that drew participants first from the United Kingdom and eventually from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Sweden.

By the turn-of-the-century, the various journals, government initiatives, and scholarly gatherings had produced several parallel networks of historians seeking to understand and improve history instruction. Nationally organized discussions, which had generally developed in isolation, began to cross borders to incorporate the concepts and terminology of scholars, primarily among English-speaking nations. Seeds sown in the previous decade flowered in the publication of several programmatic essays and essay collections that not only shared effective teaching strategies but also systematically collected and examined evidence of student learning.3 This growing body of theory began to inform the work of historians on projects designed to help define the genre of course portfolios, to explore the impact of technology on history learning, to articulate the pedagogical methods most applicable to history teaching, and to identify the requisite mental operations for enhancing student performance in historical reasoning.4 Gradually, historians around the world began to accept two fundamental principles of history education—the idealization of discipline-based knowledge and the imperative for evidence-supported conclusions.

A New International Society

Converging networks of scholars and scholarship prompted a desire among higher education historians to create more formalized mechanisms for multi-national collaboration. Annual meetings of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL)—in Bloomington, Indiana (2004) and Vancouver, Canada (2005)—provided settings for historians to meet in person and to explore the possibilities for societal organization, transnational communication, and promotion of the emerging field. After an unsuccessful attempt to engage the Comité International des Sciences Historiques (CISH) and several energizing discussions at the eighth annual "History in Higher Education" conference at Oxford University, Geoff Timmins of the University of Central Lancashire was appointed to coordinate plans to organize a formal international society. In the meantime, David Pace, Leah Shopkow, and Arlene Diaz secured funding from the Dean of Faculties Office of Indiana University to create a web site and electronic newsletter that immediately became a part of efforts to create an international web presence.5

At the November 2006 ISSOTL conference in Washington, D.C., Timmins, Pace, Shopkow, Alan Booth, Sean Brawley, T. Mills Kelly, and Keith A. Erekson drew up the plans for a loosely defined organization run by a steering committee with the input of an advisory committee. A special luncheon for all historians attending the conference served to inaugurate the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History (ISSoTLH).

ISSoTLH seeks to foster community, to build capacity, and to promote the work of historians throughout the world interested in the teaching and learning of history. Membership in the society is free and entitles members to participate in an online conversation forum and to receive an electronic newsletter highlighting developments, trends, and projects in history SoTL. Currently the rolls contain over 200 historians from the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, Austria, the Bahamas, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Israel, Japan, and Sweden.

The society web site serves as an interactive location for public sharing of information and ideas. A bibliography is being mounted that contains descriptions of the field and will soon employ Web 2.0 technology to allow members to contribute to a collectively maintained, searchable archive of all scholarship relevant to history teaching and learning. The site contains brief summaries of research projects, course syllabi, and departmental programs, and lists scholars willing to give presentations or to serve as external reviewers for journals, publishing houses, or tenure and promotion committees. For the present time, the society will meet in conjunction with conferences sponsored by ISSOTL and by national historical associations, with the next meeting scheduled for July 2007 in Sydney, Australia.

The steering committee of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History invites readers of Perspectives to join the society today by visiting

—Keith A. Erekson serves on the steering committee and as managing editor of the newsletter of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History.


1. The inaugural issue of History SoTL Newsletter 1 (January 2007) chronicles the rise of historians' interest in history teaching in three nations: Alan Booth, "The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning History in Britain," Sean Brawley, "The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning History in Australia," and David Pace, "The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning History in the United States," See also Matthew T. Downey and Fritz Fischer, "Responding to the Winds of Change in History Education." The History Teacher 34:1 (November 2000); Robert Orrill and Linn Shapiro, "From Bold Beginnings to an Uncertain Future: The Discipline of History and History Education." American Historical Review 110:3 (June 2005).

2. Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (Princeton, N.J.: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Education, 1990); Robert B. Barr and John Tagg, "From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education," Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 27:6 (Nov–Dec 1995), 13–25.

3. Among the important programmatic essays are Lendol Calder, William W. Cutler III, and T. Mills Kelly, "History Lessons: Historians and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning," in Disciplinary Styles in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Exploring Common Ground, ed. Mary Taylor Huber and Sherwyn P. Morreale (Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2002), 45–67; David Pace, "The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning," American Historical Review 109:4 (October 2004), 1171–91; Alan Booth, "Rethinking the Scholarly: Developing the Scholarship of Teaching in History," Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 3 (October 2004), 247‑66. Significant collections include Gaea Leinhardt, Isabel L. Beck, and Catherine Stainton, Teaching and Learning in History (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994); Alan Booth and Paul Hyland, eds., History in Higher Education: New Directions in Teaching and Learning (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996); James F. Voss and Mario Carretero, eds., Learning and Reasoning in History,  vol. 2. (London: Woburn Press, 1998); Booth and Hyland, eds., The Practice of University History Teaching (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000); Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg, eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 2000); Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001). Two volumes that synthesize these findings are Booth, Teaching History at University: Enhancing Learning and Understanding (London: Routledge, 2003) and Geoff Timmins, Keith Vernon, and Christine Kinealy, Teaching and Learning History (London: Sage Publications, 2005).

4. Daniel Bernstein, Amy Nelson Burnett, Amy Goodburn, and Paul Savory, Making Teaching and Learning Visible: Course Portfolios and the Peer Review of Teaching (Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing, 2006); Michael Coventry, Peter Felten, David Jaffee, Cecilia O'Leary, and Tracey Weis, with Susannah McGowan, "Ways of Seeing: Evidence and Learning in the History Classroom," Journal of American History Vol. 92:4 (March 2006), pp.1371–1402; Lendol Calder, "Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey," The Journal of American History 92:4 (March 2006); David Pace and Joan Middendorf, eds., Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking, Vol. 98, New Directions in Teaching and Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004).

5. Geoff Timmins, "Formation of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History," History SoTL Newsletter 1 (January 2007); Sean Brawley, "Teaching and Learning History," History Australia (forthcoming 2007); David Pace, "The Globalization of History Teaching through the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning," Arts & Humanities in Higher Education (forthcoming 2007).

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