Published Date

June 1, 2018

Resource Type

AHA Standards and Guidelines

AHA Topics

Academic Departmental Affairs, K–12 Education, Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education

Approved by Council in June 1997; updated June 2018.

Textbooks play a vital role in history education, from elementary school through the college survey courses. In addition to addressing a variety of themes, topics, and educational levels, textbooks also appropriately reflect authors’ particular tastes and approaches. While textbooks inevitably and rightly reflect authors’ particular approaches and interpretive choices, one can identify certain general qualities that textbooks should possess. Recognizing that textbooks will vary widely depending on a number of different factors, including the educational level of the intended audience, the breadth of the course, and authors’ approaches, all students who encounter history textbooks are entitled to works that meets professional standards.

In order to promote high quality history education, the AHA encourages those who are evaluating textbooks for possible adoption to consider the following questions.

Good history textbooks offer a distillation of available knowledge on major subjects in the discipline, while providing other exercises geared to the appropriate student level. Good textbooks can and should vary considerably for any given grade level and for any survey subject. Depending on the course, some textbooks will offer broad coverage, while others will emphasize more in-depth coverage.

It is important that teachers have choice in the particular approaches presented and that they be involved in the process of textbook selection. Teachers bring essential knowledge and experience to textbook decisions and should be given the opportunity to pick among several options according to personal preference, course goals, and their special understanding of the students they serve.

While a variety of approaches among textbooks is desirable, satisfactory texts at every level meet certain criteria. The most important guideline, from which more specific criteria follow, is the need to make sure that the text contributes to good history instruction and adheres to scholarly standards.

Factual Coverage. History textbooks convey historical facts. No matter what the subject or how large the book, historians are selective about which historical facts to include. A satisfactory history text describes what the key selection criteria have been so that users can assess the validity of the choices and also have an awareness of the potential gaps. For example, a world history text may place less emphasis on certain early periods or geographical regions and still measure up to coverage needs, but the choices should be briefly indicated and explained. In U.S. history, some sequences of presidents are often summed up without great detail in an effort to discuss the broader social and political trends that characterize the era in question. Again, this kind of selectivity should be briefly noted and explained. In addition to explaining selectivity in coverage, good textbooks should also address the provisional nature of historical knowledge and explain gaps in our understanding of certain events.

Factual coverage should reflect explicit attention to chronology and change over time. That is, it should help establish differences as well as similarities between past and present and should deal with events and patterns in a sequence of time. For more advanced students, chronology should also be presented through discussion of periodization, that is, through discussion of key points of change so that students can understand the interpretive choices involved in deciding on major breaks in chronology sequences.

History textbooks should reflect current scholarship and be peer reviewed. Regular updating and revision in light of new historical research as well as research from the scholarship of teaching and learning are essential for textbook accuracy and balance. Wherever possible, a brief discussion of suggested supplementary readings, appropriate to the user level but reflective of the most recent historical research, should be included.

Factual coverage in historical textbooks should also reflect the experiences of different groups. Historically, group identities based on race, class, religion, gender, and sexuality have shaped how people view the world and understand historical change. Textbooks should seek to appreciate and represent these diverse experiences, integrating them into the larger analytical framework and narrative structure.

When appropriate, they should also deal with the economic, political, social and cultural aspects of the human experience as well as with the interrelationships among these facets of the human experience.   When appropriate to the course, global perspectives are also a defining feature of adequate textbooks. Clearly a world history text will have much different geographical coverage from a United States or an individual state survey. In all cases, however, an adequate text will place regional or national narratives in a wider perspective so that global trends and forces are given appropriate attention and so that the principal distinctive features of a regional or national experience are placed in a wider context.

Finally, when appropriate to the course and level, textbooks should also address differing interpretations and the fact that revising and reassessing historical narratives based on new scholarship and new ideas sometimes generates controversy. Indeed, an adequate history textbook should address some topics about which debate continues and should assist readers in balancing an understanding of diverse viewpoints with attention to historical context and a respect for interpretive debate rooted in evidence and disciplinary standards.

Historical Thinking. The presentation of evidence in textbooks should acknowledge the diverse forms of historical evidence and the fact that the interpretation of this evidence is rarely straightforward. Adequate history textbooks should actively encourage historical thinking and the development of historical habits of mind beyond memorization. Adequate history texts not only provide a historical narrative based on a variety of historical sources and the latest scholarship, they also encourage readers, when appropriate, to apply the range of skills it takes to decode the complex historical record and to create historical arguments and narratives.

When appropriate to the course and level, textbooks should also include, make reference to, or be readily compatible with primary documents and a variety of other historical sources so that students gain the ability to assess different kinds of sources and to apply the range of skills necessary to decode the historical record that is complex and often incomplete.

Good historical textbooks can also encourage historical thinking in other ways. They can help students learn both to rigorously analyze specific pieces of evidence and to identify and explain broader patterns of change and continuity over time. They can also help students develop the skills to apply historical knowledge and historical thinking to contemporary issues. They can encourage students to engage in a dialogue with the past, to have them ask substantive historical questions, and to help students develop positions that reflect careful deliberation and diverse perspectives. Lastly, textbooks can also make use of the scholarship of teaching and learning to provide guidance on a variety of assessments that promote historical thinking and active learning.

Review, Evaluation and Supplementary Materials. Prior to publication, history textbooks should be reviewed and evaluated by research historians and active teachers. In other words, the composition of textbooks should involve the participation of leading scholars and of the teachers, community college instructors, and public historians who will most likely assign and rely on these textbooks. Once adopted, textbooks should be regularly evaluated, revised and updated for their effectiveness.

When possible, textbooks should also offer different types of supplementary materials in both print and digital formats. Textbooks should also be evaluated in terms of their adaptability in various school settings and should be adaptable to schools with very different resource levels. Offering a wide range of supplementary materials, in both print and digital formats, can help overcome the disparity in resource levels.

History textbooks play a very important role in history education. They should help prepare students to develop the historical knowledge and the skills necessary to interpret the past with clarity, empathy, imagination and rigor. Recognizing that textbooks will vary widely depending on a number of different factors, including educational level, the breadth of the course, and authors’ tastes and approaches, history textbooks should reflect current scholarships, be peer reviewed and adhere to scholarly standards.