The AHA blog has a link to the report "The Next Generation of History Teachers: A Challenge to Departments of History at American Colleges and Universities" which is the result of a conference that took place here in Charlottesville in the summer of 2006. The conference brought together history professors, high school teachers and others who are interested in the quality of history teaching from K-12. Reading through the report reminded me of some of my own questions regarding the responsibilities of college history departments in preparing their students not simply to do research and contribute to their respective fields, but as teachers who have some background in pedagogy. The central observation of the group is the following:
Past debates aside, today no one denies that history teachers need to know history. No one denies that teaching is a professional practice that can be developed and improved. No one denies that the best history teachers are driven by a passion for their subject as well as by concern for their students. And no one doubts that passion for history often comes to young teachers from their history professors.
As a result, we believe that departments need to create new opportunities for the people in our classes to begin thinking like history teachers as well as history students. They need to be exposed to historiographical thinking sooner rather than later, explicitly defined and carefully elaborated. Underlying this recommendation is the conviction that the best preparation for future history teachers is the best preparation for all history students. By performing this central task more effectively we can improve all the teaching we do. [emphasis in the original]
At first glance this is a tall order for history departments across the country. As the report indicates most history departments have little to no contact with their departments of education which means that students in both camps are ill-served. For graduate students in history one can expect that little formal training in how to conduct a classroom – apart from the old lecture format – will be introduced, and students in education departments may have little training in how history is actually done. As a result these students enter classrooms unable to apply or teach the kinds of analytical skills that are necessary in understanding the past.
The report offers some practical suggestions for those departments that are interested in taking a critical look at their programs. Their first point struck home for me as it indicates that history department rarely ask their students about their future plans. I don’t ever remember being asked as a graduate student in philosophy about my future plans and I suspect that this is the case in graduate programs across the board. Since the professors in the department have made careers teaching on the college level it is assumed that their students will do the same. Although it is anecdotal at best, over the past year I’ve had a number of graduate students contact me through this blog for advice about teaching in private schools or on the high school level generally. Taking one step back it is rather shocking that not more is in place to help young history graduate students take stock of their options apart from the traditional route of research and college teaching. More importantly it is disappointing as I am convinced that many of our best teachers could be pulled from this pool of passionate and well-trained students of history. Other suggestions from the report included:
If history departments are in institutions with schools of education, for example, the departments should open communication and establish collaboration. Joint advising has been successful at many schools and some historians might propose cross-listing their courses or team-teaching classes of the sort described below. If history departments are on their own, without schools of education, they have an even greater responsibility to think about preparing the future teachers in their charge.
A third step is for history departments to learn more about the situation in the K-12 classrooms of their community. Our conference showed how much historians in colleges have to learn from teachers in high schools. Inviting history teachers to visit to talk about standards, curricula, and local resources would help historians be better allies. By offering to help evaluate pre-service teachers in their practice teaching, in turn, historians could focus on disciplinary content and help students recognize the connections between what they teach and what historians teach in their own classrooms . By working with new history teachers in local schools in induction programs historians could make an immediate impact on the quality of history instruction in their communities and on beginning teachers’ success in the field.
This is an ambitious report and one that I would like to see departments across the country consider. That said, I am skeptical that it will make much of an impact. I say this because the first thing that must change is what I perceive to be a deeply ingrained assumption that the essential goal of graduate programs (specifically graduate programs with a PhD) is to train historians. And that is different from training historians who can teach.
There is an excellent short bibliography of sources that address historical thinking in the classroom. I highly recommend Sam Wineburg’s, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Temple University Press, 2001).
I applaud the members of this conference for their work in preparing this report and I look forward to reading updates.