Training the Next Generation of History Teachers

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.

4 thoughts on “Training the Next Generation of History Teachers

  1. Clio Bluestocking

    I was going to reply to your comment on my blog, but since the information is here, I’ll just reply here (and, since you make so many important, excellent points, I may have to write and e-mail to you).

    This has been my frustration from the first day that, as a brand-new Master’s student, I was thrust in front of a discussion section with no training or idea of what I was supposed to be doing. Teaching has been a self-taught discipline, not just for me, but for most of my history colleagues.

    The department from which I graduated at least finally instituted a class that attempted to address professional issues such as c.v.-writing and lecture construction and so forth; but it was, of course, taught by other historians, not professors from the education department. I always thought that we should have a class, in the graduate department, on “teaching at the college level.” Even if you don’t plan a career in teaching, the tools can be applied to so many other areas. We all, for instance, will be required to speak in public at sometime.

    Also, the assumption has always been that, if you go to graduate school, you will become a professor. That, or that you are getting a master’s degree as part of your professional development as a grade school teacher. At least in my program, to be on another track was to be wasting your advisor’s time.

    Yet, I have had many undergraduates who love history, but don’t want to teach or to go the PhD route, so they discount any pursuit of history beyond the required courses. They want other routes. Part of what I have been doing for the past five years is exploring the other routes that they could take, both as undergraduate and graduate students.

    Thank you for addressing this; and my apologies for taking up so much space.

    Reply
  2. Kevin Levin

    Clio B, — Thanks for taking the time to share such a thoughtful comment. It’s nice to know that some of my ideas resonate with people like you. It would be great to hear from others with similar experiences.

    Reply
  3. Matt

    I actually posted about this report as well, but you’ve added some things that I didn’t really consider. Overall though, I enjoyed reading the report and agreed with almost everything it had to offer.

    Reply
  4. Kevin Levin

    Matt, — It’s a very interesting and useful report. Congratulations on getting the blog up and running. I’ve noticed that others have linked to your site which is a real good sign.

    Reply

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