How History Is Taught in Schools

Scholar Suzanne Wilson paints a familiar picture of teacher-centered instruction dominating history classrooms. Often called dismissively by critics as “traditional teaching,” it is a mode of instruction that is recognizable to most readers above the age of 18 who have ever taken high school history courses. In one study, for example, 97 percent of students in history courses reported that their teachers lectured some of the time, they memorized information (83 percent), and used the textbook weekly (89 percent). Other classroom studies between the 1920s and now have found similar outcomes.

Yet the consistent portrayal that researchers and reform-minded historians have constructed of secondary school classrooms is hardly monolithic. In my research on how teachers taught between the 1890s and the present, for example, I found teachers (I estimate 10-15 percent) who borrowed particular student-centered techniques and incorporated them into their largely teacher-centered repertoire. This pattern of selectively using certain practices I called “teacher-centered progressivism.” (see post “How Teachers Have Taught” August 16, 2009)

Individual history teachers have described practices they invented for their classrooms such as interspersing lectures and worksheets with small group-work; other teachers assigned textbook pages for homework and then had teams of students use their laptops to research World War II projects they chose. Such examples of pragmatic borrowing lighten the bleak, uniformly dark picture that many researchers draw when describing past and current history instruction.

Another variation in classroom practice that researchers have noted is how some secondary school teachers including many Advanced Placement history teachers use primary sources, critically examine documents for bias, and have students construct interpretations of events that differ from their textbook. They do this through lectures, guided discussions, small groups, individual work on desktop or laptop computers, simulations, and novel mixes of these practices. In short, small bands of history teachers (about 10-15 percent) work within both the teacher-centered- and student-centered traditions to construct unique hybrids. They have departed from the traditional practices that researchers have regularly described as the typical history classroom and students and parents have labeled “boring.”

Nonetheless, most history teachers still engage in a variety of text-driven practices that tilt toward a heritage rather than historical pedagogy.

Prizing the past for cultivating a national identity, patriotism, and a faith in one’s nation—the heritage view–is buried deeply in the mission of the school to socialize children with common civic values from which they can draw as adults as they become engaged in local and national issues. Beyond the U.S. flag in every classroom and Pledge of Allegiance, examples of heritage at work in schools are lessons that focus on the “founding fathers” of the Revolutionary period and heroes such as Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony to recoup from the past a legacy that all American students should know. In the hands of some legislators, textbook authors. and teachers, the heritage view of the past comes close to an official narrative encased in state standards and teaching; it aims to inspire pride in the U.S. The heritage approach uses the past to recreate the present to “tell ourselves who we are, where we are from, and to what we belong.” (pp. xi,xiii, 123)

The historical approach, however, is not a single account of the past but many accounts. Historians prize objectivity–seeking verifiable truth–in their different renderings of the past, knowing well that it is an ideal to be sought but seldom achieved; they reduce bias in their accounts by closely examining their own values as they retrieve documents from library archives, cellars, and official records. Their goal is to produce impartial stories and analyses consistent with the evidence they uncovered that explain events while exposing common beliefs about the past that often undermine “facts” cherished by heritage supporters. Historians try hard not to bend the past to fit the present by offering policy recommendations or lessons to be learned. History is an interpretation of the past, not a fax that yesteryear has wired to the present.

The ongoing pedagogical struggle between heritage and history in the schools mirrors the larger policy clash over which purposes of schooling (e.g., socializing children to community values vs. children learning to think for themselves and to question those values) should get enacted behind the classroom door.

Professional historians since the late-19th century have tried again and again to unbind teachers from the heritage-driven pedagogy of using one textbook and constantly asking students to recall names and dates. They have sought to make school-history more inquiring, more thoughtful, and more consistent with how historians do history.

In light of the evidence, thus far, of how teachers teach, professional historians–given their erratic but episodically vigorous efforts since the 1920s–have succeeded in raising public and professional awareness of the importance of history as a school subject but failed in their mission to substantially alter how teachers teach history.



Filed under how teachers teach

23 responses to “How History Is Taught in Schools

  1. What you lament here is so in line with efforts in science education to have teachers teach in a way that more accurately reflects how scientists do science. This effort, termed nature of science, has been ongoing for over half a century and still teachers focus on the products rather than the process of science. The facts rather than the kinds of thinking required to produce such facts.

    I wonder, and perhaps you would know better than I, if the facts were really ever the goal of educators or if they just became the goal because of ease?

    • larrycuban

      Yes, facts were viewed as desired outcomes of “good” teaching for centuries–see earlier posts on traditions of teaching that go back to ancient Greece. But other traditions of teaching closer to what you noted in science and I in history teaching have been around for a long time also. The dominant tradition has been teacher- and fact-centered strengthened considerably by the imperative to test, an imperative that, again, goes back in the U.S. to the very beginnings of tax-supported public schools in the early 19th century.

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  3. Do professional historians themselves really have a “mission” about elementary and secondary school teaching? Or is this a mission that people interested in improving education assign to them?

    Aren’t most historians situated in history departments in universities? My neighbors in the history department at a UC campus were mostly focused on research and writing in their respective specialties in history. High school textbook authors were relatively rare. I think this is generally true in the letters and sciences at research universities.

    I know that “legend” writings would have had a hard time getting recognized as scholarship in my own department.

    Bob Noel
    Retired Political Scientist
    Current School Board Member

    • larrycuban

      Yes, professional historians took on the mission of improving high school teaching of social studies in the early 20th century and each of the professional associations of historians continue today with journals, conference sessions, and the like.

  4. Jane

    I see a very complex interrelationship between teaching style (lecture vs. inquiry), teaching goal (heritage vs. history) and teaching content (facts vs. arguments). Excellent lecturers can point out the contradictions between the “heritage” narratives and the real history; they can use lectures as a framework for engaging discussions and alternative interpretations; they can push to have students absorb an appropriate amount of factual material IN ORDER TO be able to engage in debate, not as a substitute for debate.

  5. Mr. Cuban,

    Thanks for the article. First, I agree that more history teachers should focus on the history vs. heritage aspect of the class. In elementary and middle school, students should get enough of the heritage element where in high school, they should be able to then look at the historiography of the content, rather than just repeat what they’ve already learned.

    I would caution though, the importance of making sure teachers allow students to explore various points of view on history. I observe teachers and note how good they feel by exposing students to other points of use just using Howard Zinn for example. I think this comes from the bias of the teacher and the fact, as you mention, state mandated tests don’t allow for the history aspect of history, so time becomes a factor.

    Instead of textbooks, I’d rather see teachers using primary resources, and then have students make their own conclusions. The teacher should point out contradictory arguments, but allow the student to defend their own point of view.

  6. As a recent graduate (two years ago) of teacher preparation, I am glad to say that we had many conversations in my Social Studies methods course about this exact question. Many of my peers in that class, recognize the problems that come with teaching a heritage curriculum versus a historical one. I teach in an environment right now that allows me to take whatever approach I want to, and feel the freedom I have been given allows me to expose my students to history and the different perspectives. I do not often use a textbook and do not follow a chronological study of history. I have just recently started blogging about my classroom and would love to have feedback from you and others about the material and activities I do.

  7. I am scheduled to teach a workshop next week to a group of Texas educators on ways to incorporate primary sources from the Library of Congress into their teaching. Given the controversial 2010 special-interest-driven changes to Texas history standards, I’m most curious to discover just how these teachers plan to use primary sources. Will they use them to promote critical thinking, or will they feel compelled to select only those primary sources that support the narrowly defined “heritage” standards. Since I am a librarian rather than a historian, I thank you for giving me a framework for discussion should the occasion present itself.

  8. Jane

    John, I read your blog and can see that you have some great resources for digging deep into special topics. Do you get the freedom you have to teach w/o a text book and using a non-chronological approach because our students have already had US History, and yours is meant to be a special topics class?

  9. Cal

    Narrative should take a commanding role in high school history instruction. I find it troubling that so many teachers want to transform history from an essential content-driven class to a purely critical thinking class, in which content shows up occasionally to give the students something to question (and is usually presented in a less-than-objective fashion).

    History and science are content-driven classes. The content is essential to creating informed citizens. E.D. Hirsch has observed time and again how important content is to reading comprehension. Both history and science have traditionally provided a great deal of the content knowledge that fuels reading comprehension. Too many teachers are ignoring that fact.

    I run into many teachers who sneer at teaching the “Founding Fathers” (as they call it) and barely touch it, while spending weeks or even months on civil rights in American history–and then, they aren’t teaching facts, but rather requiring the student to regurgitate ideologically correct interpretations. All the while these teachers are bemoaning what’s happening in Texas, of course.

    We don’t teach history to make historians, any more than we teach math to make mathematicians or teach English literature and expository essays to create novelists. We teach tools and content. Of course, there’s room for interpretation and analysis in a high school history classroom. But we should never forget our fundamental reponsibility to ensure our students know the narrative. They can question or challenge the narrative, or be angry about it. But they should know it.

    (Credentialed in math, history, and English.)

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  11. rafael heller


    Lovely, clear-headed post, as usual.

    I’m curious, though, as to whether you think the only alternative to “heritage” instruction is to teach a version of what “professional historians” study at the university level. I’ve been struggling with this question as it relates to current debates about writing across the curriculum (or “in the disciplines”). If you have time, I’d love to know your thoughts on this piece:

    • larrycuban

      I read the piece you wrote debating Elizabeth Moje on literacy (reading/writing) across the curriculum in secondary schools. You asked whether I think that the “only alternative” to teaching history as “heritage” is a version of teaching history as a discipline, that is, how historians practice their art and craft. No, it is not the only alternative. There are many hybrids out there in middle and high school social studies classrooms. Blends of “heritage” and “historical thinking” lessons exist for many reasons: standardized tests (and the benchmark tests that lead up to the annual one), accountability regulations that have ratcheted up the consequences for students’ low performance on those tests, and the persistent identity crisis (still in full bloom after a century) over whether social studies is a discipline and the role of history. All of these help to create many versions of “heritage” and “historical thinking” in classrooms. The dominant approach, in my opinion, remains “heritage” for the reasons given plus what I wrote in the piece about the abiding purpose of tax-supported public schooling still being socialization–something that higher education in its pursuit of disciplinary purity lacks in its mission.

  12. I’m a school teacher in India where despite attempts to look at history from multiple perspectives, the heritage approach continues to predominate. In India we are all brought up with this notion that we have some 3000 years of history and more with unique contributions in domains of literature, science, art and architecture shaped by all conceivable institutionalized religions i.e. HIndu, Buddhist, Jain, Islamic and even Christian. In the context of our colonial past such an interpretation was perhaps even desirable to combat colonial historiography which sought to inferiorize India not just in the domains of economy but culture as well.

    But then my question is whether such an heritage approach does not exclude looking critically at different sources. As in, one can still use different sources, look at them critically even but yet seek to resurrect an history which reinforces a nationalist narrative in which a contemporary nation seeks to locate itself. In my view then while multiple and careful and comparative use of sources are required, indeed basic craft of a historian mandates it, in itself that will not ensure value free objective history. It is our ideology – nationalist, marxist, feminist, liberal, conservative – that shapes us (often unconsciously) which further goes to shape our reading of the world and the kind of questions that we bring to bear on the world and the sources we come across to understand its past(s). But i think what is important is not to see our views as infallible even as we try to be self critical. I can be a marxist but be a reflective one open to dialogue.

    • larrycuban

      As I read your comment which is insightful about the dilemmas inherent in the tensions between the heritage/history approaches in K-12 schools and higher education, I thought your emphasis on self-awareness, self-examination, and being critical was apt. Much, however, depends on the depth of the ideologies that drive one’s beliefs and actions. Being ideological and “be … reflective … [and] open to dialogue” is very hard to do for most people who identify themselves as “Marxist,” democratic socialist, or whatever –at least in my experience.

  13. Felicity

    Hello Larry,
    I hope you see this as I notice it’s a while since anyone posted…

    I have just started teaching history but am not a specialist and I have a burning question that I can’t find the answer to: in secondary school (ages 12 to 18) is it essential that children are taught history in a chronological order which starts with the Big Bang/Creation theory and ends with yesterday’s news ? This is how I am supposed to teach and I can see the logic that you need to know what came before. However, it also means that the students study only early civilisations in the lower grades and don’t get to Independence (I live in Colombia) until they are 15/16 years old. As this is part of their heritage, I personally think it is important to look at earlier in the school as it is really quite shameful when they know nothing about Simon Bolívar, for example, at the age of 14. Would it be so terrible if they looked at Independence before Mesopotamia?
    Well, I really hope someone can reply to my question!

    • larrycuban

      It is not essential to teach history in a chronological sequence although it is essential for students to understand how some events and people predate other events and people. That can be done without teaching history chronologically. In the U.S. different states assign early historical periods to elementary and middle school grades and do as you are expected to do in the high school years. In California, for example, for the 11th grade U.S. history course, the teacher is expected to review the first couple hundred years of U.S. history in six week and then focus on late-19th and 20th century history up to the present. Curriculum guides and textbooks follow that pattern in early and upper grades. But many teachers over the decades have tried different approaches including starting in the present and working backward, following themes in history (e.g., immigration, political and economic independence). But most teachers follow the state-approved course of study.

      • Felicity

        Thanks for your prompt reply! My school is actually moving towards a completely concept based approach, so I think that I will have to start working more with the idea of themes rather than a strict chronological progression. It is good to know that it is possible to teach in this way, keeping in mind what you say about putting things in perspective in a general overview. Our national curriculum doesn’t actually state definitively the content that must be covered although it gives suggestions, so we are a little more flexible in that respect.

      • larrycuban

        Good luck, Felicity.

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