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.