Why do most history teachers (past and present) use teacher-directed ways of teaching with a small minority diverging from their colleagues?
One answer looks at how external testing, state academic standards, federal accountability regulations, teacher certification, and the unofficial national curriculum of Advanced Placement influence what teachers present. These largely unnoticed structures in the policy landscape set the boundaries within which teachers teach. To answer the above question on why teachers tilt toward “traditional” teaching, then, I also want to identify other factors that often go unmentioned by those eager to improve the teaching of history in K-12 schools.
Consider that cultural beliefs about the function of public schools to socialize children and youth into the dominant civic and social values (e.g., honesty, respect for others’ values, cooperating) are anchored in age-graded school structures. They become a powerful organizational mechanism for carrying out societal expectations (i.e., kindergarten prepares children for the first grade, a high school diploma is essential to going to college or getting a decent job). Teachers operating separately in their classrooms move 25 to 30-plus students through a 700-page history text, and give frequent tests to see whether students have learned the required knowledge and skills.
Moreover, age-graded secondary schools have history teachers teaching five classes a day (with at least one planning or “free” period and lunch) usually involving up to three different preparations (e.g., world history, U.S. history, and economics) with a student load of anywhere between 125 to 165 a day. The sheer whirl of traversing these classes between 7:45 AM-3 PM is exhausting for 21 year-olds as it is for 61 year-olds. When grading homework, reading essays, and checking quizzes are factored into the workload of most history teachers—don’t forget most teachers see individual students before school, during planning periods and lunch, and then after school–the daily decisions and fast pace of the day, much less the unpredictable emotional ups-and-downs that accompany working with teenagers, exhilarate and exhaust teachers. These social beliefs and school structures added to the public expectation that every student passes a test to graduate and then go to college merge to create intense workplace conditions that influence how teachers teach.
Yet history teachers are hardly passive agents that societal expectations and school structures pour into a mold. Teachers bring their experiences, formal and informal knowledge, and personal beliefs about children, learning, and serving the community that also influence what and how they teach history.
Both constrained and autonomous, teachers accommodate to external demands and organizational structures while carving out a niche for themselves in which they can make independent decisions about how they organize their classrooms, group students, and teach. Most history teachers end up picking and choosing different practices to put a signature on their teaching yet fall within that part of a continuum of teaching practices (i.e., teacher-centered at one end; hybrid practices in the center; student-centered at the other end).
Consider George Blair (a pseudonym) a spellbinding, story-telling teacher of U.S. history in a suburban New York state school. A researcher who observed him teach a Civil Rights unit described three features of his work with students.
Blair weaves the U.S. civil rights movement together with U.S. foreign policy….
[He] highlights stories of individuals’ actions and experiences. Dates, places, and events are prominent, but they serve primarily as the backdrop of stories of individual uncertainty, folly, courage, and determination…. Stories demand a storyteller and an audience, and there is no role confusion in Blair’s classroom. As the narrator, Blair crafts the stories and delivers them without interruption. As the audience, students listen, take notes, and remain silent. Blair delivers a powerful performance…[p. 12].
Blair sits comfortably in the teacher-centered end of the continuum and uses his zone of discretion to be a storyteller.
While most teachers are at the teacher-centered end of the continuum, a sizable number of teachers work within the constraints of the age-graded school and make other teaching choices based on their beliefs about learning, children, and knowledge of history. They practice situationally-constrained choice by creating a student-centered version of teaching as Jenny Westphalen (a pseudonym) did in her three-week unit on the Vietnam War. She used a simulation called “Mission” where she divided the class into groups called Hawks, Doves, Military, and Brighties, each faction competing to earn points to influence the President in his decisions to escalate or de-escalate the war (BuildingAFramework. pdf)
Others adapt to the structures and invent unique hybrids of both traditions of teaching. Linda Strait (a pseudonym) offers one example. She teaches U.S. history at the same school as George Blair but is not a storyteller. Strait lectures, guides discussions, and controls what content is taught and how.
Yet in her Civil Rights unit, she offered a series of lessons beginning with a videotape “The Shadow of Hate” after which students divided into small groups to discuss and list their reactions on wall charts; an ungraded quiz on a reading Strait had assigned; a roundtable discussion of four questions she posed to the class; a two-day simulation of a local skating rink that refused to admit minorities with the teacher role-playing the owner and students making pitches to her to keep or drop the policy. Then two days of reviewing notes, writing in-class practice essays for the 11th grade Regents tests that would draw from the Civil Rights unit. Strait tells the researcher, “I try to throw in as many activities and projects, but I still feel that I am too heavily the center of it.” She has invented a hybrid of the two teaching traditions out of the choices she made within the constraints of state and school district policies, the structures of the age-graded high schools, her knowledge of the subject, personal experiences, and beliefs about how her students learn U.S. history (pp. 16-28).
These bands of teachers—I can only estimate as a sizable minority–among history teachers inhabit the hybrid portion of the continuum. They hug the middle.