How To Teach History

Here is how a journalist described a class she watched a few months ago in a Northern California high school.

In the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein famously plays a high school teacher who drones on about the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act while his students slump at their desks in a collective stupor. For many kids, that’s history: an endless catalog of disconnected dates and names, passed down like scripture from the state textbook, seldom questioned and quickly forgotten.

Now take a seat inside Will Colglazier’s classroom at Aragon High School in San Mateo. The student population here is fairly typical for the Bay Area: about 30 percent Latino, 30 percent Asian and 40 percent white. The subject matter is standard 11th grade stuff: What caused the Great American Dust Bowl?

Tapping on his laptop, Colglazier shows the class striking black-and-white images of the choking storms that consumed the Plains states in the 1930s. Then he does something unusual. Instead of following a lesson plan out of the textbook, he passes out copies of a 1935 letter, written by one Caroline Henderson to the then-U.S. secretary of agriculture, poignantly describing the plight of her neighbors in the Oklahoma panhandle. He follows that with another compelling document: a confidential high-level government report, addressed to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, decrying the region’s misguided homesteading policies.

Colglazier clearly is a gifted and well-trained educator, a history/economics major and 2006 graduate of the Stanford Teacher Education Program. But what sets this class apart from Ferris Bueller’s is more than the man; it’s his method—an approach developed at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education that’s rapidly gaining adherents across the country. At a time when national student surveys show abysmal rates of proficiency in history, trial studies of the Stanford program demonstrated that when high school students engage regularly with challenging primary source documents, they not only make significant gains learning and retaining historical material, they also markedly improve their reading comprehension and critical thinking…..

Colglazier builds his thought-provoking classes using an online tool called Reading Like a Historian. Designed by the Stanford History Education Group under Professor Sam Wineburg, the website offers 87 flexible lesson plans featuring documents from the Library of Congress. Teachers can download the lessons and adapt them for their own purposes, free of charge. Students learn how to examine documents critically, just as historians would, in order to answer intriguing questions: Did Pocahontas really rescue John Smith? Was Abraham Lincoln a racist? Who blinked first in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Russians or the Americans?

Most history teachers do not teach like Will Colglazier or the cartoon figure teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Colglazier is an exception, albeit according to the journalist, one who joins many others in using  historical thinking to gain deep understanding of the past rather than a heritage approach, that is, using facts from the past to recreate a present that tells Americans who they are, who they were, and the nation they are part of.

As I and many others who have been in classrooms have pointed out, most history teachers tilt toward the heritage end of the spectrum of history teaching but many do incorporate historical approaches in their lessons (See here and here).


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 omnipresent structures in the policy terrain 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 22-year-olds. Imagine what it is like for 62- 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 goes 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 life experiences, formal and informal knowledge, and personal beliefs about children, learning, and serving the community that also influence what and how they teach history. And this is where blends of heritage and historical thinking pedagogy enter the picture.

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 tattoo on their teaching yet fall somewhere in the middle part of a continuum of teaching practices.

While most teachers use a version of the heritage approach, a small minority like Will Colglazier 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.

Consider New York teacher Linda Strait (a pseudonym). A researcher who observed her teach a hybrid of both traditions of teaching. She teaches U.S. history through 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).

Will Colglazier is part of a minority of teachers using historical thinking pedagogy. Most teachers of history blend both pieces of it and the heritage approach; they hug the middle.


Filed under how teachers teach

22 responses to “How To Teach History

  1. Years ago, when I first started teaching, we called it “inquiry” method which was proffered by Edwin Fenton. It was engaging and students learned about primary documents and critical thinking. Years later, we sat in the faculty lounge and wondered what happened to that imaginative and educative approach. I am happy that it is coming back around.

    • larrycuban

      Although current academics and practitioners might not agree that Ted Fenton’s work in the 1970s is the same as what Sam Wineburg and his colleagues are now doing, there are clear similarities. The cycles in instructional reform that you refer to, Kali, occur across academic subjects, as you know. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Jeff Bowen

    Colglazier’s methodology reminds me of the ideals of a liberal arts education at the college level. My history courses at Williams in the 1960s were virtually the same and they prompted me to teach high school history the same way. The toughest challenge at that level was prompting the lateral learning that required students to engage one another in meaningful dialogue. They just were not used to it. I think the Common Core aspires to this approach, but administering an assessment that captures the skill, perspective, and understanding generated by this “curriculum” seems like a tall order. I recommend reading Andrew Delbanco’s new book, COLLEGE:WHAT IT WAS, IS, AND SHOULD BE to gain renewed appreciation pf why we need liberal arts learning more than ever.

  3. Thanks so much for this. I just sent it to several teachers I know and will post it tomorrow at http://DrDougGreen.Com.

  4. Gary Ravani

    I, too, came into teaching with “inquiry method” as the dominant paradigm. As I gained experience I’d say I evolved into a teaching style that today would likely be called “project based.” The primary challenge to that style, and a severe challenge to younger teachers who came to the profession without the inquiry background, was the imposition of standards and testing. The standards, of course, put the selection of key content into the “hands” of others at some remote distance and then enforced via the Standards tests. In CA, for a middle schools teacher, that meant a test at 8th grade that tested content for 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. Of course there were suggestions that teachers be held “accountable” for the classroom performance of other teachers, at other grades, other schools, and possibly other districts, if not other states. No sillier than what being done in some places around the country.

    My favorite standard was (was it 9.6?) of 7th grade World History that read (something like): “Students will learn St Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of classical humanism and Christian theology.” This was for 13 year olds.

    Over the years I have spent considerable time in Sacramento lobbying re various K-12 issues and in that time have encountered numerous politicians who would pound the table and bloviate about the critical importance of THE STANDARDS! Then I would ask if they had ever read the standards, or any standards for that matter? No, of course not.

  5. Larry,
    I am reading Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen. You are referenced in it. As I read the research they were describing, I thought, I know that guy. Interesting book.

  6. Pingback: May 17 | tigersteach

  7. Larry: Great article! I am one of those history teacher who has “evolved” in her methodology over the past 3 decades, including more exploration of primary documents, more discussion, more interdisciplinary connections, and more focus on the world in which we live now. Included in my own evolution has been the best professional development I have ever received through the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College; these workshops focused on showing teachers with little or no art background how to incorporate art in the classroom. I would just like to offer the suggestion that using the primary sources found in art, whether it’s Michelangelo’s David or James Nachtwey’s photograph of a Hutu man suspected of being a Tutsi rebel, can be a provocative introduction to any history discussion. For example, to help establish the intellectual shift from the Medieval Period to the Renaissance, I put students in trios and pass out two art post cards face down numbered 1 & 2. The first has a Byzantine icon of Madonna and Child and the other has a similar Renaissance image. They have to explore the first, examining what they see, then the second. Finally, we put both cards face up and draw out the comparisons and contrasts. Out of this exercise comes our first grasp of humanism.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you so much, Deborah, for taking the time to comment on the post and detail a lesson you taught.Incorporating art into history lessons as you have “evolved” into reveals the constant experimentation and risk-taking teachers do in their classrooms.

  8. Pingback: News and Notes: May 18, 2013 | Exploring the Past

  9. The method presented is one that the AP program would favor, but for a survey course, which High School US History is, there is a limit to how much time one can spend on any one topic, and the Dust Bowl was only one of a long series of events which constituted the Great Depression. [I believe that the lack of knowledge of the climate of the High Plains with the desire to farm as much of that land as possible, created the event we refer to as the Dust Bowl.] The Tariff Acts (and there was one with every Congress) constitute another. Opening up the class to this method of Historical study is important, but a class still needs to touch on the myriad other events that spelled out the economics of the time between the two great wars and well as look and the many international events occurring in this same time frame.
    John Dickert
    Mount Vernon Farms

  10. DISD Teacher

    Your posts arriving in my mailbox are a lifeline of sanity. We are in the first year of slash-and-burn school “reform” here in Dallas. So little hope for positive change…

  11. A reblogué ceci sur Le Didacticien and commented:
    Great post!

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