Teaching History Then and Now

Suppose you could find someone who taught history in three different high schools in two cities between the 1950s through the early 1970s. Suppose further that this person had been trained as an historian and had kept personal records such as a journal, student grade books, scattered lessons, school yearbooks, and student letters from those year of teaching.  Suppose even further that this person could reconstruct from those sources and official school archives what it was like to teach history in those three largely minority high schools a half-century ago. And, finally, suppose that this former high school history teacher (who had ended up as a university professor researching curriculum, teaching, the uses of technology in classrooms and school reform) could then go to those same three high schools–still largely minority–in two different cities today, yes, today, and observe how teachers teach history now.

If all those “supposes” could happen, would those pictures of teaching history then and now in the same high schools a half-century apart reveal anything worthwhile to policymakers, practitioners, researchers, parents, and reform-minded non-educators?

My answer is yes. And that is what I propose to do over the next two  years.

I taught history and social studies at Glenville high school (Cleveland, Ohio) for seven years beginning in the mid-1950s. I and my family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1963 and for nearly a decade I taught history and social studies in two different DC public high schools (Cardozo and Roosevelt) while also serving as a district administrator.

Last month, I proposed to a foundation that I would reconstruct my teaching in those three high schools a half-century ago and then return to those same high schools and watch contemporary teachers of history teach students in 2014. I wanted to answer one question: Over the past half-century, amid enormous changes in the political, economic, and social context for public schools, what has changed in the content I once taught and how I taught it and what has remained the same?

Of course, I and other scholars have examined this question in past decades. I have found that subject matter has changed in the sciences, math, English, and the social studies. I have also found that most teachers in organizing the content they taught incrementally blended elements of teacher-centered (sometimes called “traditional”) and student-centered (sometimes called “progressive”) ways of teaching. In one book, I called the blended instruction “teacher-centered progressivism.” In a later book, I saw these hybrids “hugging the middle” of the teaching spectrum in grouping for instruction, using textbooks, adopting new technologies, and assessing what students have learned. In short, most teaching practices blended the old and new, creating change while maintaining stability. That  mix of new and familiar practices may explain to outsiders looking inside classrooms such as policymakers, researchers, and parents why they find classroom lessons very familiar to what they experienced years earlier as students.

What I propose doing is to track those classroom changes in more intimate ways by looking at what and how I taught history decades ago and comparing and contrasting what I can reconstruct from that earlier period with what I observe of history teachers today in those very same high schools that I spent a substantial portion of my career. But not only record my teaching.

I need to look at how my colleagues in each high school taught. When I taught then, I tried out new materials and experimented with different ways to organize the teaching of history while mainly using teacher-centered practices. I need to track down whether there were differences in how my peers and I taught.

To determine how other history teachers in the schools within which I taught conducted their classrooms—to see if there was variation among my peers—I would use school yearbooks, student accounts of their teachers, journalist articles, etc.  to craft a coherent description and analysis of their teaching as well as the district, school, and  classroom contexts in which we taught.

By necessity, portions of the “coherent description and analysis” will be autobiographical. I would include vignettes of my teaching in those years.  I am fully aware that there is a natural tension between writing an historical account as I have done in other studies and constructing a personal narrative. Writing autobiographically, in fact, has become a genre in of itself for historians with its own complications and dilemmas. I will note those tensions and deal with them explicitly in my written account.

For the current district, and school contexts in 2013-2014, I would collect documents and interview key district and school participants. In the three high schools, I will observe and interview as many teachers of history who would be willing to participate. I have written extensively about the national context of school reform over the past quarter-century and will determine to what degree those reforms became state policies and then filtered into the two districts and classrooms I observe.

The key part of the analysis of both time periods would be parsing what the words “change” and “stability” mean. There are, for example, different kinds of institutional change over time (e.g., incremental and fundamental). Are the changes I identified occurring over the past century mostly incremental (e.g., higher teacher certification requirements, high school courses added and dropped) or were there some fundamental changes in organizing curriculum and instruction (e.g., project based learning, middle schools replacing junior highs)? Sorting out such changes gets complicated when, to give another example, changes are made that end up reinforcing traditional patterns of teaching (e.g., more tests and accountability regulations turn into teachers spending more instructional time on preparing students for exams). Moreover, school structures and cultures that affect what is taught and how it is taught shift over time within schools (e.g., schools get larger and smaller, daily times schedules for classes get longer and shorter, professional learning communities arise and disappear).

Consider further the varied meanings of “change” when one examines teaching practices. Take a teacher, for example, who agrees to use laptops stored on a mobile cart in one of her five history classes. She is deeply interested in using primary sources and wants students to analyze those sources. That decision involves risk on her part in having students distracted by the devices and being off-task in achieving the objectives of her lesson. Yet, she is willing to experiment. . During the 50-minute class period, she has students use the laptops to look up vocabulary terms in the textbook chapter on the Great Depression of the 1930s. She then asks them to find photos of dust storms and farmers leaving the Midwest—all of these tasks are for a homework assignment. There is little discussion of the definitions students found that differ from what the textbook says and the different photos students found. She has adopted a technological innovation to further her goal of students parsing words and photos but uses it conventionally in her lesson.

Has she altered her teaching? The teacher says yes. She is using laptops in one of her five daily lessons and students collect information from different sources. An administrator who visits her classes also says yes. The researcher, however, looking to see whether the teacher has students analyze primary sources and come up with interpretations of what those photos say about the effects of dust storms on Midwest farmers might say no. From the researcher’s perspective, the teacher is surely using laptops to investigate what occurred on many farms during the Great Depression in one of her five classes. Yet when she does have students use these devices, their use reinforces existing teacher-centered practices that the teacher has always used. These multiple perspectives have to be considered when determining whether colleagues and I have altered daily teaching practices.

Thus, the complexity of the concept of change has to be unpacked, analyzed, and fit to the contexts and teaching that I describe in earlier decades and now.

To sum up this project, I propose that a working historian of education who had taught for nearly 15 years in three urban high schools a half-century ago, revisit those high schools and districts to answer the thorny question of what has changed in both the content and pedagogy and what has remained the same. It is not an easy question to answer but important to informing policy decisions for current and future policymakers, researchers, parents, and reform-minded activists who seek to improve teaching and student learning not only in history but also in other academic subjects as well.

This is what I intend to work on for the next two years.


Filed under how teachers teach

20 responses to “Teaching History Then and Now

  1. Margaret Crocco

    What a fascinating project! I look forward to reading the results of this new research project.

  2. Sandy

    Will you be blogging about any of your experiences and observations? I don’t know if I can wait 2 years to hear from you again! When you are in DC, if you need an assistant, let me know. Would eagerly volunteer.

  3. Sounds like a fascinating project. I will be following closely. I would like to know if student’s expectations, and mode of learning, have changed. Although, we think we know the answer, we may not. Good stuff, Larry.

  4. Carol Carstensen

    Larry: I’ve been a “lurker” on your blog for a couple years. The project sounds fascinating, useful – and fun. Let me know if I can help with information about Glenville and/or Roosevelt.

    • larrycuban

      Wonderful to hear from you, Carol. Yes, I could use some help. I have compiled names and emails of Glenville high school graduates who have contacted me over the past decade. I would like to contact other graduates who took their U.S. history classes with me, Charles Kellogg, Art Smith, Jim O’Meara, and other social studies teachers at Glenville and give me their recollections of the classes they took. So gathering names and addresses of folks that you know from your years at Glenville and sending them along is a start. As for Roosevelt high school in DC, I recall us working together, perhaps with Sheri Lanoff, on a course we taught together but my memory is very spotty so I need help there also. Thanks so much, Carol, for offering to help.

      • Carol Carstensen

        I have some contacts from my class (1961) and continue to have a connection with Sheri Lanoff, so let me know what you need.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for letting me know. I will be in touch with you through email.

  5. Art

    What a great idea and you are just the one to do it! Please be sure to deal with the ‘New Social Studies’, which was where many boomers like me came into the profession. In my Methods course in 1967, we spent a good deal of time with several of the major ‘projects’ and I used Fenton’s A New History of the US for my first three years of teaching and used the ‘Pound Laundry’ lesson for 30+ years. Of course, that book also taught me that no matter how good a resource, too much of a good thing is not good. A New History needed more narrative to go with the great primary sources.
    Also, I wonder what you now think of your Promise of America text series? I used excerpts from old copies into the 2000’s, for their great primary source material and readability.

    Good luck!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comments, Art. I played a bit part in what was called “The New Social Studies.” Ted Fenton heard a talk I gave in 1962 when I was teaching at Glenville high school. He asked me to write a book using primary sources, as I had been doing in my classes since the late-1950s. “The Negro in America” came out in 1964 as part of the Scott,Foresman series on “Problems in America History” edited by Ted and David Fowler (reissued as “The Black Man in America” in 1971. Sam Bryan, a former Peace Corps volunteer and teacher at Cardozo high school–where I was a master teacher–went from Cardozo to Carnegie Mellon to work with Ted on his “New History of the U.S.” I and Phil Roden began writing “The Promise of America” series of five paperbacks in 1966; The use of primary sources, interpreting documents, students answering historical questions using multiple sources–all of it was in “Promise of America.” they were a hit with many teachers and used through the late-1970s. So the lineage is there on the “New Social Studies.” Question for me, Art, is the similarities and differences between the current efforts by scholars and teachers to “do history” as historians and that New Social Studies a half-century ago.

  6. While the curriculum and instruction side of most high school classes may look very similar, the students from these different eras are likely quite different. Media saturation and commercialization of culture has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. I think this parallels the evolution of technology in schools – from films, filmstrips and opaque projectors to computers, digital slide shows, cloud-based storage, wifi and smart phones, teachers have sought to engage students in a variety of teacher- and student-centered approaches. I would argue that we not only know more about learning (behavioral, physiological, pedagogical) but have more tools to actively engage students to process and create knowledge.

    I imagine that if you could magically transport yourself from one high school to another and have to time to observe a typical day, you’d likely note some ageless similarities: one voice per classroom (the teacher’s), 20-30 students per classroom, grouped by age and looking rather bored and bells or tones that tell students that it’s time to move from one 50-minute class to a different, completely unrelated 50-minute class.

    For today’s teachers that want to do something different, there are some hurdles: the structure of the school day and calendar, uncreative and/or unsupportive administrators, isolation. Some schools have experimented with alternative scheduling and calendars, cross-curricular studies, a commitment to collaborative professional development and planning.

    But I think most 2013 schools – in terms of the curricula and typical instructional practices – are more similar to 1950s and 1970s schools than we would like to acknowledge.

    • larrycuban

      Your comments, Jeff, about whether students differ over time and, even with those seeming differences whether the deep structures of schooling that you mention still shape patterns of teaching and learning history then and now–are thoughts that I have had and want to pursue. Thanks.

  7. Philip Crooks

    Dear Larry,
    this is not a reply to this post, there is an article in the Education Guardian I thought might interest you. It is by Sugata Mitra. I think you may have heard of him. I didn’t reply because I’d just rant with rage.
    I wonder what you think of it? I’m sorry I don’t know how to post a link.
    Philip Crooks .

  8. Pingback: Teaching History Then and Now | Global News | S...

  9. hi Larry. I’ve had a chance to read through your description of this project and think I pretty-much get what you, as an historian, are looking for. My guess is that there will be some changes (technology, of course, and millennial students, obviously, parents’ effects on classroom climate, and so forth. But also, my hunch is that not much has changed. I hope I’m wrong. I hope students are doing oral history projects, for example, using video to record interviews, and have found a load of stuff to research, study and then share with students. History is one of the classes students dislike most, and that’s just not right! Their thinking (and maybe because of our way of teaching!) should lead them to repetition as it appears in our history. Why is it that we’re always at war with someone or another? I don’t want to sound like the hippie I was, but for god’s sake, why can’t we “give peace a chance.” I look forward to reading your book when it is published and will pass it along to my good teaching friend, Florence who taught US History as well as geography. All best, Ann

    • larrycuban

      Ann, thanks for commenting. There were some predictable outcomes, as you suggest, and there were some surprises. Always nice to hear you chime in.

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