How Many Teachers Teach a New Kind of History?

Policymakers continually seek to change the content of what teachers teach (e.g., Common Core standards) and how they teach (e.g., direct instruction, project-based learning). After adoption of new Common Core aligned textbooks and scads of professional development workshops in different pedagogies, how much change has occurred in how teachers teach lessons? That is the first question that has to be answered. Subsequent and crucial questions that have to be answered like who (e.g., policymaker, researcher, teacher) determines whether the change is, indeed, a change in what teachers do and whether the desired changes have led to increased student achievement come later.

But even answering the first question, superficial as it may be, is (and has been) a hard nut to crack. Take, for example, the teaching of history. In earlier posts (see here) I pointed out tensions between teaching for “heritage” and teaching with a “historical” approach. Strains between these two approaches have persisted for well over a century in the teaching of history. In earlier reform movements such as the New Social Studies of the 1960s, the conflict was apparent. Since the late-1990s, a slowly growing movement to have students learn, through extensive use of primary sources, how historians read, think, and write has spread across the nation. To determine whether this approach to content and pedagogy in the teaching of history is working is to ask the straightforward question: how many teachers regularly use lessons crafted to simulate how historians read, think, write, and come to understand the past?

Answering the question is tough because no national studies of nearly 60,000 social studies teachers in the U.S. have been done since the mid-1990s that cover their classroom practices. But there are data pieces, fragments, even slivers that might be assembled into a chipped mosaic from which emerges a fuzzy picture of how teachers are teaching history now.

Here are a few other shards. Data on materials that teach students how to read, write, and think like historians come from Advanced Placement courses that have been taught since the mid-1950s. The Document-Based Question (DBQ), a way of analyzing a primary source, was created as part of the Advanced Placement exam in 1973. One of the authors said: I want students to “become junior historians and play the role of historians for that hour” that they worked on the DBQ. For those able, college-going students who took AP history courses, then, they were clearly exposed to materials and tasks that replicated the work of historians. [i]

So those high school teachers in high schools who teach AP history courses–they have at least one section of students and teach other history classes as well–already use hybrids of teacher-centered instruction for a College Board, textbook-bound curriculum heavily geared to how historians read, think, and write. The vast majority of history teachers, however, do not teach AP courses.

Another sliver of data is to consider the large-scale effort undertaken on a shoestring by the Reading Like a Historian Project at Stanford University under the leadership of Sam Wineburg. That project has recorded nearly 2 million viewers (all 50 states and 127 countries) who downloaded these free curriculum materials since they were first posted in 2009. Just in 2014, there were more than 630,000 visits to the website to copy over 100 different lessons for U.S. and world history courses. Moreover, Wineburg and his team are now providing professional development to history teachers in big city and suburban school districts on how to use these lessons and do classroom assessments. [ii]

Downloaded lessons, though, do not necessarily transfer to classroom use. Finding out the degree to which these lessons and similar ones designed by teachers themselves are used weekly, occasionally, or not at all requires studies of classroom practices among history teachers. I have not yet located such studies. Thus far, no researchers have documented how widespread is (or has been) the use of these lessons or similar materials with students is.[iii]

What little data there are about the degree to which history content and pedagogy have moved from textbook-bound conventional pedagogy to the inquiry, primary source-driven historical approach come from scattered small reports of social studies teachers, again through surveys rather than direct observations, interviews, and examination of classroom materials. Like the above fragments, they add a few more chipped tiles to the mosaic of teacher use of these materials and approaches.

One national study (2004), for example, used a random sample of social studies teachers to determine the purpose for and the classroom use of primary sources. The authors concluded that although respondents agreed with the importance of using historical sources and having students do historical inquiry, “…teachers’ actual use of both classroom-based and web-based primary sources was somewhat low.” [iv]

A similar report of social studies teachers in one Virginia county to determine the purposes and use of historical primary sources found that teachers “report that they are only occasional users of historical primary sources; however, when they do use these sources, they obtain them primarily from textbooks and the web.”[v]

I have one more shard to add to the blurred mosaic picture that emerges from bits and pieces. Over the past five years, I have visited 13 teachers observing 17 lessons and examined classroom materials classrooms mostly in Northern California as part of different studies I was doing on technology use and at the invitation of these teachers. Clearly, the sample was non-random, but I offer it as another isolated piece of evidence. Six of these 13 teachers (three of whom taught Advanced Placement history) used primary sources and questioned students to get at historical thinking on a particular topic. [vi]

Finally, over the years, researchers have published individual case studies of novice and experienced history teachers who taught students to inquire into the past using primary sources to teach students to read, think, and write as historians. In many instances, such teacher case studies were exemplars of how to convert textbook-bound lessons into ones that included historical thinking. These studies made a simple point that as hard as it may appear to social studies teachers to alter their teacher-centered pedagogy, given the contexts in which they teach (e.g., state tests, accountability regulations, age-graded school, and poverty-ridden neighborhoods), this approach to teaching can be done within the framework of existing public schools, including those located in cities. None of the case studies declare that the profiled teachers and lessons are the norm for history teachers although authors imply they should and can be. It is clear that these teachers are exceptions, not the rule. [vii]

So what is the answer to the question: how many teachers teach a new kind of history? No one knows.


[i] Mike Henry, “The DBQ Change: Returning to the Original Intent,” College Board AP Central for Educators at:

[ii]Email from Joel Breakstone to Larry Cuban (in author’s possession), January 23, 2015; Theresa Johnston, “Stanford-developed History Lessons for Grades 6-12 Adopted Worldwide,” GSE News, Graduate School of Education, March 17, 2014 at:

[iii] Thus far, New York State has included document-based questions into its statewide assessment of social studies (including the Regents exam). When more states include such items in their tests, I would expect increases in the number of teachers who build into their daily lessons how to analyze primary sources, bias, and corroborating sources. See:

[iv] David Hicks, et. al., “Social Studies Teachers’ Use of Classroom-Based and Web-Based Use Historical Primary Sources,” Theory and Research in Social Education, 2004, 32(2), pp. 213-247. Quote is on p. 232. The response rate to this random sample was 40 percent.

[v] John Lee, et. al., “Social Studies and History Teachers’ Uses of Non-Digital and Digital Historical Resources,” Social Studies Research and Practice, 2006, 1(3), pp. 291-311. Quote is on p. 296. Response rate from teachers was 70 percent.

[vi]I observed nine lessons from six teachers at Gunderson High School in San Jose Unified School District during 2009-2010; one lesson of a teacher at Mission High School in San Francisco Unified School District in 2013; two lessons of one teacher at Roosevelt High School in the Washington, D.C. public schools; four lessons of four teachers at Aragon High School in the San Mateo Union High School District in 2014; one lesson of one teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in the Fremont Unified School District in 2014.

[vii] Here is a sampling of individual case studies and collections of cases that describe various teachers using inquiry to investigate the past in ways that historians do: Robert Bain, “ They Thought The World Was Flat? “ Applying the Principles of How People Learn in Teaching High School History,” in Suzanne Donovan and John Bransford (Eds.) How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2005), pp.179-213; Bruce Lesh, “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2011); Bruce VanSledright, The Challenge of Rethinking History Education New York: Routledge, 2011); Sam Wineburg and Suzanne Wilson, “Models of Wisdom in the Teaching of History,” in Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), pp. 155-172.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

22 responses to “How Many Teachers Teach a New Kind of History?

  1. In Oakland California 6-12 students take common, formative, teacher-developed DBQs in their history or humanities core classes twice a year. Then teachers gather to score samples of papers across the district and talk about instructional implications. They are posted on our website. We’d love a chance to talk with you and get some of your insights and feedback.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comment, Jeannie. I had worked with Stan Pesick and Shelly Weintraub years ago. Let me check out your website. If I have questions, I will be in touch. I appreciate your writing.

    • EB

      Loved those DBQ’s, but I feel a little uncomfortable with how sweeping and “loaded” they all are. Clearly, one reason for that is to choose questions that will grab students’ attention, but I’m not sure that they do a good job of letting students think and act like historians. I, as a student in middle school or high school would have felt pressured by these types of questions to defend a side with insufficient evidence; historians don’t base their conclusions on such a limited amount of information. My high school teacher (AP US History) encouraged us to frame smaller questions (but still interesting) and also to think in terms of “may have” rather than “did cause.” Another thing she did to make us think like historians was simply to ask the question, “Why do we think we know that?” in response to facts stated in a textbook or other source. We students quickly realized that some assertions are in fact well documented with hard evidence like official records, while others are backed by lesser, or no, documentation.

      She also frequently returned to the statement that history (meaning heritage history) is written by the victors.

      Larry, thank you for continuing this thread in your blog posts; it’s very important.

  2. Jeff Kash

    I have been using the Reading Like a Historian lessons for two years with my middle school students. They have transformed my classroom into a place where students have begun to question what they read instead of just memorizing facts. These lessons could not have come at a better time given the focus on Common Core testing. Even though history is not directly tested, I know the TLH lessons my students have been exposed to will help them be better thinkers and writers as they move forward in their education.

    • larrycuban

      The intersection between Reading Like a Historian lessons and Common Core, Jeff, is one that is lucky for both social studies teachers and Common Core supporters. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Thanks for writing this article and for the mini literature review you put together. I work on a team of researchers at EDC’s Center for Children and Technology where we have been developing Zoom In, an online platform that supports writing from historical documents through a comprehensive arc of instruction. In our Beta phase, we have been reaching out and working with social studies teachers across the country to learn more about how they make use of Zoom In–which in turn gives us a view into their usual practice.

    While I think you’re correct to point out that many teachers are still relying heavily on text books, I would add that I do see a lasting impact of the Teaching American History programs. We were involved in several TAH programs here in New York City. Those cohorts of teachers are definitely engaging their students with primary sources–using Sam Wineburg’s materials, but also those from Herb, American Social History Project’s repository of classroom-ready historical documents. The relationships we built with teachers over the years of TAH have continued beyond the life of the grants and been wrapped into new projects. I know we share this experience with Glenn Wiebe, who we’ve been working with in Kansas, and I’m sure the same could be said for Jeannie and Stan in Oakland. It doesn’t necessarily get us to an estimate of the percentage of teachers for whom having students investigate primary sources plays a significant roll, but I can say I find them regularly, distributed across the country, and that they can often speak to TAH being an influence on their teaching.

    We would love your thoughts on the work we’re doing with Zoom In. You can find out more at or create an account and explore at

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comments, Noah. I, too, agree that TAH programs had some influence on social studies teachers (the evaluation of TAH, however, showed little influence on classroom practices after the institutes) and surely so has Stanford History Education Group’s made a dent in teaching practices. As I hope your work will (thanks for the link). But the lack of data on how most history teachers teach still faces policymakers, researchers, and practitioners.

  4. I have been a fan of yours, Larry Cuban, for well over a decade, and an avid reader of your blog for the past year. If you are ever searching for a school system in the Southeast region to visit, we would welcome you in our classrooms. You will see the DBQ process in our schools from upper elementary through high school levels. We strive to teach students to read and think like a historian in our school system. I am not saying we don’t have room for improvement, all schools and school systems do, but you will see an intentional effort in our district. Horry County Schools in South Carolina, would welcome you, Dr. Cuban.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Cynthia,
      Thanks for the information on the “historical” approach in Horry County. And thanks for the invitation as well. Here’s a question: how did this direction in teaching history begin in Horry County and what has kept it going while you have been in the system?

  5. David

    I’ve thought quite a bit about this issue and have discussed with some colleagues in my department (I teach history at a private college prep school) and we came up with the following thoughts that I wanted to pass along:

    1. Are students in K-12 really ready to “think like historians”? We believe that learning content at this stage is of utmost importance rather than trying to force an analysis of primary source documents onto students. Yes, we introduce them to historical sources and ask them to read longer works of literature or non-fiction, but we often find the lack of content knowledge of basic historical periods–Western or otherwise–to be an impediment to the sort of analysis hoped for in the Common Core or DBQ dynamic.

    2. We use a variety of pedagogies, but generally steer clear from too much inquiry based learning. While it is tempting to use it in a computer-assisted classroom, we feel that it should be minimized to very specific projects which augment the more content-oriented direct instruction format. In the DI format, good assessments both in class and out is key to effectively developing content knowledge. Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment is a good aid for better understanding how this should work.

    3. We are continually shocked at the lack of content knowledge with which students walk in the door. We are developing a theory that students’ lack of pleasure reading–often the result of parents not instilling a love of reading early in childhood–and the ubiquity of screens has undermined out-of-school acquisition of content knowledge. I recently surveyed my students (juniors and seniors) and found they have an average of nine screens in their homes, with most reporting that at least one is always on. Yet, sadly, none of my students has ever read Sherlock Holmes. To answer this, we are developing a literacy plan to surround students with books and provide time/space during the school day for non-screen reading. This is a steep hill to climb, but we believe that it is essential.

    In the end, we believe that asking a student to “read like an historian” a narrative of an ANZAC soldier at Gallipoli will be lost time unless the student has had the background knowledge of the British Empire, Australia or New Zealand, the Great War and Ottoman history.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for passing along your thoughts, David,on the “historical” approach. You express well the constant tension in the teaching of history between students learning skills vs.content. Of course, it is neither one or the other but some blend of the two. Where to strike that balance remains contested.

      • David

        Perhaps. However, upon considering your reply over the course of the day, I feel that the issue may be more one of educational fads in the “skills movement”, certainly seen in the “21st Century Skills” effort of late. I believe writers as diverse as ED Hirsch, John Sweller and Dan Willingham have convincing arguments that the efforts to promote generic skills have led education astray. We don’t have to be “gradginds” when we teach content, but it appears that the Skills First effort, which to me appears to be at the core of “Common Core”, leaves much to be desired.

      • larrycuban

        The back-and-forth, cyclical popularity of either skills first or content first, you nailed. Thanks.

  6. JMK

    As one of the teachers you observed (and i would love to have you back!), I agree with much of what Dave says. While I didn’t use primary sources that day, I often do. Examples:
    –John Quincy Adams’ diary entries on his conversation with Calhoun on the Missouri Compromise.
    –Washington’s letter to Henry Knox about Shay’s Rebellion and the upcoming convention.
    –Magna Carta
    –Paul Cuffe’s letter observing that blacks in Massachusetts were being taxed without representation
    –Various pieces of legislation, speeches

    I also use some of Sam Wineburg’s sources–but not usually his activities, which are too….something. Here’s one I used last fall: I loved the letters, but didn’t like the activities. We just evaluated the various letters on their merit.

    I don’t really think I should be teaching kids to think like historians. I do want them to know content and I want them to….well, I started to wonder if I was repeating myself and yes, I still mean what I say here:

  7. David Gerwin

    Hi Larry,
    I found this thread in a link from a Grant Wiggins post on why history teachers lecture so much. I’d like to share another recent shoestring effort at filling in the lack of a national study since the mid-nineties.

    In 2007 colleagues in the social studies research formed the Social Studies Inquiry Research Collaborative to carry out such a study. Rather than random selection, we looked for teachers who we had reason to believe taught in more authentic fashion, as defined by Newmann et al’s Authentic Intellectual Work rubrics. By working hard at inter-rater reliability on those rubrics through scoring video at some conferences, and live classrooms at others, we were able to have local observers in the classrooms of over sixty teachers in six states with high stakes exams in history (still a drop in the bucket, but we had no funding for this project) for what teachers reported were their three most challenging lessons for the years, and we collected the tasks. Publication takes time but we have one article out. We found that roughly two thirds of of the teachers fell into categories of minimal or limited authentic instruction, while only about a third were engaged in teaching that higher levels of authentic pedagogy. We are working on a follow up publication. Interestingly, teachers at some schools that are inquiry-based, with waivers from high stakes tests and performance based assessments that the students had to write, were among the highest scoring teachers. This lends some supports to suggestions that it isn’t solely a matter of teacher style or choice, but that when schools are organized to promote inquiry, and assessment is aligned with inquiry, it makes a difference.

    We have website with a project description and the link I’m providing will take anyone interested directly to the articles

    Our published article on the study Authentic Pedagogy: Its Presence in Social Studies Classrooms only reports on the teachers in the regular schools with high stakes testing. We are working on articles on the full study.

    David Gerwin (I teach social studies ed at Queens College/CUNY)

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for pointing out the study that you, John Saye, and others did, David. I looked it up and it does add to the already sparse collection of studies.

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