Where Do We Go from Here? Reinvigorating Historical Education

Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein presented opening remarks at yesterday’s National History Center conference “Reforming History Education: New Research on Teaching and Learning.” Weinstein spoke on the necessity of effective historical education, proposing it as a means for “higher advocacy of coherent citizenship.” Weinstein emphasized the link between history education and the vitality of society—a link that experts echoed throughout the day as they debated the problems with history education policy and the future of the field.

Panelists discussed how best to revitalize historical education through successful structures and methods of historical education and evaluation. Robert Orrill (National Education for the Disciplines) scrutinized the standard method of collegiate historical education, calling for college educators to rethink how they design classes and curriculum. Suzanne Wilson (Michigan State University) focused on the roadblocks to teacher certification and program accreditation, summoning university-level historians to higher, active involvement in K-12 teacher education and evaluation.

Robert Bain (University of Michigan) spoke on problems of university-level historical education, emphasizing the divide between content and method. Bain suggested that this gap goes against the very essence of historical scholarship, which is as much about what happened as about how people have interpreted what happened. Bain argued that this divorce has caused a decline in the historical mindedness of students—a decline that mandates classroom teaching and discussion linking content, pedagogy, and practice. Bain presented a compelling argument for administrators and professors to make teaching and scholarship more equal roles for academic historians. Bain’s innovative suggestions were followed by Peter Stearns (George Mason University) and Maris Vinovskis (University of Michigan), who stressed the importance of extensive and methodical research that explores the teacher education system and the cognitive processes of student learning—research which has been generally absent in the field.

The Teaching American History Grant program was a prominent topic of the conference. The nearly $1 billion program is a monumental effort by the government to increase the knowledge and effectiveness of American history teachers. The program, however, has caused a great deal of debate within the field. While there is a consensus that the monetary commitment is the most significant thing done for American history teaching in some time, many question the success of the program. Participants at the conference questioned how to reform and strengthen a field that struggles to effectively educate teachers, students, and society as a whole—a society which for the most part does not understand or care about history. Panelists resolved that there must be a more comprehensive and analytic collaboration between educators, professionals, researchers, and policy makers to strengthen the impact and prominence of historical study. The panelists presented both paths for historians to reform the field and unresolved questions about its future. Like the Teaching American History Grant progam, it seems debate will continue in the search for methods of historical education to produce thoughtful, effective, and passionate teachers who educate energetic and critical students.

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  1. Kelly Woestman

    The briefing papers presented at this conference demonstrate the dedication of those working on this issue important to all historians. Is there the possibility of posting those briefing papers to the AHA website or placing a link to the National History Center site if they are published there?

    One of the reasons we do not know much about history education is that that we have seen history and education as distinct entities. This work presented at this conference represents the directions we need to be going if we want to critically examine how students learn history.

    I do beg to differ, however, with the assertion above, that we have “a society which for the most part does not understand or care about history”. It would be more accurate to say that they do not approach it in the same way that we do. We need to continue to look for ways to reach out to our various publics and both learn from one another.

    What makes students, PreK-12 teachers, and the public interested in history? Our TAH programs anecdotally demonstrate that the more history elementary teachers know, the more they can teach history throughout their curriculum. Given the chance, they find history as interesting as we do.

    The dedication of the US Department of Education Teaching American History staff, led by Dr. Alex Stein, was aptly demonstrated by their involvement in the conference. It is up to those of us with TAH grants to provide more widespread evidence of their effectiveness that we see all around us even if it is not documented in the ways now expected in professional communities beyond the local schools and districts. In order to achieve this important goal, I need to learn more about educational investigative practices and how to analyze the findings those investigations produce. We could easily utilize what we are learning from TAH to learn more about teaching other areas of history and related disciplines.

    Including those who are experts in teacher education, such as Dr. Wilson, is an important step in acknowledging that the historical community needs to do this across the board. As historians, we left the table that determines most of the history that is taught in this country and we need to rejoin that conversation from the beginning and not wait to be asked.

    Dr. Grossman mentioned in his remarks that the next step is to take the work of this group to the state level and he is absolutely right. State legislatures and—as we discussed at the conference, specifically individual interest groups—determine the daily live of Pre-K12 teachers and students and what history they can teach AND learn. While my state is applauded for its history-centric standards, its teacher preparation standards are hampered by the idea that teachers only need to know the material in the state standards and not go beyond the level of historical thinking they expect their students to achieve.

    So, the questions is, what can we do as historians to more directly impact how history is taught in our states? What can we do to work with teachers as fellow professionals who first introduce our freshman survey students to the study of history?