The History of History Teaching

There have been two contradictory elements at the heart of history teaching since the beginning of the twentieth century, only one of which gets at historical thinking as Wineburg describes it. The first element is an approach to history teaching that emphasizes the “facts,” memorization, or covering content. This is seen in the AHA Group of Seven’s “four block program,” (most) textbooks, the survey course as traditionally conceived and taught at all levels, and history as taught in K-12. This is the sort of history that is easily able to be assessed, even, as Wineburg notes, those assessments are inaccurate. This is also the sort of history that plays into history as “heritage,” national myth, or warnings about the cultural illiteracy of today’s youth, as it is not rooted in evidence.

The second element at the heart of history teaching is essentially teaching students how to do what historians do, whether that is called historical thinking (Wineburg), historical-mindedness (AHA’s Group of Seven), “New History,” (Becker), or procedural knowledge (Levesque). I think Kelly’s list of 15 items in “Thinking: How Students Learn About the Past” succinctly articulates what exactly goes into this, while McKlymer’s assignments provide concrete examples. McKlymer also exemplifies how some history teachers have responded to recent technological change, primarily through a much closer engagement with primary source materials at the undergraduate level, even in a survey class. McKlymer emphasizes the abundance of resources and the ease of accessing them, but I also think he somewhat de-emphasizes (or at least doesn’t highlight) the amount of thought he puts into designing the course, classroom discussions, and assignments, and how much interpersonal work he puts into making students feel okay about not getting everything right. He does actually spend some time talking about the latter, and this is particularly important in relation to current testing regimes, especially in K-12 education. There can be an abundance of resources that are easy to find and use, but having students use primary sources in order to learn how to do what historians do is not something that can be quantified or put into a multiple choice test. McKlymer’s description of the work he puts into making his classes work also emphasizes another continuity; good teaching requires effort and thought, and is fundamentally interpersonal.  

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