How & Why We Want to Change History Teaching

When the Woodrow Wilson Foundation says it wants to change the way American history is taught, it should be taken seriously. While plenty of folks talk and write about changing history pedagogy, few have the resources and platforms that the Foundation has to actually make things happen. And for the same reason, we should be equally critical of what they may try to do.

On Twitter, Lindsay Gibson dug into the report and offered up a number of keen insights and questions about what “Reimagining American History Education” is attempting to do. I want to raise two points that Gibson doesn’t delved too far into: how does teaching practice actually change and what are the ultimate goals of a history education? I want to elaborate on these a bit because they serve to highlight the gaping hole at the center of our our current discussions — what are the values that create our desire to have students learn American history?

The first question about the Foundation’s plan is, why do they think they will be able to significantly change the way teachers teach? Their plan in a nutshell:

The online platform will be paired with an expanded HistoryQuest Fellowship program to provide professional development for teachers as well as the new Buckley History Lab to research and develop new curriclum materials.

Woodrow Wilson Foundation is launching the WW American History Initiative, an interactive digital platform intended to make American history more interesting, relevant, and appreciated by learners… It will focus on learners and
teachers rather than schools, textbooks, curriculum supplements or revisions, and state regulations….Initially focused on high school students, the WW American History Initiative will wed games, videos, graphic novels, online discussion groups, and other interactive experiences with traditional primary source materials and artifacts.

These are laudable and much needed investments in history education, but will they actually make significant change to teaching practices across the country? Most probably not. Having just helped edit the 2019 edition of Review of Research in Education on “Changing Teaching Practice in P-20 Educational Settings,” I would characterize the Foundation’s effort as both providing new instructional materials and attempting to build teacher capacity to make changes. These are necessary parts of the change process, but woefully incomplete. As Cuban and Tyack noted, “To bring about improvement at the heart of education — classroom instruction…has proven to be the most difficult kind of reform” (p. 134) because it requires changes to cultural beliefs, institutional habits, entrenched interests, and the decentralized yet highly interdependent structure of school systems. Throughly, fundamentally changing how history is taught necessitates changing policies at school, district, and state levels; it means shifting public perceptions about why and how youth should learn history; and it includes new materials and professional development to effectively use them. Without the broader structural changes, we are likely to see a few minor, incremental changes in some classrooms.

But a deeper question persists, what are they trying to change teaching for? The Foundation lays out its goals for American history education as:

establishing the engaged and informed citizenry needed to preserve a democratic society;

reestablishing the common bonds that all Americans share in a time of deep national political, economic, and social divisions in which Americans’ differences overshadow our commonalities;

understanding the past in a time of profound, continuing, and accelerating change in order to make sense of a chaotic present and inchoate future, as history is both an anchor in a time when change assails us and a laboratory for studying the changes that are occurring; and

educating a generation of Americans who think like historians, who know how to ask questions about the present and future rooted in the past, and to marshal the data to answer those questions.

How do they know that these are the problems arising from our current methods of history education? Apparently it is because 2 out of 3 Americans cannot pass the U.S. Naturalization Examination. The citizenship exam is a 100 question multiple choice test that does not ask its takers to engage in historical thinking, understand continuity and change over time, adore the common bonds of American identity, or require any kind of civic participation. Instead, the exam asks things like: “When was the Constitution written?” and “Name one American Indian tribe in the United States.”

There’s a profound disconnect between the naturalization exam and the goals of the American History Initiative. Will we know if the Foundation has been successful if the number of Americans who can pass the test increases? No, absolutely not. But the citizenship test provides a valuable political cover for this project. It should appeal to those who argue and make laws requiring students to pass the exam to graduate high school.

And this is part and parcel with the vague, value neutral aims of the Foundation: be informed, share civic bonds, study change and continuity, ask questions, and marshal data. Surely, these are all good and important things to be able to do, but for what purpose? To what ends?

Lendol Calder puts forward that “history is a form of moral deliberation kindled by the stories people tell”. American history, as taught in our schools, is a story we tell our youth about the purposes, pathways, and possibilites of this nation. If we are deeply dissatisfied with the results of this education, then we should first interrogate the implicit moral contents of our current history curriculum as opposed the way it is taught. We — educators and students alike — need to account for whose histories have been erased, whose visions of progress and righteous violence have been upheld. Our historical thinking must be set to a purpose and be employed as a means to participate in broader conversations about the nature of American society and its futures.

The recurrent “social studies wars” have left many afraid to lay down a purpose for history education beyond the generic notions of enhancing academic skills or strengthening democracy. We need to put this worry aside and strive for something more powerful — to equip our youth with the capacities of moral reasoning and concerted participation that might transform American society. We must change our teaching accordingly.

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