Meaning as the basis of teaching
As educators we tend to focus on what to teach rather than on what students need to learn. This is a crucial distinction. If the purpose of schooling is to prepare young people for life, then clearly our curricula must be driven by the meaningful understandings students need in order to live effectively in the world, not by pre-conceived notions about content or strategies. We believe teachers should fundamentally shift their thinking and work back from the needs of students to the assessments, lessons and materials that will effectively convey meaningful learning to students.
Because teaching for meaning is so fundamental, it can encompass philosophy, content and methods of schooling. Consequently, it was difficult to decide where on this website to place the main discussion of meaningful teaching. It is found in the "How to teach" section, where teaching for meaning is compared with the traditional and progressive philosophies of education.
The present "What to teach" section explores a three-part body of knowledge to be taught in world history and geography classrooms. As you consider these thoughts, please bear in mind that the starting point of "what to teach" should always be the meaningful understandings that students need. The body of knowledge outlined here is a framework for fostering and delivering that kind of meaningful learning.
"Teaching is a complex, confusing, busy and crowded activity." - Chris Husbands
Surprising agreement on a body of knowledge
It is easy to share Chris Husbands' view that teaching can be a very confusing activity. Yet, surprisingly, considerable agreement exists among educators about the general contours of a proper history education. Unfortunately, few teachers are aware of this confluence of opinion, so under the present circumstances, Chris Husbands is right; confusion reigns.
We reviewed over a hundred books and articles written mostly by history educators, plus reports prepared by several commissions1, and found that these sources emphasized various aspects of history education, but when their ideas were considered together, three distinct threads emerged. An appropriate body of historical knowledge to be taught in school would include:
If we know what to look for, we can find these elements described in a number of different places. This three-part structure may be perceived, for example, in the six history standards developed by the Department of Education in my state of Colorado. The first standard calls for students to "Understand the chronological organization of history." Standards three through six address conceptual frameworks - or themes - such as diversity, change, economic activity, technology and philosophy. Standard two deals with thinking strategies, declaring that students should "Know how to use the processes and resources of historical inquiry."2
Similar components, under different names, can also be found in the recommendations of the Bradley Commission on History in Schools,4 and in the design of the College Board's Advanced Placement (AP) World History course.
The discovery of this structure, coupled with a focus on meaningful learning, can produce a considerable calming effect. History teachers need not be so confused about their teaching. With signposts to provide direction, teachers can focus on clear objectives rather than basing their lessons on half-formed ideas and hunches. Teaching can become more "intentional."
Each component of this three-part body of knowledge is addressed more fully in related sections of this website under the present category of "What to teach." But, before moving on to consider these components individually, let's take a few moments to reflect on the pressing need for a coherent body of knowledge in history education, and then to consider the relationships between history, geography and social studies.
This website begins by asking a question, "Do you know the best way to teach history?" Teachers, of course, don't know, and how could they? Few teachers have ever been introduced in any systematic way to the teaching of history. Regarding U.S. schools of education, researcher Sam Wineburg has noted, "...we would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of courses in the entire nation devoted to the teaching of history."5 Ross E. Dunn agrees, "...universities and educational agencies have so far done an inadequate job of helping either prospective or veteran teachers come to grips with world history as a conceptually coherent subject."6
Nonetheless, the principal who hires us, and the parents who entrust their children to us, expect us to know how to teach history and related social studies subjects. So, what do we do? We grab the textbook, try to round-up a few decent activities, recall our own experience in school and wing it...all the while suppressing profound feelings of inadequacy because we really don't know what we are supposed to be doing as we struggle to meet expectations placed on us
- to be subject matter and pedagogical experts
Ravich quotes a teacher who said, "People who don't know any history are being asked to train others in historical methods and ideas, and it is not working."7 Meanwhile, teachers work in isolation in their classrooms, having little opportunity to observe and help one another to overcome shortcomings and hone their teaching skills.
Teachers are left on their own to navigate the "smoky battleground" of competing philosophical positions surrounding the teaching of history. Traditionalists believe knowledge to be important, while progressives deemphasize knowledge in favor of skills or "learning-by-doing." Educators debate the relative merits of teaching an historical overview (called coverage) versus instruction based on in-depth investigations of a limited number of historical episodes (postholing). Meanwhile, professors and politicians clash publicly and vociferously over what historical content - whose history - should be taught in the schools.
Teachers may be only vaguely aware of these competing currents of educational opinion, encountering them only as the teacher is buffeted by the shifting winds of education reform measures or the directives of an administrator recently returned from a conference. Teachers change teaching assignments frequently - or they may leave the profession - before they have become truly knowledgeable about the subjects they teach. Meanwhile, some perceptive and talented teachers find ways to bring coherence and value to their teaching.
In short, history teaching is all over the map, hardly an ideal situation for students. Sam Wineburg writes, "...students experience a haphazard diversity, a hodgepodge of different views that they, as novices, are expected to synthesize. A diversity built on acknowledged differences of knowledge, background, and opinion is laudable; but one that results from isolation and ignorance benefits no one, least of all students."8
This condition is not a new one. In 1907 William C. Bagley, founder of the Journal of Educational Psychology, lamented "the waves of fads and reforms that sweep through educational systems," and the reformers who "leave teacher and pupil to work out each his own salvation in the chaos of confusion and disorder."9
Shall we continue to subject our children to chaos, confusion and disorder, to a haphazard hodgepodge? Or, do we have an obligation to identify approaches that can bring a degree of order to the teaching of history so that history education may perform its important functions in society? Ross E. Dunn asserts, "we need to regard world history education as a particularly serious and critical business, not as a low-priority subject governed by fuzzy, contradictory ideas..."10
This website is based on a belief that a coherent understanding of the history teaching enterprise is possible, and that such an understanding will benefit teachers and their students. But, before we attempt to better understand the nature of history teaching, we should be clear about what we are discussing.
Because world history is the story of human experience, it encompasses other human-centered disciplines such as anthropology, economics and geography. The relationship between history and geography is especially intimate.11 Geography, concerned as it is with human-environment interaction, represents the spatial dimension of human activity while history represents the time dimension. Neither can be adequately understood in the absence of the other, so it only makes sense to study them together, especially at the pre-college level. Separating history and geography in school is arbitrary, anti-intellectual and ineffectual. (See: Combining World History and Geography)
Of course, any talk of combining two academic disciplines is likely to raise concerns among their practitioners - will each subject be given its due? While modern historians appear quite willing to acknowledge their debt to geographic thinking, geographers may be less inclined to recognize their dependence on history because history has traditionally occupied the dominant position in the social studies curriculum; geographers may feel the need to protect their discipline from being overshadowed or diminished in a combined curriculum.
Mark N. Krug has written about this sensitivity among geographers:
Nonetheless, Krug could not escape the reality that the two disciplines are closely interdependent. He wrote:
The National History Standards, the National Geography Standards, the Bradley Commission on History in Schools and many others have acknowledged the close relationship between geography and history. School districts across the country have responded to this reality by integrating geography and history in the curriculum. This website advocates combining history and geography in school because we teachers are concerned about effective learning, not about maintaining artificial and counterproductive shibboleths.
Historians and geographers would do well to repress their turf insecurities and focus on the serious business of educating our young. Geographers need to take a deep breath and acknowledge that history is the broader discipline and that geography may be considered a component of history education in school. Historians, on the other hand, must live with the embarrassing reality that their discipline doesn't really have any content of its own, that their subject matter is derived from other disciplines such as journalism, geography, political science, sociology, economics and the like.
What is the relationship between history, geography and social studies? Social studies is a term that refers to the study of any or all of the social sciences, which include history, geography, government, political science, economics, anthropology, philosophy, psychology and sociology. In truth, most high school social studies teachers teach history, geography or government (sometimes called civics). These subjects are termed the "foundational disciplines" of social studies by the National Council for the Social Studies.13 Larger schools may offer courses in other social sciences as well.
Even when schools offer only history, geography or government, other social science disciplines nonetheless contribute to the curriculum as educators draw upon these fields to provide subject matter and useful modes of examining concepts studied in the foundational subjects. The Bradley Commission on History in Schools, which places history and geography at the center of the social studies curriculum, described the relationship with this way:
Today the term "social studies" generally refers to the academic department in school where history, geography and government (and perhaps other social sciences) are taught. In decades past, however, social studies was promoted as a course of study in its own right. Instead of studying the traditional subjects students would be exposed to an amalgamation of concepts mined from the various social science disciplines. This approach eventually fell into disfavor with critics calling it a "hash," a "useless catch-all" and a "dumping ground for fad courses."15 Schools have since gravitated back to the traditional subjects of history, geography and government which provide more coherent and rigorous frameworks for integrating useful knowledge from the social sciences.
1. My review of literature relating to history education makes no claim of comprehensiveness. It has been about as extensive as I could manage within the constraints imposed by a full-time teaching job and a desire to complete this website during my lifetime. If I have overlooked a useful source, please let me know. Works reviewed include:
2. Model Content Standards in History, Colorado Department of Education
3. Hitchens, Marilynn, "World History as a Course of Study," in Roupp, Heidi, editor, Teaching World History: A Resource Book, M.E. Sharpe, 1997
4 Bradley Commission on History in Schools, Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools, National Council for History Education,1988
5. Wineburg, Sam, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Temple University Press, 2001.
6. Dunn, Ross E., "Constructing World History in the Classroom," in Stearns, Peter N., et all, editors, Knowing, Teaching & Learning History, New York University Press, 2000
7. Ravich, Diane, "The Educational Backgrounds of History Teachers," from Knowing, Teaching & Learning History, Peter N. Stearns et al., editors, New York University Press, 200
8. Wineburg, Sam, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Temple University Press, 2001.
9. Ravitch, Diane, Left Back, A Century of Failed School Reforms, Simon and Schuster, 2000
10. Dunn, Ross E., "Constructing World History in the Classroom," in Stearns, Peter N., et all, editors, Knowing, Teaching & Learning History, New York University Press, 2000
11. For a discussion of geography's profound effects on the development of human societies, see Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel, W.W. Norton, 1997
12. Krug, Mark M., History and the Social Sciences, Blaisdell, 1967
13. A Vision of Powerful Teaching and Learning in the Social Studies, a position statement of the National Council for the Social Studies, 1992 revised
14. Bradley Commission on History in Schools, Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools, National Council for History Education, 2000
15. Barzun, Jacques, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, The University of Chicago Press, 1991