Monday, March 3, 2014

Teaching History in California's Classrooms

I had the good fortune yesterday morning to chair a panel at the California World History Association meeting on “Using World History in the Classroom”.  Three excellent panellists from middle and high schools in California outlined their thoughts on the kinds of activities that can enliven World History for students in school; on introducing historical skills into their curriculum; and on ideas about how to gauge student achievement in the context of Common Core, the new standards being introduced this year in California’s classrooms.

The history teachers in the room, both on the panel and in the audience, were largely enthusiastic about Common Core which, though it will make for more work as they re-tool lesson plans to match the new standards, is designed to make it easier to emphasise the historical skills which have long taken a back-seat to the memorisation and recitation of names and dates advocated by those who believe that history classes should be vehicles for the dissemination of propaganda rather than forums for the exploration and critical analysis of the past.

Some of the teachers expressed the view that Common Core is just asking them to do what as good history teachers they are already doing.  By shifting the emphasis toward writing and reasoning—Common Core asks that all classes, not just English/Literature share responsibility for developing student expression—Common Core requirements will likely enable students to hone historical skills which will serve them well as thinking citizens.

It was a pity that there were not more academic historians in the session, because they might have been heartened by the prediction that down the line we might be getting students who are better prepared to take classes which focus on assessing historiographies, using primary sources, synthesising chronologies, and thinking, talking, and writing critically about the “raw material” of history. 

History teachers, however, face something of an uphill challenge, given that Common Core’s aspiration towards a more qualitative mode of teaching is likely to run headlong into the standardised testing industry’s fondness for quantitative testing.  This means that if the education sector cannot develop or afford good metrics for measuring skills and analysis, Common Core could be transformed into nothing more than the latest iteration of the No Child Left Behind style instrumentalisation of education. 

The other obstacles are likely to be California’s curriculum requirements.  In an effort to rectify the distorted and myopic version of history taught for years in classrooms—the Whiggish version which excluded working people, women, and non-white Americans from our country’s narrative—various well-intentioned interest groups in the state have pushed for the inclusion of hitherto-marginalised groups in the curriculum.

The outcome is a curriculum which emulates its flawed predecessor in that it more closely resembles Heritage than History, and risks lazily valorising groups at the expense of critical analysis of historical processes, trends, periodisation, and themes.  In other words, it might just expand the list of names and dates that students are required to memorise, while leaving them no less bereft of skills than the whitewashed version to which an earlier generation of students was subjected.  The standards seem to run at cross-purposes to the aspirations of Common Core.  I see the reason for their existence: my high school world history teacher declared that we would skip the chapter on Africa, because “We all know, Africa doesn’t have any history”, and in junior year we “learned” from an almost comically propagandistic U.S. history textbook.

But they have likely become overly exhaustive, taking up enough of teachers’ time that they have little left for the skills-based curriculum which I would argue is ultimately more important than ticking off a list of standards.  At the end of the day, teaching skills requires the deployment of content.  But beyond that content, the easiest part of learning history is collecting facts and narratives.  Anyone can do that at any time.

Far more challenging—one scholar rightly referred to it as “unnatural”*—is thinking in an historical fashion.  Honing those skills, and the writing skills that allow students to act on that thinking, would be a more worthwhile focus.  Such a focus would equip students—as young citizens—to then process not only historical information, but also current affairs, and claims in the media.  They would then know what to do when confronted with historical data, material, or narratives.  Absent these skills, students simply learn a bunch of “stuff” without any understanding of how to make sense of it, or about whether what they have been taught makes any sense.

Instead, they should be taught to read with a purpose and with questions in mind so that they can process, in a rigorous and systematic fashion, the information they are taking in.  They should be prepared to extract arguments and make arguments of their own; to identify bias and understand that this allows them to use rather than discard sources; to read sources not in the abstract, taking them at face value, but instead to read those sources against each other to see what emerges from their juxtaposition. 

Sunday’s panellists had wonderful ideas about how to accomplish some of these things in the classroom.  But they acknowledged the tension between different methods of assessments with different goals.  And they recognised that these decisions are made in a political economic context: for example, grading a standardised test costs less than a quarter of what grading a piece of writing does.  But they also had some interesting thoughts about to get around these obstacles, one panellist citing his own work in and studies on training students to peer-review essays, and suggesting that such skills could be expanded and utilised in larger-scale evaluation.

Few of my academic colleagues joined the session, but I for one was heartened to see the effort that teachers are putting into making the new standards work for students in a way which will not only equip those students with valuable life and citizenship skills, but which will prepare those of them college-bound to make the most of their university experience.


* Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past.  Temple University Press, 2001. 

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