Chapter 13 Teacher Education and the Purposes of History

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Chapter 13: Teacher Education

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

Herman Melville

Chapter 13

Teacher Education and the Purposes of History

The two of us spend much of our professional time preparing history and social studies teachers. We have taught thousands of students in our methods courses, along with hundreds more in workshops or graduate classes. We know this number includes a great many success stories—teachers who provide exciting instruction for their students, in ways consistent with what we have taught them. Others have adopted our suggestions less wholeheartedly, but with selective enthusiasm for practices we consider important—good literature, or inquiry, or conflicting viewpoints, or open-ended writing. But we fear these success stories may pale in comparison with the number of teachers who have ignored our ideas completely. As we look around, we have to admit that many classrooms (the majority? the vast majority?) show little evidence of the curricular and instructional perspectives we have tried to promote. And around the country, we have hundreds of colleagues who prepare teachers much as we do (many with greater ability and enthusiasm, no doubt), yet we fear their experiences may be the same as ours—plenty of individual success stories, but no widespread or systematic changes in teaching.

Why is this? How can our efforts at developing teachers’ understanding of instructional methods leave so little imprint on classroom practice? Why aren’t all children using a variety of sources to develop interpretations of history? Surely teachers who have taken courses from us or our colleagues know that history is an interpretive, inquiry-oriented subject involving multiple perspectives, and they must know how to implement the practice in the classroom, at least in an introductory way. But maybe knowing isn’t enough. From a sociocultural perspective, after all, what people know—conceived of as individual cognition—is less important than how they act purposefully (and how they use cultural tools to do so). To understand why teachers engage in the practices they do, perhaps we need to turn to the socially situated purposes that guide their actions. And while we are at it, maybe we should ask ourselves, as teacher educators, whether we are helping them explore themes “mighty” enough to lead to the kinds of instruction we hope for.1
Teacher Knowledge and Education Reform

Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan L. Lytle note that over the last two decades, teacher learning has been at the forefront of efforts at improving education and that “it has been more or less assumed that teachers who know more teach better.” This has not always been so: Perspectives on the teacher’s role in improving instruction have undergone a number of changes over the past half-century. Behaviorists of the 1950s, for example, emphasized the transformative potential of teaching machines and programmed instruction; from their viewpoint, the teacher was little more than a manager of the classroom who needed little specialized knowledge. Similarly, in the 1960s a variety of national organizations created and field-tested new reading materials, artifact kits, and classroom activities that focused on the concepts and procedures of the academic disciplines. Although rarely dismissing teacher knowledge directly, these movements clearly hoped to promote instructional reform by improving curricular materials rather than by addressing teachers’ ideas; teachers were responsibly primarily for implementing the innovations developed by others. By the mid-1970s, reform efforts (and much academic research) focused less on curricular innovation and more on “teaching behaviors”—the set of generic skills that were believed to result in higher levels of student achievement (such as pacing, wait time, feedback, and so on). Although this approach put teachers at the center of instructional improvement, it deemphasized their role as knowledgeable professionals and centered instead on changing observable behavior through structured systems of feedback.2

Over the last twenty years, though, most theory and research on the education and professional development of teachers has focused on precisely the area neglected in previous work—the active role of teachers in designing and implementing instruction. This work has been grounded in the assumption that teachers are ultimately responsible for what goes in their classrooms; they serve as “brokers” or “gatekeepers” who select from and transform the array of possible curricula, resources, and instructional strategies in order to provide concrete learning activities for students. As Stephen Thornton puts it, “As gatekeepers, teachers make the day-to-day decisions concerning both the subject matter and the experiences to which students have access and the nature of that subject matter and those experiences.” If teachers’ decisions shape their students’ curricular and instructional experiences, then it seems logical to assume that we need to understand the thinking behind those decisions, and a large body of research has been devoted to this topic. Although this research has employed a number of different theoretical frameworks and conceptual terms—including personal theories, practical knowledge, interactive decision-making, frames of reference, pedagogical reasoning, and others—all have shared a concern with getting “inside teachers’ heads” in order to explain how they make the decisions that underlie their classroom practices.3

One of the most influential frameworks for understanding what teachers know and believe (the distinction between the two is elusive) has been that of Lee Shulman. Shulman argues that that a critical component of teachers’ expertise is their pedagogical content knowledge. While some reformers insist that teachers need greater content preparation in their subject (usually conceived of as more coursework in a specific academic discipline) and others argue for greater exposure to educational theories and methods, Shulman maintains that the distinctive body of knowledge for teaching lies at the intersection of content and pedagogy. Teachers must understand the structures and principles of their disciplines, and they must also know how to transform disciplinary ideas in ways that will make sense to students. Much of the recent research on the thought and practice of history teachers has been consistent with this conception of teacher’s thinking, particularly in its emphasis on teachers’ understanding of the underlying conceptual structures of the history and their implications for classroom practice. As Bruce VanSledright succinctly notes, most research in the field has assumed that “history teachers need to possess deep knowledge of their discipline and robust understandings of how to teach it.” From this viewpoint, if teachers know that history involves the interpretation of evidence among members of a community of inquiry, and if they learn to apply that knowledge in the classroom, then presumably they will engage students in inquiry-based historical interpretation. Indeed, the two of us have written an entire book based precisely on that assumption: In Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle School we set out to help teachers understand history as an interpretive and inquiry-oriented endeavor, and we described classroom practices consistent with that ideal. But the question remains: Is it true? Does this knowledge and understanding affect classroom practice?4

The Pedagogical Content Knowledge of History Teachers

Several studies have investigated the extent to which teachers’ understanding of the interpretive nature of history is consistent with that of historians, and each of these studies has found that teachers typically have little acquaintance with such disciplinary concerns as the context, authorship, and perspective of historical documents. Chara Bohan and O. L. Davis, Jr., for example, gave three secondary student teachers a set of primary source accounts of the bombing of Hiroshima; they asked teachers to read the documents, think aloud as they did so, and use the documents to write a narrative account of the event. On the basis of response to this task, Bohan and Davis concluded that all three were unfamiliar with the process of creating historical interpretations: Participants failed to consider the source of the documents, they saw each as a simple statement of fact, and they failed to cite sources in writing their accounts. In a related study, Melanie Gillaspie and Davis gave a similar task to three elementary student teachers. They found that only one of the three compared the source accounts to each other or referred to them in the written narrative; one participant made no reference to the sources at all, while the third failed to explain the accounts in detail or to question their perspectives.5

Elizabeth Yeager and Davis also found varied levels of disciplinary understanding among both elementary and secondary teachers. They asked three secondary and three elementary student teachers to read and compare conflicting accounts of the battle at Lexington Green, just as Sam Wineburg had done with historians and high school students in an earlier study. Only one of the secondary participants noted previous experience with issues of historical interpretation (he considered history his hobby), and he read the documents much as the historians in Wineburg’s study had done—he looked for the authors’ assumptions, compared the audiences to which the documents were addressed, and considered the contexts and circumstances of their production. Another secondary participant more closely resembled Wineburg’s high school students: He simply gathered and summarized information from the documents and saw little subtext. The third was just beginning to see problems of bias as she worked through the exercise; although she merely summarized the documents initially, she eventually began to compare them and to speculate about their authorship and potential bias. Although the three elementary teachers had more limited backgrounds in academic history, they demonstrated patterns of historical understanding nearly identical to those of the secondary teachers: One summarized the documents with little comparison or attention to context or subtext; one explored the authors’ assumptions, purposes, and audiences; and a third began by summarizing but developed a more critical and interpretive perspective as she worked through the set of documents.6

When Yeager and Davis gave the same task to fifteen practicing secondary teachers, they found three distinct profiles among participants. Some read the documents for evidence of each author’s purpose and perspective; some were concerned primarily with determining on which “side” each document fell and hoped to be able to uncover accurate information about “what actually happened”; and still others, again like the high school students in Wineburg’s study, simply gathered information with little attention to comparison or subtext. One of the teachers in this third category even equated credibility with interest and readability—she considered a passage form Howard Fast’s April Morning more credible than other sources “because it was the ‘most fun…It has vivid details, and it’s full of emotion’.”7

Although these studies certainly do not indicate that teachers have a uniformly impoverished understanding of history (and the small sample sizes further limit generalizability), they do suggest that attending to teachers’ disciplinary understanding may be a critical task for teacher educators, as implied in the perspective of Shulman and others. If teachers do not understand the nature of historical knowledge, then they cannot design meaningful learning experiences for students, because they will not know what it is that students need to learn (much less how to help them learn it). A teacher who thinks sources can be evaluated on how “fun” they are surely is not qualified to teach history, and as teacher educators (whether in history departments or colleges of education) we must help our students develop more sophisticated and accurate understandings of what history is all about. A “deep knowledge of their discipline” would seem to be a prerequisite for history teachers, and its development a major task for those of us who educate them. Encouragingly, though, the study of student teachers by Yeager and Davis suggests this task may not be as difficult as it seems: Two of their six participants developed more sophisticated understandings of historical evidence and interpretation simply through participating in one research exercise! Perhaps extended exposure to historical content is less important to the growth of pedagogical content knowledge than intensive engagement in a few well-chosen tasks that allow teachers to reflect on the epistemological basis of historical knowledge.
Pedagogical Content Knowledge and Classroom Practice

Although the studies described in the previous section suggest teachers need greater understanding of the interpretive nature of history, there is some reason to question whether sophisticated disciplinary understanding, even when combined with pedagogical knowledge, will have an impact on instruction. Bruce VanSledright, for example, conducted a case study of an experienced secondary history teacher (a 16-year veteran of the classroom) who had just completed a doctorate in history. In her graduate studies—and particularly in her dissertation research—she had come to understand the complicated nature of historical facts and evidence, and she recognized the central role of interpretation in the creation of historical knowledge. In addition, this teacher’s apprenticeship into the historical profession centered on “the new sociocultural history,” or “history from the bottom up,” a perspective that reflects one of the discipline’s central concerns in recent decades. Although one might question whether her understanding of the discipline was as thorough as that of someone immersed in the profession for a longer period of time, her level of disciplinary content knowledge was certainly all that could be asked for in a teacher (few are going to complete a doctorate in history, after all), and her extensive classroom experience suggests that she should have had no problem putting her sophisticated knowledge into practice in the classroom.8

But in fact, her teaching reflected little of this disciplinary understanding, and her students had few opportunities to engage with historical knowledge as she had done. Her instruction focused primarily on enabling students to reproduce a single, consensus-oriented account of the U.S. past, one that was outlined in the district curriculum and assessed, primarily through multiple-choice items, on a required district test at the end of the year. Students spent much of their time learning the content of long review lists that centered on factual information about people, places, and events. Although she addressed multiple perspectives in the past, and although she reminded students of the difference between fact and interpretation (frequently beginning sentences with phrases such as, “Some historians believe…”), she nonetheless treated the textbook as though it were an authoritative and unproblematic source of factual information. Students did not learn that the text itself was an interpretation, nor were they asked to evaluate the historical claims found in that or any other source. There were no questions about where the evidence for historical accounts came from, and there was little work with primary sources. Even the teacher’s concern with history “from the bottom up” was limited to a single day spent lecturing about women and minorities during the Federal Period. Students’ exposure to the teachers’ “fact/interpretation” distinction, then, was spent primarily on the factual side of the dichotomy. VanSledright concludes that “by itself, the possession of deep and current subject-matter knowledge arrayed with rich pedagogical experience provides no promise of an unproblematic translation to the high school classroom.”9

VanSledright’s study is not alone in questioning the connection between disciplinary knowledge and classroom practice. G. Williamson McDiarmid interviewed fourteen students (eight of whom planned to teach high school history) enrolled in an undergraduate historiography course. At the beginning of the course, students recognized that bias in historical accounts existed, but they thought such bias was simply the result of the personal beliefs or agendas of authors, and that all historical texts were equally unreliable. After taking the course, about half the students had developed more complex notions of the interpretive nature of history—recognizing, for example, that historical knowledge is always tentative, and that history is invariably seen through the preoccupations of the present. But although students’ disciplinary knowledge increased, their beliefs about teaching and learning history remained unchanged: They thought that lecture was the most appropriate method for teaching history, and that a good history teacher was one who told “good stories” and wrote lecture notes on the board. They did not think that high school students would be motivated to engage in the kind of interpretive work they had done in their historiography class, or capable of doing so; they thought learners simply needed to be told what happened and why.10

The research by VanSledright and by McDiarmid points to the lack of a straightforward connection between disciplinary knowledge and pedagogy, but still more shocking is a pattern consistently found in research on history and social studies education: Even teachers’ conceptions of pedagogy have little connection to their teaching. In study after study, teachers articulate a view of instruction that emphasizes active student learning, multiple viewpoints, and construction of knowledge. But a different picture emerges when they are observed teaching or when they themselves describe their classroom practices. What teachers actually do is cover the content of textbooks or curriculum guides through teacher-directed instruction and careful control of classroom activity and discourse. Even when teachers’ ideas about the subject differ from each other, or when they have vastly difference levels of background or expertise, they wind up teaching in remarkably similar ways, and these often have little connection to their espoused beliefs.11

Stephanie van Hover and Elizabeth Yeager, for example, conducted a case study of a second-year, high school history teacher who had graduated from an intensive certification program emphasizing historical interpretation, inquiry, and the use of a variety of historical sources and perspectives. This teacher was considered one of the program’s strongest students, and she also held an undergraduate degree in history. In interviews, she demonstrated a clear understanding of historical thinking and inquiry: She saw history as an interpretive discipline that involved contextualization of actions and motivations, believed that history should be analyzed from multiple perspectives, and thought the subject should be taught through inquiry exercises, problem-solving activities, debate, discussion, and cooperative learning.12

In all respects, this teacher’s pedagogical content knowledge seemed exemplary. Her instruction, however, bore almost no resemblance to that knowledge. She did not encourage perspective-taking, interpretation, or open-ended historical thinking or inquiry. Instead, classroom activities were heavily teacher-centered. She lectured frequently—recounting a single, univocal narrative of major events in U.S. history—and students took notes from the outline of textbook chapters. When she included simulations or other group activities, she told students what conclusions they should draw, and she contradicted those who disagreed with her. Although she credited her social studies methods course with influencing her knowledge of how to teach history, she applied almost none of what she learned in that course to actual practice.13

As teacher educators, our common-sense explanation for this failure to influence instructional practices is to point to our own limited impact on prospective teachers. We have only a brief time to help them develop the pedagogical content knowledge they will need, typically during a social studies methods course, supplemented by other education courses that may also be relevant to instructional practices in history. (At the secondary level, teachers may also take one or more courses in historical methods as part of a history major or area of concentration; other history courses may also address the interpretive nature of history, though not usually methods for teaching it at the precollegiate level.) This brief set of experiences seems too thin to overcome the “apprenticeship of observation”—the twelve or more years students have spent watching teachers perform their daily tasks, a time during which they have developed an image of teaching that revolves around teacher control and the coverage of textbook-based information. The content of students’ university courses, particularly in education, seems to have little effect on their ideas about teaching, particularly when the practices they observe in field settings contradict that content. Within history and social studies education, the view that university courses have a limited impact on teachers is supported by numerous studies showing that their ideas about education derive from a wide variety of sources, including not only their own experiences as students, but their personalities, experiences with pupils, institutional factors, and the perspectives of family members, colleagues, and cooperating teachers.14

This can be a fairly pessimistic viewpoint, because it implies that what we do in teacher education programs has little impact on the development of teachers. When this perspective does not descend into nihilism, its implication seems to be that we need to redouble our efforts to develop students’ pedagogical content knowledge: We have to design better history courses, with a greater emphasis on the nature of the discipline; we have to do a better job of challenging students’ ideas in our methods courses and of helping them construct new understandings of how to teach; we have to select field placements carefully so that students see good models of the kinds of instruction we hope to promote. Only such thorough and intensive efforts seem to provide hope of developing a clear and consistent body of pedagogical content knowledge in our students.

But we believe this approach may be misguided, or at least insufficient. As the studies by VanSledright, McDiarmand, and VanHover and Yeager show, understanding the interpretive nature of history has little impact on teachers’ instructional ideas or practices. Moreover, as we noted above, studies consistently show that teachers who have learned a variety of pedagogical practices still fail to implement them in the classroom. There simply does not seem to be any evidence that teacher knowledge is the variable that predicts classroom practice. That is not to say such knowledge is unimportant; recognizing history’s interpretive nature, and knowing how to represent the subject to students, is undoubtedly a necessary condition for teaching history interpretively. If teachers do not understand the underlying premises of the subject, and if they do not know how to go about implementing inquiry, or discussing historical controversies, or locating primary sources, then it is inconceivable that they will actually do so. But this knowledge, by itself, appears not to be a sufficient condition for transforming educational practices in history. Teachers can understand history as a discipline, and know how to teach it in the ways recommended by reformers, and still not do so.

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