Observations on History Teaching in the 21st Century

The past two weeks, I have had the privilege of observing six social studies student teachers “strut their stuff” and teach lessons to students in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York.  We really have some outstanding teachers this year who engage the students in learning the material (including such wonderful resources as political cartoons, primary source documents, and recruitment posters), and are excited to be in the classroom.  At the same time, though, I also get to see some of the challenges that our public school systems face, particularly in the area of technology.  Some schools are blessed with the latest (Promethian boards, projectors, etc.), while others are still using VCRs, overhead projectors, and chalkboards. 

Textbooks are another issue.   This semester, I have seen our student teachers using textbooks that refer to the native populations as “Red Men,” and the school district either does not have the funds to replace them or does not believe that it is an important investment (and, in this case, the textbooks are for a class in Pennsylvania history and do not include any mention of the state constitution adopted in 1968–because they were published in 1967).  This week, I saw a student teacher who had the challenge of teaching a U.S. History class using a textbook that is inaccurate (no big deal, except that he was teaching about the U.S. Constitution–and the textbook had erroneous information about the approval of presidential appointments).  At what point should student teachers–and all teachers, for that matter–decide that the textbook is no longer a useful tool and should be shelved in favor of using alternate forms of instruction (such as the Internet)?  What is the responsibility of the teacher to correct inaccurate information?  At what point can a student teacher safely question the regular teacher’s reliance on wrong information when instructing the future citizens of the world?   

With standardized testing in social studies on the horizon (if not already in place, as is the case with New York and the Regents Exams), it will be interesting to see how social studies teaching evolves over the next few years.  The one thing I would hate to see is “teaching the test”–in other words, history instruction being limited to what will be covered on the standardized exams, with no concern given to developing important skills like being able to craft an argument, to defend a position with evidence, and to demonstrate an understanding of basic historical “facts”–such as knowing how many states are in the United States, which U.S. presidents have been assassinated, and when Lincoln presented the Gettysburg Address.

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About Karen

History Professor. Baseball fan. Author of two books, one of which I force my students to buy and read. You want me on your Trivial Pursuit team.
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6 Responses to Observations on History Teaching in the 21st Century

  1. Beverly Tomek says:

    I can’t imagine using textbooks that are that outdated! In most of the public schools that I’ve dealt with in my state (Texas) we have much more up to date texts.

    Our problem, however, is in some ways worse. Recently our state board of education met and called for some drastic changes in the history curriculum based, not on the inaccuracies of current texts, but on a particular agenda. I’m a specialist in civil rights in both the 19th and 20th century, so I’m appauled at some of the civil rights icons who have been removed from the curriculum. But what bothers me the most is the way the board is tinkering with the story of the nation’s “founding” and the “founding fathers.” One of the main goals of some on the board was to have Thomas Jefferson taken out of the curriculum and replaced with an early religious leader. (I don’t remember which one they chose to focus on.) The message is clear — they want to deemphasize the move to separate church and state so they can focus on this being founded as a Christian nation. This is deliberate and clear revision, and I find myself thinking about the situation you describe in Pennsylvania vs what we have in Texas. They’re both bad but in different ways.

    Another example that comes to mind is the recent situation in Virginia. There a history teacher noticed that the text was passing as fact the notion that blacks fought in large numbers for the Confederacy. This myth is a standard in the whole Lost Cause arsenal, but it has been debunked so many times that its falsehood is clear. In this case the teacher publicized the issue and, I believe, the textbook company agreed to fix the problem.

  2. thomasn528 says:

    Beverly is a Facebook friend of mine and told me about your blog post. She suggested I mention an idea I had, of enlisting online volunteers including a facebook group (that coalesced around protesting the “Confederate History Month” in VA earlier this year) to look for a series of common Civil War era myths in school textbooks.

    The idea was triggered by the ‘Our Virginia’ textbook fiasco Bev mentioned. The focus on Civil War/Reconstruction is a personal one; I know full well there are plenty of other American history myths and misnomers to watch out for, it just seemed like the Facebook group was well suited to finding ones about that particular era.

    I write about all that and the ‘state textbook adoption’ system (which actually traces back to the bad old days of Jim Crow) here: How many more “Our Virginia” textbooks are there?. After corresponding with Bev and others about it, I think it’s a pretty good list of problem areas to look for, with links to scholarly rebuttals to misconceptions/Lost Cause propaganda like the ‘blacks fought for the South’ one.

    I also hope(d) to identify *good* American history books on the subject, rather than just disappointing ones. However, so far nothing has come of the email I sent to the facebook group, despite its size of about 700 people. So I’ve resolved to find my own school system’s American history textbook and have a look myself (duh), and maybe try to get the ball rolling again that way.

    Anyhow, what do you think? I’d appreciate your feedback about the blog post I linked to, and the general idea of ‘crowdsourcing’ the search for excellent textbooks and problem ones.

  3. thomasn528 says:

    I should also say that the idea was always to just find *possible* issues and run those by scholars in the field or people with history backgrounds — possibly your students, for example. I.e., amateurs like me would just be scouting around, we wouldn’t be judge and jury by ourselves when/if we discovered something questionable.

    Something like this might also be a good project for a class or a student to take on in a concerted way, starting with the PA/NY textbooks where you are. My data may be out of date, but it seemed like PA and NY don’t do the statewide adoption that’s common in ex-Confederate states.

    • Karen says:

      I’m not familiar with the situation in New York (perhaps someone who lives there can help me out), but I suspect their textbooks are geared toward the Regents Exams. In Pennsylvania, I know they do not have statewide adoption of textbooks, and there are several U.S., world, and state history textbooks on the market. Part of the problem is that in Pennsylvania, while K-12 schools are legally obligated to teach Pennsylvania history, some school districts contend that they teach Pennsylvania history in the context of U.S. history and therefore do not have a distinct, stand-alone course in state history at the secondary level (for instance, by mentioning the Battle of Gettysburg in the context of the Civil War, they are teaching state history). What this means for a college professor like myself is that quite a few students enroll in History of Pennsylvania thinking that they should get an easy “A” because they have “studied” it in school and have lived here all their lives–and they are in for a rude awakening when I expect them to read, write, and think critically. It becomes one of those “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” moments that hopefully develop into “light bulb” moments by the end of the semester.

  4. Larry Collins says:

    I just wanted to tell you that I think teaching the test is definitely not something I wanted to see either, but it’s happening that way since the implementation of the Keystone Exams. I know that the Biology classes do not study anymore some of the most interesting topics such as the diversity of the animal kingdom because so much of the Keystone exam is centered around Molecular Biology and Biology at a cellular level. I know it was hard for my cooperating teacher to explain to students that they wouldn’t be doing dissections anymore in a College Prep Biology class. I definitely didn’t want to see Biology come to this nor did I want to see Earth Science (if you didn’t know, my 2 favorites of all the Sciences–just like you having your favorites periods in History that you like to teach) 🙂

    I don’t know where Social Studies stands on this or what you’ve seen in the various classrooms you’ve been in, but it doesn’t seem that pleasant to just be teaching the test. I also know that some students don’t perform at the level that the Keystone exams ask in their various questions. (I looked at sample questions online and a lot of the questions are very high on Bloom’s Taxonomy) and there is a number of students I ran into that struggle with basic recall multiple choice questions. I know that this mean not mean very good results for some of them.

  5. Dan says:

    With the new Republican gubernatorial administration taking office and the influx of Republican Congressmen, perhaps January will be the turning point for public education in the state as Corbett, who is an ardent supporter of vouchers, may actually accomplish what Tom Ridge failed.

    A Democratic Philadelphia politician recently said that quality education should not be determined by a zip code. We have already seen this “teaching to the test” phenomena on a smaller scale thanks to NCLB and also because of the current PSSA’s. One PA school district (Blue Mountain) has already approved the measure that when the new Keystone exams take effect, they will replace final exams given by the teachers. Too much time is spent learning facts instead of internalizing information and formulating a rational conclusion based on those facts. Instead of knowing why the Civil War broke out, as long as you know General Lee commanded the Army of Virginia and… well pretty much every Corps commander led the Union army at one point or another, then you don’t have to go any further. These tests will create nothing but an even more shallow education system that will trickle up to the university level when students, unfamiliar with the concept of actual research and debate, will fail miserably. But they will be wicked good at Jeopardy with all the useless facts they know.

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