The interpretation of good history teaching is constantly reorienting, and recently, various organizations and individuals have insisted for more historical thinking in the classroom (Barton, Hicks, Keirn, National Council for The Social Studies). Learning history exists within a bioecological system framework which contains many layers. Due to this framework, students will have their knowledge of history questioned by their parents, friends, community, teachers, schools, and much more (Cappella, 270).
Other bioecological systems contain more abstract forces; for example, the macrosystem contains elements from politics, religion, and economics. Currently, the entities that exist within the macrosystem have been making new demands of history teachers; organizations, businesses, and research institutions are demanding future Americans be able to think more critically, and with recent political stratification, there have been questions as to whether or not Americans can be trusted to make sound judgements.
Where does history, and the broader field of social studies fit into providing critically minded Americans?
If American students are going to make social, political, and economic decisions, then history will provide them a place to test their theories and ideas. In his article “What Is ‘Good” Educational Research,” Karl Hostetler described history as a laboratory for ethics; “history and contemporary life offers a rich account of struggles, of successes and failures, of ‘experiments,’….” (Hostetler, 19). History then can be a laboratory, and a source of evidence, for explaining and understanding present events, and predicting future trends.
How Do Current Practices in History Teaching Affect The Future's of Students?
The history classroom laboratory interpretation seems to be a compelling rationale to teach history, in which students learn about the past means to gain critical thinking skills. These skills would then lead to what can be called “adult outcomes.” These adult outcomes can relate to health, work, family, and civic engagement (Capella, 250). Unfortunately, researchers have found that the common practices of history teachers do not lead to historical thinking, which could mean that history classes do nothing for adult outcomes (Barton, Bain, Breakstone, Ercikan). For example, there is evidence that most history teachers do not allow for student choice or interest to affect their curriculum.
Adult outcomes can be seen on the right of the illustration. There are many factors that affect these outcomes; currently this article focuses on how learning history benefits students. Currently, it seems most history classrooms do not have positive affects on adult outcomes.
Educational philosophers like John Dewey believed that student interest and choice were fundamental in creating a curriculum that prepared students for their democratic lives (Dewey, 1938, 19; Dewey, 1916). Some history teachers may chafe at such philosophies and say, “my students learn to work hard and complete tasks in my classroom; that is all they need to be successful.” These educators forget that the question is not about work ethic, but whether or not students are learning to think critically.
John Dewey is the premier 20th century philosopher on education. Many of his practices and ideas are widely used today.
Dewey’s book Experience and Education is wonderful summary of Dewey’s thoughts about education. Much of his work is difficult to read, but his 1938 Experience and Education gives a nice summary of his ideas.
To borrow from Dewey again: “the belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative” (Dewey, 1938, 25). Just learning to complete history assignments does not equate to students being able to apply their knowledge to successful adult outcomes. In fact, many history courses do not promote successful adult outcomes because they rely on standardized achievement tests to measure historical knowledge. Research suggests that historical knowledge and processes cannot be measured through achievement tests, and that these tests only measure skills such as being “test wise” (Capella, 254). In order to make learning history meaningful, curriculum must be shaped, in part, by student interest and choice.
Conclusion to Part I
The practice of teaching history finds itself at a crossroads. One path has come from a traditional belief that memorizing facts and figures will lead to successful adult outcomes. In the first part of this article series, I hopefully given enough reasons for educators to doubt the first path is valid. The second path is successful adult outcomes will derive from (1) teaching historical thinking, and (2) allowing students to solve problems using history. When standing at fork that these two paths create, many history teachers take the one of memorization and recall because it is easier. In the next part of this article series, I will give some more insight into how and why history teachers should teach with successful adult outcomes in mind.