Teaching Historical Thinking in Teacher Preparation: Preparing to Teach the Unnatural Act

AHA Session 263
International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in History 2
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Regency Ballroom V (Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Lower Level 1)
Laura Westhoff, University of Missouri-St. Louis
Laura Westhoff, University of Missouri-St. Louis

Session Abstract

After more than two decades of important research and improved understanding, historical thinking is increasingly central in the nation’s K-16 history classrooms.  Teaching historical thinking takes center stage in the missions of national history teaching organizations such as NCHE’s “Blueprint for Student Learning,” AHA’s “Tuning the Discipline,” the NCSS sponsored “C3 Framework,” and even the new exam format for Advanced Placement United States History.  State standards also reflect this new emphasis in historical thinking.  For history teachers nationwide, mastering historical thinking may now be the single most important aspect of their content preparation.

But what are history departments and teacher preparation programs doing to explicitly prepare teachers to teach in this paradigm? We cannot assume that future teachers will learn this process through osmosis or on the job.  Even students who major in history and have a relatively deep and broad exposure to history “content” need explicit courses and experiences designed to introduce them to the concepts of teaching and learning historical thinking.  After all, if historical thinking is not necessarily a “natural act,” why would teaching historical thinking be a “natural act”? 

However, the divide between teaching historical content and research on the learning of history remains a hallmark of curriculum in higher education. Today’s generation of beginning teachers came of age decades after A Nation at Risk(1983) and the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools (1987) and yet still largely enter the profession amid a persistent conflict between a traditional yet flawed pedagogy in both secondary and higher education and the growing body of scholarship in history education that emphasizes historical cognition. The result is an educational climate that demands that historians find innovative ways to challenge what Bruce VanSledright calls “18 years of systematic apprentice of observation” which privileges traditional curriculum and pedagogy.  

Reflecting the belief that what future history teachers need is not simply more courses in history but rather differentapproaches to teaching and learning about the past, this panel includes three presentations from history professors with experience both teaching U.S. history and leading teacher preparation programs. All teach in state comprehensive institutions, are responsible for preparing secondary school history teachers, and teach in history departments.  All three presenters have developed courses and experiences that explicitly introduce and advance concepts of historical thinking and bridge the gap between traditional history content and recent research in history education. The panel is aimed at historians responsible for traditional content courses that often include future history teachers as well as faculty and secondary teachers who play crucial roles in history teacher education.


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