The Heart of History Teaching

1. What elements of historical thinking have remained at the heart of history teaching over the decades?

Critical thinking is a key component of historical thinking that has remained a constant of teaching history (and other social sciences) over the decades. I often find that students who are critical thinkers come away from courses I teach and the course content covered with a new lens through which to see and understand the world and civil society.

The importance and use of primary sources also remains at the heart of teaching history. We rely more on textbooks and secondary sources today more so than a century ago, but history teachers still use primary sources a great deal in their classrooms. This is also connected to critical thinking because it is in breaking down primary sources that one begins to see that history and historical outcomes are fluid not static, murky not clear, complex not simple, and require rumination not memorization. Finally, historical thinking recognize that while history is the record of past events it is relevant to the present.

Ultimately the intangible thing that I can control and use as a history teacher is the title of this entry: heart. I am passionate about my subject, and model that passion for my students.

2. How have history teachers responded to technological change in the 20th and 21st centuries?

In my experience, historians are lifelong learners and most fellow educators with whom I work have worked tirelessly to integrate and adapt to technological change. Many technological changes, in particular informational databases and full-text journal articles and primary sources have made research more accessible for scholars and students alike. Also the capability to show video clips, play audio, and even lecture (with better visual tools) have changed the way that history teachers teach. My teaching career launched in tandem with the new millennium, which coincided with a digital revolution capable of reaching a mass audience (including classrooms). My first year 1999-2000, I relied on overhead projects and clear plastic transparencies of my notes, and students relied on heavy textbooks and workbooks chosen by our district. With the increased democratization of information and the internet I now bounce from a Prezi to a PollEverywhere to a YouTube clip almost seamlessly.  For me, I am a better teacher, with better access to what feels like an infinite number of resources, because of technology.

3. How have external expectations constrained teaching and learning in history, and how might the digital turn disrupt those constraints?

I talked about a specific constraint in one of my answers in Module 3:

“I would note that while many in our profession are already tapping into creative student projects and regularly using open-sourced technology to mine or visualize data or use existing programs to build geo-spatial models or online exhibits — there are still structural curricular limits. For example, I teach AP US history with a standardized test that measures more traditional skills, i.e. primary source analysis, multiple choice, essays, and thesis statements. While I can incorporate some of the projects and assessments into my course that Dr. Kelly mentions, I am still largely bound by the test and my ability to prepare students for it. Until ACTs, SATs, and APs go away (if ever) then many of us will continue to be constrained by a curriculum and assessment we cannot control.”

As for how the digital turn might disrupt such a constraint? That is a question for which I do not have an answer. I know in the high school where I teach, AP courses are on the rise not decline. Further, standardized college entrance tests such as the SAT or ACT continue to fuel spin-off industries like test prep courses and professional tutoring agencies. College institutions will have to take the first step in dismantling this constraint, which affects high schools across the United States.