Studies of Outstanding History Teachers

For expert history teachers, their knowledge of the discipline and beliefs about its structure interact with their teaching strategies. Rather than simply introduce students to sets of facts to be learned, these teachers help people to understand the problematic nature of historical interpretation and analysis and to appreciate the relevance of history for their everyday lives.

One example of outstanding history teaching comes from the classroom of Bob Bain, a public school teacher in Beechwood, Ohio. Historians, he notes, are cursed with an abundance of data—the traces of the past threaten to overwhelm them unless they find some way of separating what is important from what is peripheral. The assumptions that historians hold about significance shape how they write their histories, the data they select, and the narrative they compose, as well as the larger schemes they bring to organize and periodize the past. Often these assumptions about historical significance remain unarticulated in the classroom. This contributes to students’ beliefs that their textbooks are the history rather than a history.

Bob Bain begins his ninth-grade high school class by having all the students create a time capsule of what they think are the most important artifacts from the past. The students’ task, then, is to put down on paper why they chose the items they did. In this way, the students explicitly articulate their underlying assumptions of what constitutes historical significance. Students’ responses are pooled, and he writes them on a large poster that he hangs on the classroom wall. This poster, which Bob Bain calls “Rules for Determining Historical Significance,” becomes a lightening rod for class discussions throughout the year, undergoing revisions and elaborations as students become better able to articulate their ideas.

At first, students apply the rules rigidly and algorithmically, with little understanding that just as they made the rules, they can also change them. But as students become more practiced in plying their judgments of significance, they come to see the rules as tools for assaying the arguments of different historians, which allows them to begin to understand why historians disagree. In this instance, the students’ growing ability to understand the interpretative nature of history is aided by their teacher’s deep understanding of a fundamental principle of the discipline.

Leinhardt and Greeno (1991, 1994) spent 2 years studying a highly accomplished teacher of advanced placement history in an urban high school in Pittsburgh. The teacher, Ms. Sterling, a veteran of over 20 years, began her school year by having her students ponder the meaning of the statement, “Every true history is contemporary history.” In the first week of the semester, Sterling thrust her students into the kinds of epistemological issues that one might find in a graduate seminar: “What is history?” “How do we know the past?” “What is the difference between someone who sits down to

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