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The Role of History Departments Should Be Content, Content, Content

In the preparation of future teachers, the role of history departments should be content, content, content. The substance of history must be the goal when a history department has a hand in preparing K–12 teachers. We base this rule on our understanding of what history departments and historians do, and of what the educational establishment does. The other side of the coin is that historians should not engage in pedagogical instruction in which they have little expertise at the K–12 level, letting others attend to best methods for meeting classroom challenges.

Content is not only what historians do best, it’s what K–12 history/social studies teachers need. We have long experience with students from colleges of education who take our courses for social studies training and a decade of involvement with public school teachers through the Teaching American History (TAH) grant program. Together, these provide ample proof that what is missing in teacher preparation is content. While the educational establishment spends a prodigious quantity of time and energy on pedagogical technique in preparing them for the classroom, it leaves teachers without a deep grounding in the core knowledge of history. In the TAH projects, and in the courses they take with us, that is what we strive to deliver.

In terms of pedagogy, we find, for example, that teachers understand that students need to actively participate in the historical process. But knowing that students should work with primary sources, think critically, and compose arguments is not a substitute for command over material. And no amount of pedagogical training will correct that deficiency. Simply put, pedagogical training is not enough. Teachers must know enough about events like the American Revolution to understand why the Declaration of Independence didn’t come until 11 years after the Stamp Act.

We are not opposed to practical applications. In our TAH programs, we require that teachers rigorously explore historical themes that meet state and district standards, as well as our professional standards. We set these courses at the introductory graduate level. Our students then move on to a second learning component in which they carry out individual research topics. The historical material they discover in their research is then applied in a specific classroom design. But, what we want them to bring to the lesson plan is strong new knowledge. Top to bottom, what drives our approach is the fact that we have what they most need: expert command of historical content. We don’t presume to know best practices in the classroom. But we do know best practices for historical knowledge, and that is what we intend to provide them.