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Considering the Needs of Teachers and of Students

History departments must thoughtfully consider how the needs of teachers differ from those of students who plan to become historians themselves, or who are simply fulfilling requirements. First, they must decide which courses are most appropriate for future teachers. This is not a matter of selecting only courses that amount to direct content preparation; it does not simply mean a course on the ancient world in a state that requires such study in seventh grade, for example. Rather, it means deciding which courses are most likely to expose future teachers to the underlying principles and perspectives they will need throughout their careers.

For example, teachers of U.S. history need preparation in the history of race relations and in Constitutional history, for these will always be part of what they teach, regardless of grade level or varied state requirements. Teachers of world history, meanwhile, need to understand how studying transnational developments differs from studying changes within a single political entity. And elementary teachers need to learn that historians investigate important problems rather than simply retelling stories. The courses that provide such exposure will differ by institution, and thus it is the thoughtfulness of their selection, rather than any particular set of topics, that will best prepare teachers.

Thoughtful preparation also requires considering what specific experiences future teachers should have within their courses. Clearly, if teachers are going to prepare their pupils for historical thinking, they must learn what that means—they must learn what it means to base accounts on evidence, to explain events in terms of historical context, and so on. These are the aspects of history they are least likely to have encountered before, and so history departments must thoughtfully consider how to help them develop these new understandings.

A final element of thoughtfulness may be the most difficult: making the nature of history education transparent. Ironically, students can experience an exciting history class, one that consistently models using primary sources, without recognizing that modeling. University students are not always adept at reflecting on the reasons behind the methods they experience, and thus they fail to generalize these to new circumstances. Teachers who have learned content deeply in inquiry-oriented courses may very well go on to cover that content superficially through lectures in their own classes.

If historians hope to better prepare history teachers, then, they must not only model historical thinking and investigation, but must also engage future teachers in ongoing discussions about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and why it matters. Only if they experience this kind of reflection are teachers likely to internalize it to a degree that will influence their own teaching.