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The Essential Role of History Departments in Teacher Preparation

The essential role of history departments in the preparation of pre-collegiate level teachers is to teach them how historians think and to provide a broad base of historical knowledge.

The typical K–12 history teacher is not a professional historian; in fact, only two-thirds of secondary history teachers have even majored in history. The instructional choices these teachers make are guided by state curricula and, chiefly, by their experiences as learners and their beliefs about the nature of history. And, ultimately, whether teachers view history as an established set of facts objectively presented in textbooks, or as an ongoing construction of the past that is complex, uncertain, and open to revision and interpretation, greatly influences the type of history they teach.

To prepare future K–12 teachers for careers that will probably not include primary research requires a somewhat different course of study than one used to train professional historians. For their knowledge base, history teachers need to understand the major trends and themes of world history, American history and the history of their state—the most commonly taught courses in public secondary schools and the upper elementary grades. Although specialized electives are offered in some K–12 schools, the main required courses are broad narratives. Consequently, teachers must know the details of these broad histories more thoroughly than is typically presented in undergraduate survey courses. Co-teaching between members of the history and education departments can be the key to an effective and efficient way to teach these courses. Prospective teachers gain integrated knowledge and skills when learning course content while simultaneously learning pedagogical principles that will help relate history to the developmental levels of students K–12.

To see how historians think, future teachers should also take specific courses in the history department. Teachers need a historical point of view in order to effectively select meaningful materials and to design instruction that will help students better understand the nature of history and historical inquiry. Further, teachers ought to know historiography (the history of history), to have a philosophy of history, and to understand the methodology of historical research and writing. For their part, history professors in these courses should focus on “thinking aloud” in order to make transparent the unique way they approach their work. Future teachers need to understand how historians think—how they examine evidence, read texts, evaluate sources, and seek corroboration.

Novice teachers need a model of learning history consistent with best academic practices. In order to teach K–12 students to see history as an ongoing quest for truth about the past, teachers need to see it that way first. In order to help students investigate the evidence of the past, construct narratives, make persuasive arguments, and be open to revision, teachers need to possess those skills themselves.