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An Opportunity for Enhanced History Teaching and Learning

At first glance, the Common Core Standards mean very little for history teaching and learning. Buried under language arts literacy skills and lacking references to deep disciplinary thinking, the Common Core (CC) might lead history teachers to simply shake our heads, ignore the standards, and let language arts specialists grapple with reading and writing. But, if we can move past the fact that history has once again been afforded second-class status and barely emerges as part of a “college and career readiness” curriculum, we might use the CC to our advantage. The language in the standards merely skims the surface of historical thinking, but the CC provides us with two key opportunities: to educate the public about what a vibrant history classroom looks like and to spearhead rigorous history teacher preparation.

If we can move past the fact that history has once again been afforded second-class status . . . we might use the CC to our advantage.

By emphasizing discipline-specific approaches to reading and by calling attention to the importance of synthesizing and expressing ideas through formal writing, the CC assists teachers in helping the public move beyond understanding history as merely facts to be covered. Factual information is central to reading and writing about the past, but too often the public’s understanding of history stops with facts. Using the CC as justification for an expanded focus on reading and writing enables history teachers to devote extensive class time to the historical habits of mind that a study of the past fosters. Expanding on the CC’s cursory references to interpretation, primary and secondary sources, and the use of evidence, teachers can help their students recognize the importance of identifying the author, intended audience, and context in which these sources were created. Instead of allowing students to read for the sole purpose of finding an answer, history teachers can use the CC to launch discussions about corroborating sources, evaluating authors’ claims and use of evidence, and determining instances of ambiguity in texts.

The CC also establishes a need to continue robust history teacher education. At the secondary level, future history teachers need a history major that demands deep disciplinary knowledge. History’s methods and ways of thinking must be articulated for and by teaching candidates at every turn. Content methods courses cannot make vague references to historical thinking and expect candidates to miraculously apply these ideas in their classrooms. Preparing history teachers who are capable of seizing the CC as both an opportunity to teach disciplinary reading and as an occasion to hone interpretive skills through formal writing demands that teacher preparation programs make student thinking in history visible and provide candidates with opportunities to observe and assess such thinking.

The Common Core Standards themselves do not inspire; but taken as an entry point and used in concert with rich historical knowledge and deep disciplinary thinking, the Common Core’s emphasis on disciplinary reading and writing might provide an avenue for enhanced teaching and learning in history.