Preparing Teachers to Teach Historical Thinking?: An Interplay Between Professional Development Programs and School-Systems' Cultures

Preparing Teachers to Teach Historical Thinking?: An Interplay Between Professional Development Programs and School-Systems' Cultures

Bruce VanSledright (University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA) and Liliana Maggioni (The Catholic University of America, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0204-3.ch012
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This chapter explores the learning outcomes for 45 teachers involved in three different federally-funded Teaching American History (TAH) grant professional development programs. The programs sought to move teachers' thinking about teaching history away from traditional stand-and-deliver practices and toward teaching historical thinking and reasoning as described in much of the reform and research literature in history education. Data were drawn from a multi-scale assessment instrument administered in a sequentialized design and from classroom observations of and interviews with participating teachers. We examine in particular growth (or lack thereof) in historical knowledge and teaching practice and epistemic positioning. Results suggested that aggregate program-based growth and epistemic change were attenuated by incongruences between how American history was expected to be taught in the technocratic culture of schooling and the reform-minded, professional judgment-based ideas cultivated within the TAH programs. Common technocratic organizational routines in the internal environment tended to undermine the interventions' influences rather than support them. In the discussion, these routines and their school culture elements are contrasted with the TAH program reform efforts as a means of understanding the outcomes.
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In 2001, the late Senator Robert Byrd (D.-WV) proposed legislation to provide funding for a professional development initiative that was designed to grow the knowledge and understanding of American history teachers across the nation, and as a consequence improve student achievement in the subject. This initiative became known as the Teaching American History grant program (TAH) and it was continuously funded with new projects for a decade, after which only existing programs received funding to complete their work.

Since 2001, the program funded over 1,100 projects in local school systems. Each system typically received approximately $1 million to run a three-year effort in partnerships with local university historians, teacher educators, museum curators, historical archivists, and the like. Some funded projects received a bit less money while others received a bit more, depending on the size and reach of their initiatives. Over $1 billion was expended.

What did the American public get for its investment in the Teaching American History professional-development grant program? The answers to this billion-dollar question vary, depending on whom you talk to, although we suspect that a common denominator across these responses would be that we simply do not know for sure. The reason of such uncertainty is linked to at least two matters that concern us here: (a) the general absence of a comprehensive, widely disseminated federal report on the what the program yielded in transforming American history teaching since its inception, and (b) the relative dearth of published or disseminated reports from program evaluators about what their evaluation data suggested regarding the program’s impact on history teachers and teaching practice in local contexts.

The present chapter intends to begin addressing, in part, the second concern. Regarding the first concern, the absence of a comprehensive, federal report is in good measure understandable. Because of the vast array of different program evaluation designs used by external program evaluators, the U.S. Department of Education has experienced considerable difficulty conducting a synthesis of results that could be reported out in meaningful ways (e.g., Humphries, et al., 2005). This leaves it up to researchers and program evaluators to attempt to fill the void.

Lurking behind these difficulties lies what we believe is a more fundamental question about the nature of the transformation hoped for as a result of teachers’ participation in professional development experiences made possible by TAH grants. If it is to raise students’ achievement, what is it that students are supposed to achieve? With respect to this latter question, it is important to note that, in the United States, recurrent disappointment with achievement test results (e.g., Lee & Weiss, 2007; Rothstein, R., 2004; Wineburg, 1996), showing students’ inability to recall traditional milestones of American history, has often been met by a renewed commitment to foster students’ memorization of increasingly vast curricula. That effort attempts to conciliate the goal of introducing new generations of Americans to a common narrative of the nation’s past while paying at least some attention to the diverse voices characterizing American society (e.g., Olneck, 1989).

Besides these issues of curriculum coverage and memorization, the instance that learning history implies developing competence in the ways of thinking typical of this domain (e.g., Lee, 2004; Seixas, 2000) clearly (but controversially) entered the public debate also. It culminated in the revision of the National Standards for History in 1996, and the consequent adoption of this framework by several states developing their own state standards. The modification of the curricula that often ensued made professional development for teachers especially urgent. Yet, curricular change takes form within specific school systems, where decisions are made about what topics to cover, and what aspects—of the process that generated those topics in the first place—to uncover. Likewise, teacher professional development does not happen in a vacuum, but in the context of particular school systems’ cultures, each with its own way of envisioning the role of history in the school curriculum, the goals that it should pursue, and a way of framing and navigating the tensions that often arise between covering and uncovering history, often framed as a tension between content and process.

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