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Going Deep with Historiography

Emma Hipolito, Ed.D. is Site Director of the UCLA History-Geography Project. Dr. Hipolito has helped lead the UCLA History-Geography Project for 14 years. Prior to joining the project, she was a social studies teacher in the Los Angeles area working with both high school and middle school students for 11 years.  Research interest in history-social science instruction and teacher preparation. Daniel Diaz, Ed.D. is Associate Director of the UCLA History-Geography Project. Dr. Diaz taught high school social studies in Los Angeles County for 12 years and is currently the Associate Director of the UCLA History-Geography Project. His research and work have focused on supporting at-risk youth and using educational technology to enhance social studies instruction. Laura McEnaney, Ph.D. is Professor of American History at Whittier College. Dr. McEnaney is the Nadine Austin Wood Chair in American History at Whittier College.  She has collaborated with UCLA’s National Center for History in the Schools to improve history pedagogy and she is currently completing a book on World War II’s demobilization and the notion of “postwar” eras.  

This piece continues our online round table about historiography in the classroom. See also parts one, two, and three.

The UCLA History-Geography Project provides professional learning opportunities for teachers in the Los Angeles area. We are one of the university-based sites of the California History-Social Science Project, a state-funded network of projects serving K–12 schools. The learning opportunities we provide come in the form of workshops, institutes, and conferences as well as partnerships with districts and individual schools. Recent partnerships have supported social studies teachers as they make the transition to the Common Core State Standards.

In order to support social studies teachers with this transition, the UCLA History-Geography Project has focused on demonstrating that when we abandon a “coverage” approach to history for an emphasis on depth, student learning and engagement improves. One of the challenges California teachers face is finding a balance between a skills approach to instruction (the Common Core) while still teaching the history content found in the state’s content standards. However, the large historical periods presented in the content standards represent a stumbling block for teachers. For example, the 10th-grade world history survey course begins with a review of Greek and Roman contributions to Western democracy and ends with an analysis of the “integration of countries into the world economy and the information, technological and communications revolution,” according to state content standards In order to get through the amount of content, many teachers adopted a “coverage” model requiring a cursory examination. Annual state tests, in many respects, fostered this “coverage” mentality as student mastery of a course was assessed on multiple-choice questions requiring little more than basic recall.

To address the challenge of coverage over depth, the UCLA History-Geography Project has taken a two-pronged approach in its partnership with the Chino Valley Unified School District and their social studies teachers. First, we have invited college and university historians to participate in the curricular work we are doing. This is not a new practice for us, but our approach has changed in response to teacher need. In the past, we might have asked a historian to provide some insight or present new research around a topic, such as FDR’s New Deal. Now we are asking historians to consider the larger concepts around which a course is built and identify points where historiography might help us explore, in depth, a particular historical topic or to help educators find thematic links. The latter has been particularly useful with our world history teachers. Secondly, we have helped teachers translate this thinking into classroom practice.

So what does this look like?

Here are two examples. U.S. Historian Laura McEnaney, Whittier College, participated in a workshop on the Cold War, which is taught in both 10th-grade world and 11th-grade U.S. history classes in California. She presented various schools of thought on the Cold War and asked teachers to think about where they situate their own lessons on the Cold War in light of changing historiography. Workshop participants discussed how textbooks and the content standards present Cold War events, as well as how the Cold War Blueprint curriculum produced by the California History-Social Science Project, detailed the history of the Cold War. This discussion reinforced our point that history is an argument and not an unchanging narrative in the manner presented by most textbooks. Students do not need to memorize every fact presented in the textbook, but instead be able to marshal those facts to support a viewpoint. It also helped teachers to understand what aspects of the Cold War benefit from a more in-depth exploration.

In contrast, historian Robert Marks, also from Whittier College, spoke to a group of world history teachers charged with teaching twelve-year-olds content beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire and encompassing the medieval through the modern era. Coverage is a daunting task for all world history teachers, and so our objective is to present an approach that considers the importance of global interactions in shaping history. With this in mind, Dr. Marks focused his talk on the role of contingency and global interactions via the trade system of the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. Here, too, teachers were able to think about how interpretations of world history evolve, and they were able to talk with a working scholar about how to use the newest scholarship to organize their content. In some respects, it made teachers question the laid out in the standards.

What has been the result of this effort?

While still a work in progress, these discussions have been a key component in shifting how teachers view their content. By exploring changing historical interpretations related to their classes, teachers are now equipped to explore a particular historical topic (The Suez Canal Crisis) as opposed to attempting to cover all historical topics (The Cold War). By going in depth, teachers can afford to use more class time in order to help their students develop analytical and interpretive skills. These conversations have also helped us to better shape historical inquiry questions (was the Eisenhower Doctrine an appropriate response to the Suez Canal Crisis?) that are being used to guide history instruction. Teachers have also benefitted from the historical sources provided by historians. The time it takes to locate an appropriate source has been another challenge that teachers face, thus resulting in frustration and a reliance on the textbook. Historians, like John Lloyd from California State University, Pomona, have provided a myriad of primary sources and secondary sources related to the Constitution and the causes of the Civil War to our 8th-grade teachers.

Historians have also benefitted from this interaction. The intellectual handoff between high school and college is something that many historians are concerned about. College professors meet students only three months after graduation, and they are expecting competencies that might not yet be fully developed. Principally, historians expect students to arrive with an ability not to memorize but to analyze. Unfortunately, many high school graduates enter a college classroom unprepared to do the kind of inquiry-based critical thinking that is a hallmark of the discipline. Many college courses now include lively discussions of documents and historiography, and historians want their students to engage history as a way of thinking, not a memory game.

Both the historians and the teachers at Chino Valley Unified School District have become part of a common project, collaborators in an on-going conversation about student development. These conversations are especially important for college and university historians, who in many ways, have managed to escape the testing and assessment pressures visited upon K–12 school districts. The Common Core offers a much better preparation for college-level work, and historians benefit as both teachers and scholars when we can nurture a new generation to move away from the “coverage” model. The partnership between Chino Valley Unified School District, the UCLA HGP, and the historians who have supported this work has been a terrific opportunity to present historiography as a means to rethink how history is taught in secondary classrooms.