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History Pedagogy and Engaged Citizenship

On the last day of August, I had the honor of speaking with history faculty (at a casual lunchtime colloquium) and graduate students at the University of Notre Dame with my excellent collaborator Joel Sipress (Professor of History at UW-Superior). Over 25 history graduate students attended our talk titled: “Beyond the Coverage Model: The Argument-Based History Course.” (Thanks to Craig Kinnear for organizing this visit and for drawing my attention to the citizenship issue that I discuss below.)

Joel and I used a combination of evidence from historical and pedagogical research to argue that the coverage model of teaching history has been falling short for over a century. We made much of this case in our March 2011 article in the Journal of American History, but we have now expanded our explanation of the argument-based introductory history course that we propose to replace the traditional coverage-based model. I’d like to briefly explain the differences between these two models in order to comment on the different assumptions that they make about citizenship.

The coverage model is designed primarily to ensure that students are exposed to (and become familiar with) key factual and conceptual information about the place and time in question (e.g., the U.S. since 1865, or the western world since the French Revolution). Joel and I acknowledge that there is a great deal of variation among these courses and what they choose to cover and that many of them include primary source analysis. In that sense, there is no such thing as “the History Survey course.” But we contend nonetheless that the dominant design imperative of history survey courses is to cover a wide array of material, which is mostly presented to students as fixed knowledge. The most obvious (but not the only) problem with this sort of course design, which has been passed down for generations, is that exposure to huge piles of information produces little long-term learning. It’s no wonder that various tests and surveys of the historical knowledge of American youth have yielded disappointing results – for nearly a century! [1]

The argument-based introductory course that Joel and I promote as an alternative to coverage also has many possible manifestations. We have documented this course design used by other instructors and have developed it extensively ourselves. [2] We emphasize several key features of the argument-based course. In a nutshell, an argument-based course is designed from the ground up around a small number of significant historical questions – questions that scholars actually debate – that students will explore in depth with the expectation that they will devise and support their own historical arguments. In this model, instead of encountering historical information through textbooks and lectures, students engage with a manageable number of competing scholarly interpretations, alongside a modest body of primary documents and reference sources to help them understand the debate and take positions of their own. Note that the instructor still plays an essential role here as a guide to the authentic debate, and what is usually called “content” (in the coverage model) takes center stage as an object of scrutiny.

One of the interesting points of disagreement between Joel and me, on the one hand, and the defenders of coverage, on the other hand, centers on how we understand the possible role of history education in promoting engaged citizenship. The defenders of coverage say things such as, “there are certain things that every educated person should know,” paired with the assertion that the coverage-based course “covers” some significant set of those “things” that can both enrich one’s life and prepare one for citizenship and public engagement. Thus some defenders of coverage may see a reduction in coverage as a sort of “dumbing down.”

I think that this view is mistaken for a number of reasons. First, as noted above, the coverage model has not proven effective at cultivating the kind of cultural literacy that defenders of coverage seek to promote. Second, the argument-based model, far from jettisoning “content,” gives students an opportunity to engage seriously and deeply with important historical questions, contexts, and sources. [3] Finally, and central to my point here: the coverage model wrongly takes for granted that students will be able, at some future date, to usefully apply whatever historical knowledge they have retained from their “exposure” to heaps of information. This assumption violates the basic pedagogical principle that learners must actually practice whatever it is that they are supposed to be learning. [4]

Here’s where the argument-based model comes in. Joel and I contend that introductory history courses should be more intentionally designed to guide students through the process of thinking historically. We are not suggesting that introductory-level students learn the methods of historical research; we don’t harbor hopes that we are preparing our general education students for a life of slipping off to the archives during their lunch hours. But these students can and should learn that to study history is to analyze sources from various perspectives, to interpret a body of evidence, and to draw conclusions in conversation with other people who are studying the past. To really learn these things, students must actually practice them extensively. And if college students learn to engage critically with historical claims and evidence in this way, they will be much better prepared for democratic citizenship than if they have taken a history course that prioritizes the passive reception of historical information and perhaps thereby reinforces common misunderstandings about the nature of historical knowledge. [5]

The best defense for keeping history in our schools and colleges is not primarily that it exposes students to certain information about the past and helps some tiny percentage of them achieve cultural literacy. Rather, the study of history is an essential part of education because it provides a critical apparatus for understanding why things are the way they are, how the way things are compares to the way things have been, and how we might go about changing them – should change seem desirable.

With this in mind, I thank Professor Dan Graff, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in history at Notre Dame, for giving me a departmental T-shirt inscribed with the following: “People who want to change the world know how the world has changed.”

Thanks to both Joel Sipress and Brian Steele (Univ. of Alabama-Birmingham) for reviewing a draft of this post.

  1. (See Sam Wineburg, “Crazy for History,” Journal of American History 90 (March 2004): 1401–1414.)  ↩

  2. See Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal of American History (2006) for a seminal critique of the coverage model. For a broader overview of the issues, see Joel Sipress and David Voelker, “From Learning History to Doing History,” in Exploring Signature Pedagogies: Approaches to Teaching Disciplinary Habits of Mind, pp. 19–35, edited by Regan Gurung, Nancy Chick, and Aeron Haynie (Stylus, 2008), as well as the aforementioned March 2011 article in the Journal of American History.  ↩

  3. For example, see the fall 2012 syllabus for my introductory early American history course. Many of the course details appear in a website that is not open to public access, but the syllabus outlines the basic course structure.  ↩

  4. For a thoroughly documented exposition of this principle, see Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2006).  ↩

  5. For a brief discussion of common misunderstandings, see Terrie Epstein, “Preparing History Teachers to Develop Young People’s Historical Thinking,” Perspectives on History (May 2012).  ↩

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