Friday, March 14, 2008

"Beyond Best Practices": Taking Seriously the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Gary J. Kornblith and Carol Lasser
Contributing Editors, Textbooks and Teaching

Section Introduction

How do we teach American history? And what do our students learn? In this year's "Textbooks and Teaching" section, we present reports from the field, exploring what happens when historians self-consciously study their classroom practices. Inspired by Ernest L. Boyer's Scholarship Reconsidered, proponents of this kind of rigorous analysis of pedagogy refer to it as "the scholarship of teaching and learning."1 When we first approached this subject, we must admit, we had reservations: Would we be moving into the domain of education departments and teacher certification programs that addressed such issues as the relative merits of various classroom technologies, effective construction of multiple-choice tests, and the mysteries of rubric creation, all to serve us better in our quest for efficient "content delivery"? Would we be presented with mind-crushing correlations between student assessment scores and proportions of lecture/discussion observed for various courses at distinct levels of the curriculum? Would we see lesson plans for successful classes presented like recipes in a "best practices" cookbook? Were historians being asked to "dumb down" their specialties in order to don the guise of entertainers who could reach students more accustomed to amusement than to serious intellectual inquiry? To our relief our skepticism proved misplaced. The work presented below is analytically sophisticated, well grounded in empirical research, and provocative. It demands that we engage questions not just about the merits of particular pedagogies, but about our central purposes as academics who both study and teach the American past.

Above all, the scholars whose work appears in this section taught us that exploring teaching and learning in history requires that we consider our goals before we turn to evaluating our methods. What are we trying to teach? What do we want students to know after they have completed a history course, and for how long do we wish them to retain that knowledge? Contributors to this section recognize and register the familiar concern with the lack of historical knowledge today's students manifest, but rather than simply trying to fill empty vessels with incontestable, abstracted, and correct facts, they seek to help students develop an appreciation for history as the practice of interpretation and narration, based in the systematic analysis of evidence. In this way, they argue, students learn both content and what to do with it. In other words, these practitioners illuminate strategies for teaching historical thinking, not a long list of names and dates or even a short list of lessons of history. These case studies are rich with discussions of the components that constitute our disciplinary mode of analysis: posing historical questions; evaluating contested interpretations; interrogating and contextualizing sources; using evidence to create a narrative; revising established narratives in light of new findings. The best historians use these skills unselfconsciously; they are part of our cast of mind. But how do we teach these skills to our students so that they will think like historians, not just memorize the thoughts of their teachers? The scholarship of teaching and learning, then, not only encourages us to bring our skills as researchers into our work as teachers; it also asks us to articulate the core substance and significance of our distinctive expertise as historians. Perhaps, as T. S. Eliot has said, "the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."2 Teaching history may yet be reconnected with doing history.

The article continues at: :This Web site serves as a companion to the "Textbooks and Teaching" section published each year by the Journal of American History. Here you may find syllabi and other supplemental material from authors who participated in "Textbooks and Teaching," as well as the full text of the print articles.