Historians: How Does Research In Pedagogy Inform Your Teaching?

Ben Wright, a historian at the University of Texas at Dallas, challenges his fellow history professors to start reading scholarship related to pedagogy.  He even uses the label “anti-intellectual” to describe those professors who are unwilling to engage with such literature or who look upon this literature with condescension.

Here is a taste of his post at Teaching United States History:

I should confess that I came to the profession of “professing” after receiving an undergraduate training in “teaching.” In fact, this article takes me back to my undergraduate education and the whiplash I often felt when walking out of an educational psychology class and into a history course. I recall how impressed I was by the scholarly rigor of education researchers and the evidence they produced to indicate the difference between effective and ineffective instruction. And then I remember the bemusement I felt an hour later by realizing that my history professor clearly never read a word of this scholarship.
Ignorance is one thing, but outright hostility is quite another, and the tone of this article, and of some of the enthusiasm I’ve noticed around it, evinces a dismissal and even condescension to the academic fields of education research. I would even go so far as to call this attitude an anti-intellectualism. Is this outlook toward the academic study of education any less disrespectful and misguided than what we sometimes get from members of the public who feel that Bill O’Reilly’s study of Abraham Lincoln has the same measure of legitimacy as Eric Foner’s?
We all have a standard answer to the question, “how does your research inform your teaching?” but what would happen if if interviewees began asking, “how does research in pedagogy inform your teaching?” Our guild appears to hold the belief that learning how to teach is mostly a matter of general intelligence, experience, and hard work. Most of us receive little-to-no training in how to teach. We are thrust into teaching assistantships and expected to figure it out on the fly. And we do, but this trial by fire approach teaches us more how to survive and less how to ensure the best possible outcomes for our students. Discussions of learning outcomes, best practices, or education psychology too often get dismissed as administrator meddling or an academia adrift in lowering standards. The “tough love” approach epitomized in the article stands in for rigorous engagement with research.
Wright is right.  If we want more students to get excited about history we need to be more committed to teaching. And yes, this will require reading scholarship related to pedagogy.
Wright lists several places where historians might begin to explore this scholarship.  They include The Review of Higher Education, Review of Education Research, and Contemporary Educational Psychology.  These are probably all great journals that include articles that will make us become better teachers, but not every historian is going to have the time or inclination to read them.
But maybe historians will read literature on scholarship related specifically to teaching history–literature published in history journals, magazines, or history blogs and websites. Sam Wineburg, Lendol Calder, Caleb McDaniel, the folks responsible for The History Teacher, and others are doing great work on this front.  I know that Wright is familiar with this work.  
Rather than encouraging historians to tackle specialized pedagogy and education journals, I think the best we can expect is that more historians like Wright will emerge  to serve as brokers who are willing to bring the best of this literature to those of use who work in the history classroom.

2 thoughts on “Historians: How Does Research In Pedagogy Inform Your Teaching?

  1. The heckler's veto forbids any questioning of the academic establishment, perhaps even this. 😉

    The Science article covering the special issue was titled “Replication Effort Provokes Praise—and ‘Bullying’ Charges.” Both there and in her blog post, Schnall said that her work had been “defamed,” endangering both her reputation and her ability to win grants. She feared that by the time her formal response was published, the conversation might have moved on, and her comments would get little attention.

    How wrong she was. In countless tweets, Facebook comments, and blog posts, several social psychologists seized upon Schnall’s blog post as a cri de coeur against the rising influence of “replication bullies,” “false positive police,” and “data detectives.” For “speaking truth to power,” Schnall was compared to Rosa Parks. The “replication police” were described as “shameless little bullies,” “self-righteous, self-appointed sheriffs” engaged in a process “clearly not designed to find truth,” “second stringers” who were incapable of making novel contributions of their own to the literature, and—most succinctly—“assholes.”



  2. A lot of this comes down to the fact that few history professors have taken courses on education or been taught how to be effective teachers. Instead, they spend years concentrating on researching within their specialty. This produces specialized researchers, but not educators. Then they get hired to teach history? I think there is something inherently wrong here with this system. To teach history for any college all you need is a Master's degree with 18 graduate level credit hours in the subject field or related field.

    Walk into the classroom of these researchers and you will be wondering why they are teaching. It is like walking into a classroom from the early 20th century. The only difference is the professor uses a PowerPoint. If you are still teaching history primarily from lecture in this day and age, you need to resign your position and let someone who knows how to teach take over. Today's students learn little if anything from lecture.

    The most important history class taught in the US today is the first American History survey class. It is the only history course many students will take. Often, in major universities with big names students are herded into lecture halls like cattle. The professor usually lectures for X length of time and turns it over to grad students. In some cases the professor who is listed as the instructor has turned the entire course over to grad students who have no clue how to teach. What do they do? They lecture. Students might as well just read the textbook and take the test. The course is a waste of their time.

    To be honest, I've got a better online course for my students than the craptastic mess going on in today's lecture halls. I can teach rings around most of the professors who while they are far better history researchers than I am, have no idea how to teach beyond lecture and tests. Want to watch history professors flee in terror? Start talking about pedagogy. They don't want to hear that they can't teach and that to connect with students they have to learn how to teach what they know. That would take time away from doing research.

    I use a flipped, interactive classroom built upon Transformative Learning Theory (Mezirow) derived from Freire and Critical Pedagogy. It is very interactive and student learning focused. If students are not learning, then what is the point of teaching? It is not what you know that matters in teaching. It is what you get students to learn that matters. We need content experts that have the ability to transfer their knowledge to students. Gary Nash pointed out this gap in the 80s and 90s along with others. Sam Wineburg and Bob Bain have helped to create university centers that work to overcome the lack of educational training many educators have. They are effective in the K-12 ranks, but it seems that college professors avoid the idea that they need to learn how to be educators.

    I could go on and on about this.


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