The SoTL Advocate

Supporting efforts to make public the reflection and study of teaching and learning at Illinois State University and beyond…

Historians and History Teachers: Collaborative Conversations

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Post written by Richard Hughes (, Associate Professor in the Department of History at Illinois State University. This post reports on a project funded by a SoTL Grant funded by the Cross Chair in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at Illinois State University.

As a faculty member in the Department of History, I teach undergraduate and graduate courses in both history education and traditional content in U.S. history. My teaching responsibilities and research interests mean that I am especially well situated to appreciate the persistent divide in higher education between historical content and the burgeoning research on the learning of history, especially in the area of historical cognition. Illinois State remains one of the largest producers of secondary history teachers in the nation and yet many of our students struggle to forge a teaching philosophy and pedagogy that reflect the provocative SoTL research in the discipline.

Working with a colleague from another university (Sarah D. Brown-Ball State University) and a graduate student, I am in the middle of a semester long research project based on the premise that what future history teachers need is not simply additional courses in the discipline but rather different approaches to teaching and learning about the past. Consequently, my current course on U.S. history in the twentieth century is distinctly different than both traditional content courses and required courses in teaching methods within the department or the College of Education. Instruction, readings, and assignments combine traditional historical content (ie. the American experience during the Great Depression) with research in history education to explore the following question: “How do students’ disciplinary understandings affect the emerging conceptualization of discipline-specific teaching?”

In this project the relevant data comes from an array of assignments that measure student progress in both content knowledge and understanding of the discipline in terms of teaching and learning. For example, the course (History 309) begin with students, who have all had numerous undergraduate courses in the discipline, writing a narrative of American history in the twentieth century and concludes with a final project in which students create a virtual museum exhibit on the same topic. In between, students also play the role of researchers into history and history education as they design interviews or “Think Alouds” with high school and college students to explore how individuals think about history and historical evidence. These and other assignments all aim to make visible the historical thinking and other discipline-specific methodology that so often remain invisible in traditional history courses, teaching methods, and in public history.

While the project is ongoing, the implications of our work may be significant for history departments and beyond. First, the data may suggest the importance of revising the training of secondary history teachers to include explicit attention to the intersection between content and research in history education. Second, departments across campus and throughout the nation offer traditional content courses in many disciplines while also training future teachers. The study may point to the value of changing curricula in both areas to provide future teachers, regardless of subject, with a better understanding of what happens when their students engage their discipline.


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