HM - Feb. 2014 - Musbach



Let’s Resurrect “History’s Habits of Mind”

 Joan Musbach
Webster University

History Matters!!  Or does it?  A long-time history colleague of mine was part of a middle school team in a major urban school district.  As annual testing became the norm, her school added additional science, communication arts and math teachers to the team, but not social studies.  So she taught U. S. History to 184 eighth graders each day.  As public school teachers in most core subjects bemoan the need to “teach to the test,” social studies teachers clamor for annual testing of the social studies!  What’s going on here? Is it a test that gives history instruction validity? Does history matter? NCHE members reading this newsletter will agree that history matters, but lament the prevailing disregard for history as a course of study.  Perhaps, as in the oft-quoted words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” 

I had an undergraduate degree in history, an MAT and ten years of experience in teaching history in high school before anyone asked me to explain why I taught a given lesson or unit.  I found it difficult to answer the question and frequently confused it with the learning objectives of the lesson.  I surmised that I was somehow deficient and that others found answering this question easy.

It was discovery of the report of the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools in 1988 that brought answers to the why question into focus.  The clarity and strength of their report enabled me to persuade a skeptical superintendent to approve a change from a social science middle school curriculum to a history-centered one. As I taught my classes with an awareness of History’s Habits of Mind and the benefits accrued by having greater purpose for learning, I assumed that The Bradley Commission and History’s Habits of Mind were transforming history education and the preparation of the next generation of history teachers.

Fast forward twenty-five years, and I find that my student teachers, many with undergraduate degrees in history, and too often, their cooperating teachers, cannot answer the why question for the units and lessons they teach and have never heard of History’s Habits of Mind.

History professors, history teachers, those of us who love history, all fail to intentionally explicate why individuals should learn history.  We jump from trend to trend, expecting that what is obvious to us will be obvious to our students.  We fall in love with document analysis, but do not pressure students to question the documents or the selection of the documents. We get excited about teaching students to “think like historians,” but do not make clear the process of collecting information from multiple sources, questioning sources, distinguishing between fact and opinion.  Why would the majority of adolescents be motivated to learn “to think like historians”? Perhaps it is one cut above “because it is on the End of Course Test,” but aspiring stars of stage, screen, the gridiron, or the court are not likely to be persuaded.

In 1992, Theodore Sizer, in Horace’s Compromise, spoke directly to the importance of the why.  “Any person who sees, at least to some extent, why he or she is asked to do something is ahead of the individual who is merely absorbed into some inexplicable but compulsory activity.  And if those reasons are persuasive, the energy and effort that are provided will help the individual learn.” He continued, “People deserve to know the ‘whys’ for things they are forced to do. . . . We forget to tell students why it is all taking place.  We are too busy to explain or too bored to be willing to explain it over and over again, each year with each new wave of students. . . . The essential word throughout is WHY.”

When is the last time you began or ended a lesson with a clear explanation of why the lesson was important, something more persuasive than, “It will be on the unit test.”  We complain about the lack of intrinsic motivation among our students, but are we partly to blame?  Teachers of history, at all levels and especially those at the university where our future history teachers are being educated, need to regularly, overtly, intentionally communicate why they teach a course, a unit, a lesson. This validates what we do and love. It motivates those we teach to learn what is being taught.

Persuasive teaching of history can change the lives of our students in significant ways. Teaching students to readily identify cause and effect in history can be a powerful tool for adolescents whose “judgment” portion of the brain has not fully developed and who frequently cannot relate cause and effect in their own lives. How can egocentric adolescents, who live entirely in the present, envision a future different from the life they are now living? If they know nothing about the past, do not understand continuity and change, the outlook from where they sit in the classroom can be very bleak.  The importance of the individual in history, particularly if we ask students to study individuals with whom they may be able to identify, can offer positive role models to adolescents for whom these are lacking in their daily lives.

Isn’t it important to grow into adulthood with an understanding of the complexity of issues, with the ability to live with uncertainties, and to distinguish between the important and the inconsequential?  Do we structure history units and lessons to specifically develop these habits of mind, or do we just assume that at the end of a history lesson or course these habits will have been acquired? 

The reduction of instructional time for social studies in the elementary school is an unwelcome phenomenon.  But History’s Habits of Mind can be used to bolster the argument for the importance of history at the elementary level.  Elaine Wrisley Reed’s chapter “For Better Elementary Teaching: Methods Old and New,” that appears in Historical Literacy: The Case for History in American Education, edited by Paul Gagnon, clearly lays out the argument and approach for incorporating the Habits into elementary social studies instruction.

Colloquia presented by the NCHE for Teaching American History Grants introduced many teachers to History’s Habits of Mind.  Sadly, these opportunities are gone.

It thus becomes more critical for professors and teachers of history to introduce and instruct for these modes of thought.  If we, as history professionals, cannot make a clear case for the importance of our discipline for the majority of our students, we will continue to lose ground in the struggle for time and attention in our schools. History’s Habits of Mind provide powerful rationales for the teaching and learning of history.  They need to be resurrected.