The World-History Standards: A Teacher's Perspective

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For history teachers, the release of the national-standards documents in world and American history is a "good news-bad news" situation. The good news is that the committees finally have completed their work, after almost three years of collaboration between university historians and precollegiate teachers, and history teachers have documents that rival the standards in other disciplines.

The bad news, of course, is that the standards are under intense political attack for their perspective, inclusions, and omissions. Even before their release, The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece detailing much of the criticism. Since then, major newspapers, news magazines, and even radio-talk-show hosts have taken the standards to the woodshed. On Jan. 18, the U.S. Senate essentially put the mark of Cain on any history-standards project begun before February 1995. (See related stories, 11/02/94 and 11/16/94 and 01/25/95 .)

Goods news--they're out! Bad news--so is an intense criticism that may lead to political ostracism. What is a classroom teacher to do?

Teachers must get into this debate. If not, once again those outside the classroom will define what goes on inside the classroom.

We should do as we teach our students to do--get a copy of the controversial documents, read them, read the critics, and then judge for ourselves. That is what I did with the National Standards for World History: Exploring Paths to the Present.

As a high school history teacher of 22 years, I liked what I read. The bad-news reports are exaggerated. The world-history standards are a valuable resource that teachers and districts can use to develop authentic world-scale, analytical history courses.

There is much to admire, especially the way the standards conceptually define precollegiate world history and how they merge content with thinking skills, with history's habits of mind. The great value for teachers in this project--a value hidden by the current debate--is that the documents should begin our national and local conversations about history in schools.

Educators must try to shift the conversation away from the political, toward the educational. Let me suggest three critical areas that might enlarge the discussion.

The first is a pedagogical one: History teachers stand at the center of a unique tension, which the professors Samuel Wineburg and Suzanne Wilson have described: "The teacher of history must face inward and outward, being at once deeply familiar with the content of the discipline while never forgetting that the goal of this understanding is to foster it in others." The standards will help history teachers develop deeper familiarity with the content of authentic world-scale history and will challenge students to think. But they do not reflect the marvelous research that focuses on how children come to understand history, how mastery of historical concepts develops, how children's thinking is similar to and different from working historians'.

I am referring to the work of researchers in cognitive psychology--people like Mr. Wineburg, Ms. Wilson, Peter Sexias, and Gaea Lienhardt. Recognizing that learning is more than change in behavior, these researchers have focused on how students and experts think historically. They are transforming the questions history teachers must ask of learners and learning. How do our students construct historical meaning? What pedagogical tools stimulate the building of historical meaning?

A natural affinity exists between history and a cognitive understanding of learning. History as a discipline depends upon historians reconstructing the past. Doing history is more than uncovering facts. It requires actively constructing the past in the mind of the historian.Likewise, learning history is more than memorizing facts. Students of history actively construct the past in their own minds. History as a discipline and a course of study demands, as Peter Stearns wrote, "meaning over memory."

We need to bring such ideas into the conver-sation.

A second issue, bigger than the national standards, is how the role of the West continues to plague all attempts to establish authentic world-history courses. Most of the critics of the standards have focused on what they consider the omissions or the bias in the treatment of the West.

Here, we must make an important distinction between the standards and the examples that support them. Most of the critics found fault with the teaching examples, not the standards. The examples, providing mere suggestions for teachers, must not be confused with the standards themselves. They are separate phenomena. We should treat them as such. In fact, the standards would have been better served if the National Center for History in the Schools had published two books for each subject--one for the standards and another filled with teaching ideas.

The standards covering the West are broad and inclusive. They would make a wonderful Western-civilization course. Yet, in a few places, the examples--and in even fewer places, the standards--are loaded with political conclusions. For example, an otherwise wonderful standard asks students to analyze the "intrusive European migration." The adjective assumes conclusions before students weigh evidence. Such language reduces the complexity of the past to simple dichotomies. Such dichotomies run counter to the spirit of the entire standards project because they narrow the scope of the student's thinking.

Again, the criticism is exaggerated, but it does serve a purpose by pointing out elements too narrowly conceived. The debate gives us the chance to rework and reword the examples that presuppose conclusions.

There is a much deeper issue, of course: The West simply does not dominate a world-history course from beginning to end. We need to make a stronger pedagogical case--not a political one--for the role Western content plays in the world-history curriculum. Many world-history proponents have argued that subject's hidden value is that it lessens our analytical obsession with nation and culture. Ironically, by lessening our focus on nation, we gain a clearer picture of the nation. Disconnected regional or national history is harmful to understanding nation and culture. Such geographically bound study assumes students will fully understand the West by separating it from the larger history of its time. Isolating the nation or culture from the global context is deceptive. World historians need, William McNeill reminds us, to consider the ecumenical setting. "Only consciousness of how the processes of cultural interaction were running in a given age," he said, "can provide an adequate context for understanding national and local history."

We need, then, a stronger case for connecting familiar Western stories to the unfamiliar global ones. World historians should point with pride to giving students in the United States the opportunity to locate their own culture in a larger context.

In another vein, the standards are strangely silent on assessment questions. This is a mistake. Unless we discuss ways to assess them, these are weak standards indeed. The silence may be intentional, as we cannot productively reduce the world-history standards to traditional, cost-effective, large-scale evaluation tools.

The standards are not compat-ible with multiple-choice, computer-graded exams. They require students to use facts to construct arguments, build positions, question evidence, analyze and compare cases. They call for authentic assessments. Grant Wiggins holds that authentic tests must be designed "to be truly representative of performance in the field." Authentic assessment must stress the "teaching and learning of the criteria to be used." Multiple-choice tests do neither of these.

The standards for historical thinking must guide the evaluation questions. Did students ask meaningful questions? Did they use evidence to support their arguments? Did they use facts accurately and appropriately? Did they explain using counter-examples? Were they empathetic to the historical frame and context? Did their analysis suffer from ahistorical "presentism"?

The assessment problem is not unique to history or to history standards. But it is a problem that historians and history teachers must consider. If we don't, ease of evaluation may reduce the standards to their most basic elements--multiple-choice tests of low challenge.

Classroom teachers can barely keep up with all the standards and initiatives--projects in world and U.S. history, civics, geography, social studies, and the yet-to-be-released economics standards. Though all are well-intentioned, these projects threaten to increase the curricular fragmentation that has plagued schools for generations. We need integration; and world history is ideally situated for the needed coordination and integration.

My biggest fear, though, is that this debate will be further politicized, making the standards just another skirmish in a larger ideological war. While it may be exciting, politicizing this educational issue is dangerous for the future of the national-standards project--and harmful for the future of history in our schools. The key is to keep the conversation going. I think teachers hold that key.

These are exciting times to be a history teacher--a world-history teacher. Everyone is talking about what we do, or can do. We must turn the excitement into productive exchanges, then productive change. The release of the national standards for world history is a major step in that direction.

The debate surrounding the standards, if not cut short by politics, can sharpen our thinking about history in the schools. I urge fellow teachers to read the standards and join the conversation.

Vol. 14, Issue 22, Pages 34, 36

Published in Print: February 22, 1995, as The World-History Standards: A Teacher's Perspective
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