Monday, May 4, 2009


This column will be of interest to history teachers only, and I don't think that many of them will like what I have to say. But I've been thinking about this for a decade now, and it's time. If it makes you feel better about me, take note: what I'm about to say is far, far less radical than a lot of what you'll read in most pedagogy journals that are available in your libraries.

If you have not yet read my columns entitled "Teaching", "Learning", and, especially, "Reflecting", or if you have forgotten them, you should read them before this one, as they form part of an extended argument about what I believe to be a much-needed curricular reform in my profession.

I contend that the manner in which history typically is taught to first and second year undergraduates, with its emphasis on "coverage" of the historical narrative, serves neither the purposes of imparting a sophisticated and lasting understanding of history, nor of fulfilling the loftier purposes of a liberal education. Those lofty purposes aren't discussed; the history is forgotten in short order. Such are the consequences of adhering to "coverage" - of demanding breadth over depth.

Most disciplines have survey courses, but in history they are considered the backbone of an undergraduate education – "Plato to NATO" courses, they are sometimes called. Surveys are designed, in theory, to provide students with a foundation upon which further, more specialized studies can be built. In my last three entries I argued that that the unavoidable tendencies towards superficiality in survey course coverage, combined with the well-documented inadequacies of our attention spans, of memory, and of our ability to apply lessons outside of their immediate curricular context, present serious queries against the standard justifications for why and how we teach history.

What, then, is the solution? The first step is to discard the whole notion of the survey with its emphasis on "coverage". Rather than trying to survey a whole field— which will in the case of all but the most unusual student lead to superficial understanding — we should reduce drastically the number of topics covered. A mentor of mine once joked that he had fifty lectures and fifty decades to cover, so it worked out well. I propose, instead, that we examine a very small number of topics in great depth rather than many in surface detail for the sake of doing so.

In American history this might involve, say, a careful, lengthy, multifaceted, and indeed interdisciplinary examination of the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the social and political upheaval of the 1960s. Everything else would be left aside. In this way, weeks rather than an hour or two could be devoted to each topic. In Canadian history, it might involve the conquest of New France, Confederation, the First World War, and a thematic topic such the creation of a social welfare state or dominion-provincial relations. It needn't be those topics, of course: the point is to promote deep and lasting understanding of a few important issues, as a means of teaching the real lesson. The real lesson is not "the narrative" (this can be learned by anyone willing to a read a textbook.) The point is to teach students disciplinary methodology by exposing them to different approaches to a single subject, to encourage them to approach the subject in an interdisciplinary fashion, and, perhaps most critically, to offer them actual opportunities to apply what they have learned outside of the confines of the classroom.

At this point, I know I have lost many of you. You're wondering, "But what about all the other important stuff that they won't learn if I don't lecture about it?" My response is that they're not really learning it anyway, and I'm willing to bet that you saw ample evidence of this on your last set of final exams. I'm sure that, like most professors, you spend much of your time these days not sure whether or laugh or cry over exam answers such as, "the Emancipation Proclamation was Woodrow Wilton's idea to give women the right to vote." (Yes, I actually got this.)

While the emphasis on coverage will only produce a marginal and short-lasting understanding, an in-depth examination of a few topics could have an entirely different outcome. As Howard Gardner argues in The Disciplined Mind, "Only a rich, probing, and multifaceted investigation of significant topics, makes it reasonably likely that more sophisticated understandings will emerge." If "gaps" between the topics covered in depth really need to be filled — and in some cases they will be — they could be covered by the simple act of having students read from a good textbook. This, too, will produce a surface understanding, but it will be sufficient to support the immediate curricular needs , and the students will graduate from the class better equipped and, hopefully, more willing to explore those other topics in greater depth on their own. The purpose of an education, after all, should be to equip students to go on learning for their entire lives - not just to prepare them for the final exam.

Imagine history classes where we could say, "Next day, we're going to take an hour to discuss how differing historical perspectives on the New Deal might shed light on the Obama's administration's bailout plan" or "One of the stated goals of this institution is the building of moral character - let's go beyond a recitation of the mere facts of the bombing of Dresden, and spend some time assessing them in the light of moral philosophy. Get on your laptops. After the break, I want you to tell me what Utilitarianism is, and why it might be useful for this discussion."

Needless to say, the approach I am proposing will require us to reduce the number and length of lectures that we give in favour of other instructional approaches. This should not alarm us. We have not years, but decades, of research that has by now demonstrated quite conclusively that even well-designed and expertly delivered lectures are only about as good as solitary reading for conveying raw information and not much good at all for engaging higher-order thought processes. Study after study has proved conclusively that students need to be engaged actively in their own learning: at times, listening, but also and predominantly discussing, debating, reading, researching, writing about, and teaching the subject to themselves and others. Much more than lip service needs to devoted to these approaches.

The allegation will be made that I am saying that students have no responsibility for their own education, and people will protest that the old methods worked just fine for them. I'll leave aside the obvious observation about anecdotal evidence, and merely note that the approach that I am proposing hugely increases students' responsibility for their own education by reducing the emphasis on the professor as the fountain of all knowledge. But it also involves a proportional and somewhat intimidating increase in the responsibility of the professor. No longer a sage upon the stage, the professor becomes a fellow traveler, pointing the way ahead, as Shaw put it in another context, ahead of ourselves as well as of our students.


Graham Broad said...

The painting is Harris's "Meeting of the Schoolboard Trustees", which hangs in the National Gallery of Canada.

This early update brought to you in the hopes that this column generates some response and discussion.

David said...


I do think that you are on to something there. I think we need to look no further than 492 to see how effective focusing on a few areas of history can be. I remember more from that class than from anything else in my undergrad.

I think the only problem with your idea is the implementation of it at the 1st and 2nd year level. I think for the plan to work effectively classes would have to be the size of 4th year classes in the early stages of undergrad education.

What are your thoughts on how to implement this with the growing class sizes?

Cmille said...

What you're suggesting is something I've seen proposed by a growing number of faculty members across several universities. So, never fear, I don't think you're on your own on the subject of reforming survey courses! I know right now that a history department is pushing through curriculum reform that shifts away from the survey history courses to something closer to what you're suggesting. We'll see what happens once it gets through academic curriculum committees.

Of course there are problems. I managed to get into a faculty committee that was formed to discuss the complete overhaul of the first year European history course (a degree requirement for all history students). They wanted to break the course from its Eurocentric moorings and allow students to choose from a variety of different themes: Moving Peoples, War & Society, Death & Sex etc. Concordia has a very diverse department when it comes to research interests, so there was an opportunity to draw on expertise on different time periods and places to create very interesting thematic courses that would be taught or co-taught by a variety of professors.

The problem? There weren't that there weren't enough professors willing to teach or co-teach the course to meet the demand. Individual professors were encouraged to create seminar courses in a similar style, but that doesn't really solve the problem at the 1st and 2nd year course level.

It may be that the shift away from narrative/chronological history will take time. But it can be an invaluable teaching method. Creating links between different places, periods, and people is a great way to make students rethink common assumptions about the past (and maybe the present?), which I think is an important goal of teaching history.

As for me, when I started working on my comprehensive reading list, my supervisor suggested that we could cut out some thematic grouping of reading for a more 'classic' chronological approach to Canadian history. I decided to stick with the thematic readings, so I guess I've made my choice.

Graham Broad said...

Admittedly the degree of interactivity that I'm proposing is better suited to smaller classes than to big ones, which is why I suggested that less time be spent in lectures and more in tutorials. I admit that this, too, creates a drain on resources, but nothing worth doing is ever easy. But the basic idea - focusing on a small number of topics rather than on many - could be done in classes of any format. Students might be resistant, but we have to design our courses on the basis of what we know to be pedagogically or andragogically correct, rather than on what is students find appealing or popular. The danger of the system of student teaching evaluations is that it gives the students a powerful instrument by which to compel instructors - especially young instructors without tenure - to produce the kinds of classes that they want. The problem is that young people are not always the best judges of what is in their own self-interest.