History professors say the darnedest things. Like the one who summed up his teaching
philosophy declaring, "If I said it, that means they learned it!" Or the colleague who
scoffed at "trendy" educational reforms because, as she put it, "You can't teach students
how to think until you've taught them what to think." Then there was the time an eminent
historian rose to speak after my presentation on how not to teach the history survey.
"I may be doing it wrong," conceded this gifted, award-winning teacher, "but I am doing
it in the proper and customary way."1
The professor's droll remark points to where we stand today in the teaching of history
surveys, perhaps especially the U.S. history survey. Generations of undergraduates can
testify that introductory surveys are taught in a "proper and customary way." "First you
listen to a lecture, then you read a textbook, then you take a test," is how a student described
her survey to me, adding, significantly, "It wasn't different, really, from my other
introductory courses." Here historians flirt with calamity. When the only history course
most people ever take from a professionally trained historian tempts students to believe
there is little difference between history and sociology or history and biology except for
the facts to be learned, it is not surprising that teachers occasionally sense they might be
"doing it wrong."2
The feeling is as old as it is accurate. For as long as there have been survey courses,
some teachers have suspected that the vacant expressions on students' faces (so famously
portrayed in the "Anyone? . . . Anyone?" history-class scene in the movie Ferris Bueller's
Day Off ) are not so much indications of the students' shortcomings as predictable products
of the survey itself, whose basic design requires professors and textbooks to pass on
essential information about a historical period. This emphasis on "coverage" accounts for
the course's trademark routines├│earnest lectures, stolid textbooks, decontextualized assessments,
flagrant and routine violations of Auerbach's law (as in Arnold "Red" Auerbach,
the distinguished learning theorist and coach of National Basketball Association
[NBA] legends, who summarized his teaching philosophy by declaring, "It's not what you
say; it's what they hear").3 Some teachers have always suspected that to make the survey
"a serious house . . . proper to grow wise in," to borrow imagery from Philip Larkin, it
would not be enough to juice up the lectures and write better textbooks. Nor would it be
enough to tinker with content by assigning a few novels, or rearranging the chronology,
or reorganizing lectures around a set of new themes. For at least a century, some have asserted
that nothing less will do than a complete redesign of the survey, from its basic assumptions
So when I claim that the typical, coverage-oriented survey is a wrongheaded way to
introduce students to the goodness and power of history, I am not saying anything outrageous
or new. But pedagogical inertia happens. While everything else touching the survey
has changed├│think back to the days of the presidential synthesis, when classroom technology
meant pull-down maps and chalkboards, when tweedy professors lectured to what
back then were called "freshmen"├│the old routines of coverage remain firmly in place.
Thus the problem that bedeviled our teachers and their teachers before them continues to
vex us today: What is to be done with the history survey?
I hope it is not useless to argue yet again for significant changes in the way we teach
these most important of history courses. True, obstacles that defeated earlier calls for reform
have not gone away. Professional reward structures continue to discourage careful
inquiry into the problems of teaching. Institutional constraints still make large classes
obligatory, while old folk beliefs about learning continue to be impervious to cognitive
science. Neither do current political trends favor reform, unless one believes that narrow
testing regimes and a return to "traditional" American history should define the horizon
of what is possible.
But other developments are more encouraging. Everywhere, the mystique of coverage
is abating. Teachers no longer believe they can cover everything of importance, and more
feel the awkwardness of teaching about social differences in the past while disregarding
what this knowledge might mean for the construction of authority and teacher-student
interactions in present-day classrooms. Meanwhile, a wired student generation sends up
its own drumbeat for change, tap-tapping their laptops, MP3 players, and PDAs in battles against classroom tedium.
Checking e-mail in class is rude and immature, but it is also
a predictable response to a worn-out pedagogy that no longer has a place in the history
survey. Now that cognitive scientists have developed a basic consensus on the principles
of learning, and now that historians are playing a significant role in efforts to field-test
and expand this research through a scholarship of teaching and learning, it is a good moment
to remind ourselves what the introductory survey could be (and what it already is
for some teachers) if we replaced generic pedagogies of coverage with teaching and learning
marked by the distinctive signature of history.
This essay will describe such a course, a U.S. history survey I have been teaching and
studying since becoming a Carnegie scholar in 1999.5 But my course is not unique. Other
courses laid out along similar lines are being developed by teachers at many different types
of institutions.6 So much experimentation is going on, in fact, that one wonders whether
historians might not be close to establishing a new "signature pedagogy" for the introductory
What is a signature pedagogy? And what would it look like in a history survey?
Consider the distinctive method used for teaching and learning in a typical law school.
In the case-dialogue method, a law professor calls on a student to summarize a case. If the
summary of essential facts is incoherent or factually wrong, public embarrassment follows.
If the answer is lucid, the student is not yet let off the hook; now the professor grills
the student to determine the limits of what he or she knows, often by changing the facts
of the case into hypothetical scenarios├│"hypos"├│for which students are asked to rule
on the new facts and explain their reasoning. It is a demanding classroom routine that is
part Socratic dialogue, part Spanish Inquisition. The goal is to teach beginning students
to think like lawyers, which means less a perfect recall of little-known cases than a habitual
fidelity to established law. So when a student inevitably complains, "I know that's
what the law says, but it hardly seems fair," the professor seizes the opportunity to correct
the student's untutored inclination to view legal questions as a problem of justice or fairness,
reminding the class that they are training to become lawyers, not ethicists or politicians.
Some professors do this more gently than others, and every professor contributes
a personal style to her or his course. But the basic pedagogy for teaching law students is
everywhere the same.
And so it goes across the professions, observes Lee S. Shulman, president of the Carnegie
Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, who for the last ten years has been
directing studies on preparation for the professions. Medical schools train physicians
through the bedside ritual of clinical rounds; engineering faculty put students together in
collaborative-design studios; theological seminaries mingle study with prayer and community
service. It is a hallmark of professional education that each discipline has developed characteristic forms of teaching and learning that, like the name of a person written
in his own hand, are done in the same way from teacher to teacher and institution to institution.
These signature pedagogies, as Shulman refers to them, disclose important information
about the personality of a disciplinary field├│its values, knowledge, and manner
of thinking├│almost, perhaps, its total world view. Shulman's team of scholars finds
that signature pedagogies are more common in fields like law and medicine than in the
liberal arts, perhaps because teachers in the professions must answer to practitioners for
what students know. "Knowing" in the professions means more than filling in the blanks
with correct answers├│it refers to what a person can do. For reasons Shulman and scholars
at the Carnegie Foundation are continuing to study, signature pedagogies make a difference
in shaping future performance and passing on the values and hopes of the members
of disciplinary fields.7
A signature pedagogy, then, is what beginning students in the professions have but history
beginners typically do not: ways of being taught that require them to do, think, and
value what practitioners in the field are doing, thinking, and valuing. Which is exactly the
way it should be, some will stoutly maintain. Professional schools are graduate schools.
How could instructional methods intended for graduate students possibly work for novices
who lack even basic information about the past? Facts must come first, a lot of history
teachers will say. Only after a groundwork of factual knowledge has been laid can students
go on to more advanced interpretive work. In this commonsense view of the matter, history
can lay claim to a signature pedagogy of its own├│the research seminar├│but this
method is reserved for upper-level students and those pursuing advanced degrees.
The "facts first" view is based on half-truths that deserve to be taken seriously. Historical
facts are important, and instruction should be fitted to the level of the students. But
defenders of traditional survey methods who want students to know certain things├│what
Reconstruction was, or why slavery happened, or who fought whom in World War II├│
risk the negation of their objectives by a very large error. Many of the assumptions historians
make about learning have been shown by cognitive scientists to be quite wrong,
including what Sam Wineburg calls the "attic theory" of cognition. As it happens, people
do not collect facts the way homeowners collect furniture, storing pieces in the attic for
use at a later time. Teachers may like to think they are "furnishing the mind," but since
the late 1950s, investigations of human mental functioning have shown that this metaphor
falls apart when taken too literally. Facts are not like furniture at all; they are more
like dry ice, disappearing at room temperature. Cognitive science has much to teach history
teachers about memory, about the relation between facts and thinking, and about
the nature of historical thinking itself.8 Or we could listen to our own. When Charles G.
Sellers heard University of California, Berkeley, alumni reflecting on the value of their
history courses, he resolved to abandon his "facts first" survey. In an address to the 1969
meeting of the American Historical Association, Sellers explained why:
The notion that students must first be given facts and then at some distant time
in the future will "think" about them is both a cover-up and a perversion of pedagogy.
. . . One does not collect facts he does not need, hang on to them, and then
stumble across the propitious moment to use them. One is first perplexed by a problem
and then makes use of facts to achieve a solution.9
Cognitive scientists have shown Sellers to be right.
The problem with defenders of traditional
surveys, then, is not that they care about facts too much but that they do not care
about facts enough to inquire into the nature of how people learn them. Built on wobbly,
lay theories of human cognition, coverage-oriented surveys must share in the blame for
Americans' deplorable ignorance of history.10
The late Roland Marchand wondered: Why are historians so incurious about learning?
11 For historians who are also teachers, not being curious about learning is an uncharacteristic
failure of the scholarly imagination├│and perhaps the moral imagination too,
as when professors write off students who learn little from lectures or have not excelled in
school, in short, the ones who are not like themselves. The distance historians traditionally
have kept from research on learning is obvious in the way historians talk about teaching,
as was apparent several years ago in a round table discussion of the U.S. history survey
published in this journal. The participants, prominent scholars and gifted teachers all,
talked cogently and perceptively about aspects of their teaching but not a single reference
was made to serious studies of cognition, learning, historical thinking, or course design.12
The problem with this kind of autodidactic conversation is that although able professors
will develop a certain wisdom of practice, a knowledge based on hunches, personal experience,
and limited scholarly reading will also lead them to make what expert authorities
regard as appalling blunders and howlers. Preoccupied with what to teach while ignoring
the equally important matter of how to teach it, historians have been aptly described by
David Pace as "amateurs in the operating room."13
But change is coming. The scholarship of teaching and learning is bringing home to
historians valuable knowledge about learning in our own language and journals.
Research-based studies of exceptional history teachers show that whereas no two accomplished
teachers teach in exactly the same way, effective history teaching is oriented
toward what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe call "uncoverage."14 In traditional surveys
"to cover" a subject means "to travel over" or "to go the length of " a period. But coverage
has other meanings too; it can mean "to conceal," "to cover up," or "to throw a blanket over" something. Covering up
history as historians know it is one thing that traditional
surveys do very well├│hiding what it really means to be good at history.15 But it does not
have to be this way. Survey instructors should aim to uncover history. We should be designing
classroom environments that expose the very things hidden away by traditional
survey instruction: the linchpin ideas of historical inquiry that are not obvious or easily
comprehended; the inquiries, arguments, assumptions, and points of view that make
knowledge what it is for practitioners of our discipline; the cognitive contours of history
as an epistemological domain.
The theory and research justifying uncoverage approaches are already in place. What
we still need are professionwide conversations about how to translate theory into good
practice. To fire up that debate, I offer here an example of what uncoverage looks like in
What follows is a description of a survey course I teach called "U.S. History: World
War II to the Present."16 The ten-week course is taught to thirty-five students but would
be adaptable to larger classes with minor adjustments and the help of teaching assistants.
It is not my claim that the course in all its details constitutes a signature pedagogy for
the history survey. It is on the deeper structures of the course├│the goals, student performances,
and course routines├│that history's signature is inscribed.
"U.S. History: World War II to the Present" does not actually begin with World War
II. Rather, my survey begins with a prologue or overture in which students consider the
nature of historical study itself. Taking place over four class meetings, the prologue is designed
around questions and exercises meant to uncover important aspects of the historical
enterprise: What is history? Why study it? What problems trouble historical knowledge?
What stories, tropes, and patterns do people typically see in the past?
Committing time to problems normally reserved for historiography courses seems justified
by Sam Wineburg's observation that "the problem with students is not that they
don't know enough about history. The problem is that they don't know what history is
in the first place."17 Students come to college thinking that history is what one finds in a
textbook: a stable, authoritative body of knowledge that, when remembered, somehow
makes the world a better place. The prologue features exercises designed to expose the
inadequacies of such a view. For example, when students write brief "histories" of a civil
disturbance in the Spike Lee movie Do the Right Thing, they are surprised to learn just
how different people's interpretations of an event can be, even when everyone works from
the same evidence.18 Historical knowledge, the students learn, is fraught with difficulties,
which means that the stories and claims made by historians will always be contestable.
This is a truth expert historians often assume everyone knows, but in fact they do not├│it has to be uncovered. My
prologue does not give students a deep understanding of history.
But it is enough to expose students' basic misconceptions about the nature of history and
prepare them mentally for the hard work that is to come.
After the prologue, the remaining weeks of the course are given to eight problem areas
spanning the course's chronological boundaries. Beginning with World War II, we
examine "Origins of the Cold War," "Society and Culture in the Fifties," "The Civil
Rights Movement," "Kennedy/Johnson Liberalism," "Vietnam," "Sixties Cultural Rebellion,"
"1980s Culture Wars," and "The End of the Cold War." Each topic is given three
class meetings, with each of the three devoted to a different kind of study: the first to visual
inquiry, the second to critical inquiry, the third to moral inquiry. I make no attempt
to cover the topics thoroughly or to provide a seamless, authoritative narrative or argument.
Rather, the problem areas become opportunities for students and teacher to do
history themselves, to encounter the past in all its messy, uncertain, and elusive wonder.
Can beginning students learn to do history the way professionals do it? Of course not.
But my studies have found they can learn to execute a basic set of moves crucial to the
development of historical mindedness. I want students to learn six such moves, or cognitive
habits: questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering alternate
perspectives, and recognizing limits to one's knowledge, all in the service of understanding
American history since 1945.19 Here is how it works.
Historical thinking, like other forms of disciplinary thinking, begins with clear-eyed
wonder before the world. But questioning is an extraordinarily difficult skill for most students,
probably because for their whole lives teachers and textbooks have posed the questions
for them ("Write an essay on the following question . . ."). Feeding students a steady
diet of other people's questions is a sure-fire prescription for mental dyspepsia. So the first
move students need to learn is that of asking good historical questions. To this end the
first meeting in every unit is designed to intensify students' desire to inquire.
I find that films are good for this purpose. A well-chosen film orients students to basic
information about a subject and motivates them to take an empathic leap into the past.
Films make good launch pads for thought as they provide interpretations students can
push against with their own questions ("Was World War II really a ├źgood war' like Frank
Capra said?"). Most of the films screened in my course are documentaries, with an occasional
historical Hollywood drama or period propaganda film on the schedule. On film
day my objective is to teach students how to learn from film, how to view moving images
with an awareness of the manipulations involved. Visual literacy is essential to both liberal
education and the study of the recent past, for which the moving image is an important
source of information. But in addition to literacy and student motivation, my ultimate
objective on the first day of each unit is to create an environment so rich in information
and so charged with interesting problems that students who are inert in the face of lectures
and textbooks will be stirred to ask a few historical questions. After the film awakens
their capacity for wonder, I then send students out to do what historically minded people
do: follow a question that takes them beyond what they already know.
Following the meeting given to visual inquiry, students prepare for the second meeting
in the unit├│we call it "history workshop"├│by examining primary documents pertaining to the week's subject (I use
document readers for this purpose). Students write three- to
five-page essays on questions of their choosing using the evidence they have examined.
When the history workshop convenes, this essay is everyone's ticket to class├│no one is
allowed entry without it. This requirement has a marvelous effect on the quality of class
discussions. It ensures that everyone not only has read the documents but also has read
them closely enough to construct a historical argument, thus making each student the
class expert on at least one facet of the subject. At the beginning of class, students submit
notecards with the questions that prompted their essays. While I collate the cards into
piles of similar questions, students pass their papers around and read what others have
written. When I am done sorting the questions, the papers are handed back, and the history
This meeting has two objectives. My first goal is to facilitate discussion of the questions
students have brought. The second goal is to introduce each week a new intellectual
move characteristic of the way historians think. I work toward these goals in the manner
of a coach├│but not like a tennis coach standing on one side of the net opposite a group
of students on the other, volleying back and forth. Rather, on workshop day I work like
a soccer coach, throwing questions into play from my position on the sideline and then
watching as students kick the questions around, advancing toward tentative conclusions
as they learn to play the fun yet serious game of academic discourse. As the discussion
proceeds, I look for opportunities to call time-out, stopping intellectual play to conduct
short clinics on elements of analytic reading, persuasive argument, or historical thinking.
For example, on the very first workshop day I almost always have to coach students to
respond to each other's contributions with a version of what I call the "But" move and
Gerald Graff calls "Arguespeak": "She said X, but I say Y."20 Later I coach them to ask the
useful little question: "What is the evidence or reason for believing what you just said?"
Until intellectual moves like these are uncovered, students rarely talk about history the
way historians do with each other. That is because they have been schooled to think that
being good at history means being ready to supply a correct answer. It takes some doing
to get them to believe that a good question is worth a dozen hasty opinions.
As it happens, questioning is the first of six cognitive moves I introduce one at a time
in the history workshop days following the prologue. Until all have been explained, practiced,
and practiced some more, the papers students bring to the workshops are really
quite terrible. And why shouldn't they be? No one has ever made plain to them how one
makes sense of historical texts. With so much to do in the workshop meetings, it never
happens that we cover all the questions students bring to class. This, too, is an important
lesson about historical investigation. Students come to understand what a difficult,
untidy business it is to create historical knowledge├│what is covered up behind the neat,
handsome pages of a history textbook. Writing their own histories, students come to
understand what history is not: a definitive story, facts strung together, a clear-cut and
painlessly acquired knowledge of the past.
Writing their own histories primes students to read what professional historians have
written. So for the third meeting in a unit, students read selections from two histories of
the United States: Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and Paul Johnson's A History of the American People.21 These "untextbooks" support the goal of uncoverage in
several ways. Their status as best sellers means students will be learning to think discerningly
about the kind of popular history they are most likely to encounter in future years
as adults. Students appreciate that the texts are inexpensive, while I appreciate that Zinn
and Johnson between them will cover most of the topics a historically literate person
should be familiar with for our period. Thus if the 1954 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
military coup in Guatemala does not happen to come up in class, students still will have
read two accounts of it in Zinn and Johnson (two accounts├│that is critically important).
Even though these histories are completely lacking in charts, sidebars, pictures, and Web
support, students actually read these histories and even hold onto them after the course
is over, rarely selling them back to the campus bookstore. Why? Because it is not dry coverage
that drives the two histories but compelling moral visions expressed in provocative
arguments. When students read Zinn's and Johnson's strikingly different interpretations
of American history, their attention is drawn by the thrill of a quarrel, then captured and
held by the gravity of each author's telos. They must now confront, inescapably, an essential
feature of historical mindedness├│that history is "an argument without end." A textbook
can say this, of course. But it cannot repeal Auerbach's law.
Our third class day, then, is for inquiry and reflection on the meaning of past events.
Class begins with a quiz on the main points of the assigned readings. To students who
have been taught to read textbooks for information, it is a revelation to discover that historians
are not just storytellers but case makers too. Initially, they struggle to recognize the
main claim of a reading. But by the end of the term, the recurring quizzes have made most
students adept at recognizing historical arguments. With the quiz out of the way, I lead
the class in examining the contrasting interpretations of the two historians, comparing
what they say with conclusions we have reached in our previous workshop. The histories
by Zinn and Johnson become prompts for inquiring into the moral significance of historical
events: what the past means for our ethics and self-knowledge and how knowledge
of the past shapes our general understanding of the world (and vice versa).
In this third meeting I exercise greater control than in the second, sometimes lecturing
for minutes at a time on the interpretive questions I want to consider that day. But by
the third meeting students can be so primed with questions and historical arguments of
their own that sometimes it is impossible to talk uninterrupted for long. When students
see their own arguments from the history workshop showing up in the works of professional
historians, their self-confidence grows. At the same time, students are more likely
to read authorities with a critical eye because the historical arguments they wrote from
primary documents have given them an understanding of the choices confronting Zinn
and Johnson when they created their histories├│choices to ask certain questions but not
others, to emphasize certain themes while ignoring other topics, to reason from anecdotes
or quantitative data.
At the end of the course, students complete a final assignment that calls for them to
pull together everything they have learned. With Zinn and Johnson in mind, they write
a memo to Sen. Robert C. Byrd arguing for one of the books as the best history to adopt
for a program of adult education. It is an impossible assignment. Both books are arguably
good histories, or bad ones. But impossible tasks call for the utmost one is capable of. That is the point of this
summative assignment: to see what students have learned to do
after ten weeks of training. What kinds of questions are they capable of asking? Can they
recognize connections between disparate sources of information? How do they read texts:
as neutral sources of information or as human-stained palimpsests of authorial limitation
and intention requiring careful deciphering and positioning in a social context? How well
do they marshal evidence to support claims about U.S. history? Do they consider arguments
and perspectives different from their own? What is the quality of their critical selfknowledge├│
are they humble about what they claim to know? These are the six cognitive
moves the course is designed to support. My survey uncovers history only imperfectly, but
the thinking I see in even the worst of these papers convinces me students are learning
more now than in the lecture and textbook surveys I offered years ago.
Teachers often fear to break from coverage-oriented pedagogies because they worry
that with less content being covered, students will know less about the past.22 This fear
is not groundless, but it is usually exaggerated. The largest studies completed to date of
teaching and learning in the sciences show that stepping away from lectures and textbooks,
far from condemning students to knowing fewer facts about a subject, appears to
lead to better understanding of foundational knowledge.23 We lack comparable studies of
understanding and remembering for students in history courses. But in my department,
when several of my colleagues and I converted our survey courses from coverage to uncoverage,
we noted that the pass/fail rate of students taking a licensing examination for
certifications as history teachers remained unchanged. Apparently, our uncoverage orientation
is not cheating students of the ability to do well on traditional multiple-choice
But the kinds of learning promoted in uncoverage courses are not measurable with
bubble tests. To find out if my students become more adept at the six cognitive habits
taught in my survey, I designed a simple assessment procedure employing think-aloud
protocols to compare what students were able to do with historical documents before
and after taking my course. Think alouds are a widely used research tool developed by
cognitive psychologists to study how people solve problems. In my think alouds, participants
were trained to give voice to any and all thoughts as they attempted to make sense
of seven to ten short historical documents on the battle of the Little Big Horn (before
the course) and the Haymarket bombing (after the course). Their verbalized thoughts
were recorded and transcribed for later analysis to determine patterns of cognition used
to make sense of the documents. In fields such as reading comprehension, mathematics,
chemistry, and history, think alouds have proved very useful for identifying what constitutes
"expert knowledge" as distinguished from the thinking processes of beginners in the
field. But in my pair of studies, I used think alouds to measure changes in thinking patterns
over time for selected individuals enrolled in my survey.
Of course, I could have studied the cognitive development of students by comparing
papers written early and late in the course, and I did. But as finished products, papers
conceal as much as they reveal. The advantage of think alouds over graded student work is
that they allow one to observe the process of thinking in a raw, unvarnished state. Think
alouds reveal not only what a student thinks but also how she came to think it. Think
alouds expose the stumblings, the hesitations, the blind alleys, the good ideas entertained
and abandoned, the inner workings of a mind trying to make sense of the past. Listening
to my students think out loud as they tried to make sense of documents is the single most
eye-opening experience I have had in my years as a teacher.
What my studies revealed is that even in a short, ten-week course students on average
make modest to occasionally dramatic gains in all six aspects of historical thinking
taught in the course. The ability to formulate historical questions led all other areas of
improvement (though ironically, and somewhat disturbingly, evidence from post-course
surveys indicates that students consistently rate questioning as the least valuable skill to be
learned in the course). Another finding from my investigations may reassure those who
worry that students will react negatively to departures from the comfortable routines of
old-school surveys: while students in my survey complain that uncoverage increases their
work load, they overwhelmingly prefer uncoverage to more traditional course designs,
and they report that their regard for history and desire to study it increases over the length
of the course. For more about student learning in my survey and how I went about studying
it, please visit the course Web site at http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/textbooks/2006/calder/.
To return now to my theme of a signature pedagogy: Why does my course (or any
course) make a difference for students? Some say what matters most is that teachers have
a thorough knowledge of their subject. Others say enthusiasm is the truly indispensable
thing, while still others say it is the ability to project an ethic of care. All of these qualities
matter. But when students reflect on their experiences with my course they point most often
to design features shared by all signature pedagogies, elements Lee Shulman suggests
may explain why these ways of teaching are so effective for learning.24
First, signature pedagogies unfold from big questions that students are likely to find
meaningful, questions that are useful for uncovering how expert practitioners in a discipline
think and act. In the case of my survey, instead of asking, What does the textbook
say? or What does the professor say?, my course begins with an important question students
are already asking├│What is the story of American history?├│and goes from there.
Who are Americans? What have we accomplished? How do we judge what we have done?
Are things getting better or worse, or are metanarratives even possible to believe in the
first place? I have learned from one of my prologue assignments ("Write a two-page history
of the United States, without looking up any facts.") what Peter Seixas and others
have pointed out: students who have been making sense of their society and national
identity since before preschool have been greatly influenced by heritage tales and mythhistory,
which is why the history survey must start there.25 My course takes what students
already know and tests it against a different way of knowing the past, the way professionally trained historians construct knowledge. So the second big question of the course is:
How do historians know what they claim to know? And the third question follows from
the second: Why would one want to think the way historians think? Every element of the
course directly addresses one or more of these big questions.
A second characteristic of signature pedagogies is that the intellectual project envisioned
by their big questions is advanced through a standard pattern of instructional
routines. Routines are essential for learning. Routines provide students with a necessary
scaffolding of instructional and social support as they struggle to learn the "unnatural act"
of historical thinking. Teachers often say that "critical" or "historical" thinking is a goal
of their course. But without effective routines, the goal is unreachable for all but a few
students. Professors who ask students to read primary documents know that the exercise
can often be a frustrating experience. In fact, good intentions may lead to unintended
consequences, as when students become so frustrated with multiple sources of text that
they disengage from the course, or worse, form serious misconceptions about historical
analysis, believing that primary documents have more inherent veracity than other documents
or that one person's perspective is as good as another.26 In my early attempts to
have students work with primary documents, my efforts misfired because I did not realize
how much scaffolding it takes for students to learn the unfamiliar, even off-putting
habits of mind historians can take for granted. I thought it would be enough if students
watched me model historical thinking in class, but this assumption proved to be terribly
wrong. Students need models, but it is routines that form habits. This is why I limit the
number of cognitive moves uncovered in my course to six and give students repeated opportunities
to practice them in their weekly workshop essays. Recurring assignments that
require students to make sense of primary documents are crucial for learning the signature
My survey supports student learning with two levels of routines. On the day-to-day
level there is what I refer to as "batting practice"├│repeated exercises like the main-point
quizzes and the primary-document essays that teach specific skills. At the larger level of
the overall course design are the routines of "visual inquiry" for questioning, "critical
inquiry" for constructing historical knowledge, and "moral inquiry" for reflective application.
The pattern of three integrated course meetings is very popular with students.
It satisfies their need for stable expectations while appealing to different learning styles.
Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that hybrid pedagogies like mine, combining student-
centered, active-learning approaches (the history workshop meeting) with teachercentered
approaches (the first and third days of each unit) are more effective at producing
deep understanding than either approach alone.27
Finally, as with other signature pedagogies, my course requires regular, public student
performances. "Your students are so busy," observed a colleague visiting my class on a
workshop day. What he saw was students working collaboratively, like students in an engineering-design studio,
examining each other's papers for examples of the cognitive
move introduced at the previous workshop and making suggestions for how to improve
each other's work. On other days my class looks more like law school, as I cold-call on students
to source a document or to respond to claims made by Zinn or Johnson. At times
we even do something a little like clinical rounds, as when students huddle around a document
and I ask the group for an opinion on what problems of interpretation confront us
in this source. Following Shulman, it seems to me that active performances like these are
important for at least two reasons. To begin with, they push students into moments of
uncertainty comparable to the ambiguous situations they will face outside class, when historical
judgment may be all that separates the discerning from the deceived. Additionally,
putting students on the spot creates "atmospheres of risk-taking and foreboding, as well
as occasions for exhilaration and excitement." In other words, it gets students engaged.
"To be honest," a student wrote on her evaluation, "I was kind of scared shitless because I
wasn't sure I could meet the demand of changing my thinking like you were asking." The
performance element in signature pedagogies, Shulman is tempted to conclude, produces
the pain that is necessary for gains in intellectual formation.28 Of course, what teachers
will want to aim for is the sweet spot between paralyzing students with fear and lulling
them to sleep. Bruce Kochis of the University of Washington, Bothell, first showed me
what this spot looks like when I was a young assistant professor full of illusions of competence
about my teaching. Kochis summed up the crucial matter of student performances
with questions I still ask myself on the way to class: Am I a professor? Then what will I say
today? But if I am a teacher, what will they do today?
No course is ever finished or fully realizes the intentions of its designer. Twelve years
ago, I took a deep breath, checked to see that no one was looking, and yanked my survey
free from the "proper and customary way." Students freaked. Their teacher floundered.
But eventually my intentions were rescued by the scholarship of teaching and learning.
The work done by teachers and scholars in that field has made it possible to ground the
design of my survey in knowledge more solid than handed-down folk wisdom or my own
By presenting my survey as an example of uncoverage, I am not proposing that my
course be the signature pedagogy every survey teacher should adopt. Is it really possible
(or desirable) for history professors to adopt a distinctive pedagogy for the survey on the
order of the case-dialogue method in law or clinical rounds in medicine? The question deserves
consideration. Perhaps we will decide to call the analysis of historical texts history's
signature pedagogy and leave it at that. I hope that we will be more ambitious. Let us at
least talk more publicly and more deliberately about what we are doing in our courses.29
Those who stay isolated in their classrooms will continue to say and believe the darnedest
things. Exploring together the potential of uncoverage, a community of scholarly teachers
may find ways to impress the signature of history on the history survey.
Lendol Calder is associate professor of history at Augustana College.
He wishes to thank Gary Kornblith, Kathy Knight Calder, and the Faculty Research Group of Augustana College for their
generous help as he was finishing this article. Many of the ideas in this essay were first formulated in working sessions with fellow historians and Carnegie Scholars David Pace, T. Mills Kelly, William Cutler, Orville Vernon Burton,
Bob Bain, and N. Gerald Shenk. He would also like to thank Tim Hall, Noralee Frankel, and Sam Wineburg for
their assistance with his Carnegie project, and for their many fine criticisms, the historians and other faculty who
attended workshops he conducted on survey pedagogy at Rice University, the University of Illinois, the University of
Virginia, the University of Kansas, Arizona State University, Trinity College, Lewis University, Salisbury State University, and the University of Wisconsin system schools.
1 He later told me he was quoting George Bernard Shaw.
2 On the "disciplinary homogenization" caused by introductory courses, see Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking
and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia, 2001), 79├▒80. Evidence for
a "proper and customary way" to teach surveys can be seen in a recent study of eight hundred U.S. history survey
course syllabi posted on the World Wide Web. See Daniel J. Cohen, "By the Book: Assessing the Place of Textbooks
in U.S. Survey Courses," Journal of American History, 91 (March 2005), 1405├▒15. For a report on the "remarkable
stability and uniformity in the design and structure of the U.S. and European history introductory courses" based
on a 2003 nationwide survey, see Robert Townsend, "College Board Examines Survey Course," OAH Newsletter, 33
(Aug. 2005), 1. On the roles, functions, and consequences of textbooks in introductory courses in other disciplines,
see Paul W. Richardson, "Reading and Writing from Textbooks in Higher Education: A Case Study from Economics,"
Studies in Higher Education, 29 (Aug. 2004), 505├▒21.
3Ferris Bueller├şs Day Off, dir. John Hughes (Paramount, 1986); "Red Auerbach: True Stories and NBA Legends,"
Morning Edition, National Public Radio, Nov. 2, 2004.
4 For old debates over the introductory course among historians at Stanford University, see Larry Cuban, How
Scholars Trumped Teachers: Change without Reform in University Curriculum, Teaching, and Research, 1890├▒1990 (New York, 1999). For recent programmatic calls to amend the survey, see David Trask, "Rethinking the Survey
Course," OAH Newsletter, 30 (May 2002), 3├▒6; and Peter Stearns, Meaning over Memory: Recasting the Teaching of
Culture and History (Chapel Hill, 1993), 172├▒205. For recent efforts to improve history instruction, see Allan E.
Yarema, "A Decade of Debate: Improving Content and Interest in History Education," History Teacher, 35 (May
5 The Carnegie Scholars Program brings together outstanding faculty from a variety of disciplines and institutions
committed to investigating and documenting significant issues in the teaching and learning of their fields. For
information about individual scholar projects, go to the Carnegie Scholars list at (Nov. 22, 2005).
6 Recent examples of innovation in history surveys can be found in Peter N. Stearns, "Getting Specific about
Training in Historical Analysis: A Case Study in World History," in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National
and International Perspectives, ed. Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg (New York, 2000), 419├▒
36; Stuart D. Sears, "Reinventing the Survey: Pedagogical Strategies for Engagement," AHA Perspectives, 43 (Feb.
2005), 21; Julie Roy Jeffrey, "The Survey, Again," OAH Magazine of History, 17 (April 2003), 52├▒54; and Russell
Olwell, "Building Higher-Order Historical Thinking Skills in a College Survey Class," Teaching History, 27 (Spring
7 Lee S. Shulman, "Signature Pedagogies in the Professions," D├Ődalus, 134 (Summer 2005), 52├▒59; Lee S. Shulman,
"Pedagogies of Uncertainty," Liberal Learning, 91 (Spring 2005), 18├▒25.
8 For summaries of cognition as it relates to learning, see John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R.
Cocking, eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, 1999), 8├▒16, 30, 147├▒51,
225├▒26; and Cameron Fincher, "Learning Theory and Research," in Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom,
ed. Kenneth A. Feldman and Michael B. Paulsen (Needham Heights, 1998), 57├▒80. Sam Wineburg referred to the
"attic theory" of cognition in conversation with me in 2000.
9 Charles G. Sellers here paraphrased words by another scholar, S. Samuel Shermis. See Charles G. Sellers, "Is
History on the Way out of the Schools and Do Historians Care?," Social Education, 33 (May 1969), 511.
10 Sam Wineburg, "Crazy for History," Journal of American History, 90 (March 2004), 1413├▒14. For a summary
of studies demonstrating that students remember very little from lecture-based, coverage-oriented courses, see L.
Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (San Francisco,
11 Roland Marchand, "Further Comment on Daniel D. Trifan├şs ├źActive Learning: A Critical Examination,├ş" AHA
Perspectives, 35 (March 1997), 29.
12 Gary Kornblith and Carol Lasser, eds., "Teaching the American History Survey at the Opening of the Twenty-
First Century: A Round Table Discussion," Journal of American History, 87 (March 2001), 1409├▒41.
13 David Pace, "The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning,"
American Historical Review, 109 (Oct. 2004), 1171├▒92.
14 Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design (Alexandria, 1998), 98├▒114. For a summary of
research on effective history teachers, see Richard J. Paxton and Sam Wineburg, "Expertise and the Teaching of
History," in Routledge International Companion to Education, ed. Bob Moon, Sally Brown, and Miriam Ben-Peretz
(New York, 2000), 855├▒64.
15 Sam Wineburg, "Teaching the Mind Good Habits," Chronicle of Higher Education, April 11, 2003, p. B20;
Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 12├▒17; Robert B. Bain, "Into the Breach: Using Research
and Theory to Shape History Instruction," in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History, ed. Stearns, Seixas, and
Weinburg, 334├▒36. On what it means to be "good" at history, the landmark text is Wineburg, Historical Thinking
and Other Unnatural Acts, 3├▒27, 63├▒112.
16 For more about the course, including all activities and assignments, answers to frequently asked questions, and
evidence I have collected to study how well the course meets its goals, readers are directed to the course Web site at
. I invite critique and welcome others to help themselves to
anything they please, as I have done with other teachers├ş ideas├│there is no plagiarism among pedagogues.
17 Sam Wineburg, "Probing the Depths of Students├ş Historical Knowledge," AHA Perspectives, 30 (March 1992),
18 Bain, "Into the Breach," 336├▒37; Do the Right Thing, dir. Spike Lee (40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 1989).
19 For definitions of historical thinking, see Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 3├▒27,
63├▒112; and Kathryn T. Spoehr and Luther W. Spoehr, "Learning to Think Historically," Educational Psychologist,
29 (Spring 1994), 71├▒77.
20 Gerald Graff, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (New Haven, 2003), 22├▒25,
21 Howard Zinn, A People├şs History of the United States (New York, 1980); Paul Johnson, A History of the American
People (New York, 1998).
22 Daniel D. Trifan, "Active Learning: A Critical Examination," AHA Perspectives, 35 (March 1997), 23; Sean
Wilentz, "The Past Is Not a Process," New York Times, April 20, 1996, p. E15.
23 Thus far, comparative studies have mostly targeted the sciences. Two important studies are R. R. Hake, "Interactive-
Engagement vs. Traditional Methods: A Six Thousand Student Survey of Mechanics Test Data for Introductory
Physics Courses," American Journal of Physics, 66 (Jan. 1998), 64├▒74; and S. E. Lewis and J. E. Lewis, "Departing
from Lectures: An Evaluation of a Peer-Led Guided Inquiry Alternative," Journal of Chemical Education, 82 (no.
1, 2005), 135├▒39. A thoughtful summary of research on active learning can be found in M. Prince, "Does Active
Learning Work? A Review of the Research," Journal of Engineering Education, 93 (July 2004), 223├▒31.
24 Shulman, "Signature Pedagogies in the Professions," 56├▒58.
25 Peter Seixas, "The Purpose of Teaching Canadian History," Canadian Social Studies, 36 (Winter 2002)
(Nov. 22, 2005); David Lowenthal, Possessed by
the Past: The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (New York, 1996).
26 Bain, "Into the Breach," 334├▒36; Susan A. Stahl, Cynthia R. Hynd, Bruce K. Britton, and Mary M. McNish,
"What Happens When Students Read Multiple Source Documents in History?" http://curry.edschool.virginia
.edu/go/clic/nrrc/hist_r45.html (Nov. 22, 2005). See also results from a three-year Spencer/MacArthur Foundation├▒
supported study of professional development for California history teachers and how it affected student learning:
Kathleen Medina et al., "How Do Students Understand the Discipline of History as an Outcome of Teachers├ş
Professional Development?" (2000). For copies of this report contact Kathleen Medina at firstname.lastname@example.org.
27 S. Nadkarni, "Instructional Methods and Mental Models of Students: An Empirical Investigation," Academy
of Management Learning and Education, 2 (no. 4, 2003), 335├▒51.
28 Shulman, "Signature Pedagogies in the Professions," 57.
29 For other models for public description and reflection on one├şs survey, see Patrick Allitt, I├şm the Teacher, You├şre
the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom (Philadelphia, 2005); Peter J. Frederick, "Four Reflections on
Teaching and Learning History," AHA Perspectives, 39 (Oct. 2001); Tom Holt, Thinking Historically: Narrative, Imagination,
and Understanding (New York, 1995).