Saturday, September 5, 2015

Historians: How Does Research In Pedagogy Inform Your Teaching?

Ben Wright, a historian at the University of Texas at Dallas, challenges his fellow history professors to start reading scholarship related to pedagogy.  He even uses the label "anti-intellectual" to describe those professors who are unwilling to engage with such literature or who look upon this literature with condescension.

Here is a taste of his post at Teaching United States History:

I should confess that I came to the profession of “professing” after receiving an undergraduate training in “teaching.” In fact, this article takes me back to my undergraduate education and the whiplash I often felt when walking out of an educational psychology class and into a history course. I recall how impressed I was by the scholarly rigor of education researchers and the evidence they produced to indicate the difference between effective and ineffective instruction. And then I remember the bemusement I felt an hour later by realizing that my history professor clearly never read a word of this scholarship.
Ignorance is one thing, but outright hostility is quite another, and the tone of this article, and of some of the enthusiasm I’ve noticed around it, evinces a dismissal and even condescension to the academic fields of education research. I would even go so far as to call this attitude an anti-intellectualism. Is this outlook toward the academic study of education any less disrespectful and misguided than what we sometimes get from members of the public who feel that Bill O’Reilly’s study of Abraham Lincoln has the same measure of legitimacy as Eric Foner’s?
We all have a standard answer to the question, “how does your research inform your teaching?” but what would happen if if interviewees began asking, “how does research in pedagogy inform your teaching?” Our guild appears to hold the belief that learning how to teach is mostly a matter of general intelligence, experience, and hard work. Most of us receive little-to-no training in how to teach. We are thrust into teaching assistantships and expected to figure it out on the fly. And we do, but this trial by fire approach teaches us more how to survive and less how to ensure the best possible outcomes for our students. Discussions of learning outcomes, best practices, or education psychology too often get dismissed as administrator meddling or an academia adrift in lowering standards. The “tough love” approach epitomized in the article stands in for rigorous engagement with research.
Wright is right.  If we want more students to get excited about history we need to be more committed to teaching. And yes, this will require reading scholarship related to pedagogy.
Wright lists several places where historians might begin to explore this scholarship.  They include The Review of Higher Education, Review of Education Research, and Contemporary Educational Psychology.  These are probably all great journals that include articles that will make us become better teachers, but not every historian is going to have the time or inclination to read them.
But maybe historians will read literature on scholarship related specifically to teaching history--literature published in history journals, magazines, or history blogs and websites. Sam Wineburg, Lendol Calder, Caleb McDaniel, the folks responsible for The History Teacher, and others are doing great work on this front.  I know that Wright is familiar with this work.  
Rather than encouraging historians to tackle specialized pedagogy and education journals, I think the best we can expect is that more historians like Wright will emerge  to serve as brokers who are willing to bring the best of this literature to those of use who work in the history classroom.