“It’s not something we thought about”: teachers’ perception of historiography and narratives

Sarah Drake Brown (Department of History, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, USA)
Richard L. Hughes (Department of History, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, USA)

Social Studies Research and Practice

ISSN: 1933-5415

Publication date: 21 May 2018



The purpose of this paper is to examine three high school teachers’ beliefs about how their understanding of historiography influences their teaching.


The authors engaged in a qualitative multiple-case study based on semi-structured interviews and artifact analysis.


The analysis describes the teachers’ understanding of historiography in relation to ideas about historical perspective-taking, textbook use, the incorporation of primary sources in the classroom, and tensions between teaching content and teaching skills. The study concludes that while undergraduate exposure to historiography is potentially useful and can help history teachers manage the complexity of the profession, drawing upon historiographical understandings in order to recognize the construction of historical narratives in the classroom remains a persistent challenge.


Much of the work addressing the potential role of historiographical understanding for teachers has focused on teacher preparation and the ideas held by teaching candidates. This research emphasizes experienced teachers’ beliefs about the role that historiography plays in their teaching.



Brown, S. and Hughes, R. (2018), "“It’s not something we thought about”: teachers’ perception of historiography and narratives", Social Studies Research and Practice, Vol. 13 No. 1, pp. 16-30. https://doi.org/10.1108/SSRP-09-2017-0054

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Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited


Central to history’s structure as a discipline is its reliance on historiography, or the history of the writing of history. For historians, discussions of historiography invariably include significant debates about the nature of historical knowledge. While positivistic assumptions about the objectivity of historians dominated much of the nineteenth century (Appleby et al., 1994; Iggers and Powell, 1990; Novick, 1988), historical relativism and the rise of postmodernism in the last hundred years have raised important questions about the social construction of historical truth (Hofstadter, 1968; Iggers, 1997; Jenkins, 1997). As the responses of historians and other scholars to the “objectivity question” increasingly varied, much of the fragmentation of a historiographical consensus stemmed from debates over the nature of language and historical narratives (Novick, 1988). Are historical narratives the logical organization of empirical truth, or are they problematic stories shaped as much by the limits of perspective and language as by facts? Is the discipline of history akin to science or, especially in terms of grand narratives, a product of fiction that reveals more about historians than about the past?

While historians wrestle with these and other questions of epistemology, historical narratives have remained ascendant in terms of the curriculum materials, learning standards, and classroom instruction that shape so much of secondary history education. To what extent might teachers’ understanding of historiography have an influence on the ways they frame history for their students? In this qualitative multiple-case study, we asked three experienced teachers who had taken a similar historiography course as undergraduates to consider how their understanding of historiography has had an impact on their teaching. Specifically, we inquired: How do history teachers with background knowledge in historiography describe their understanding of historiography and explain its impact on their planning and instruction? What might we uncover about history teachers’ ideas about teaching if we focus on their academic experience and understanding of historiography?


High school teachers’ approach toward historiography is especially important in light of the challenges historians and history teachers face helping the American public understand the “provisional nature of knowledge” and the importance of coping with conflicting interpretations and revisionist viewpoints (American Historical Association, 2016; Toplin et al., 1991). Yet, much of the current research and curriculum development pertaining to the teaching and learning of history tends to emphasize the reading of primary sources. This trend is not new. In the late nineteenth century, historian Fred Morrow Fling (1899) called for an emphasis on primary sources in the classroom, and while the American Historical Association (1899, p. 101) largely rejected Fling’s particular approach, they saw promise in the use of primary sources as “collateral readings” (1899, pp. 109-110). Aspects of the New Social Studies of the 1960s relied on historical inquiry and the use of primary sources (VanSledright, 2011), and recent curricular materials have focused on various methods designed to engage students in a careful examination of primary sources (Drake and Brown, 2003; Monte-Sano et al., 2014; Reisman, 2012; Wineburg, 2001; Wineburg et al., 2011). While an ability to read primary sources is a key component of historical thinking, the secondary sources that have shaped and defined history’s interpretive structures (historiography) cannot be ignored. The importance of historiography for undergraduate history majors is relatively undisputed. In its 1990 report, “Liberal Learning and the History Major”, an AHA special task force recommended that undergraduate history majors “be prepared to deal with conflicting interpretations and revisionist viewpoints” (Toplin et al., 1991, p. 65). Hoefferle (2007) made the case for teaching historiography at both the high school and undergraduate level and outlined a six-step process for critically analyzing histories. In 2012, Westhoff (2012) articulated the concept of historiographic mapping, or the “reading and reasoning processes historians use to create a mental map of scholarship on a given topic and the ways [historians] use historiographical knowledge to develop research questions and make meaning from primary sources” (p. 1116). She concluded that undergraduates need more exposure to and practice in mapping the “historiographical terrain” in order to effectively read primary sources and construct historical claims (p. 1126). In 2016, the AHA released its revised History Discipline Core. These learning outcomes call for students to “recognize the provisional nature of knowledge,” to “evaluate historical arguments,” and “revise analysis and narratives” (American Historical Association, 2016).

The research of individual historians and formal organizational statements have often focused specifically on undergraduate history majors, but historians and teacher educators have also paid attention to the role of historiography in teacher preparation and professional development (Seixas, 1993; Weintraub, 2000). VanSledright (1996) observed that even having a PhD in history did not alter the objectivist stance taken by one educator in the classroom. McDiarmid (1994) found that a course emphasizing historiography and inquiry did not significantly alter students’ thinking about teaching history, and McDiarmid and Vinten Johansen (2000) examined the potential impact of a methods course that focused on historical inquiry and specifically the process of historiographical research. Fallace and Neem (2005) called for distinctions between historiology and historiography in teacher education, and Fallace (2007, 2009) documented his work in using historiography as a key component of history teacher preparation. Fallace confirmed previous studies that suggested mere exposure to historiography in teacher education was not enough to have an impact on pre-service teachers’ lesson plan design. Nevertheless, Yilmaz (2008) called for a historiography course as part of social studies education requirements, and Blaszak (2010) expressed faith that if prospective teachers understand historiography, they would be less apt to use a classroom approach motivated by factual recall. Examples of teachers’ use of historiography with high school students do not abound, but DeRose (2009) documented his successful use of textbooks with students to demonstrate how interpretations change, Green offered specific ways to incorporate historiography (1990, 1991), and a panel at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in 2015 called for a balance between primary sources and historiography in the classroom (Organization of American Historians Blog, 2016). A recent Delphi Panel survey identified core practices for teaching history. “Use of historiography” was identified as a core practice in the second round of the survey process and was then consolidated with “present[ing] historical perspectives” and “establish[ing] historical significance” in the survey’s third and final round (Fogo, 2014, p. 166).

Much of the work addressing the potential role of historiographical understanding for teachers has focused on teacher preparation and the ideas held by teaching candidates. How do experienced teachers think about historiography? The three teachers interviewed in this study demonstrated an understanding of historiography. To what extent did this understanding have an impact on their teaching?


This research uses a multiple-case study design (Yin, 2003) bound by definition and context (Miles and Huberman, 1994). Drawing upon a constructivist paradigm, the researchers sought to account for participants’ meaning-making in the context of their understanding of historiography and its perceived impact on their planning and instruction. To gather data, we conducted two semi-structured interviews with each of the three participants. Each of the teachers responded to open-ended questions designed to bring their thinking practices to the surface (Harris et al., 2017). We also engaged in content analysis of teachers’ lesson plans, assignments, and other supporting classroom materials as provided by each teacher interviewed.

Data collection and analysis

The first set of interviews took place either in the teacher’s classroom or through the use of videoconferencing technology. The interviews were recorded, and we took field notes during each interview. During the first round of interviews, questions focused on teachers’ understanding of history as a discipline, how they believed they had grown as teachers, and how they had adapted to changing standards and expectations for history students and teachers. These first interviews also focused on the teachers’ experiences in the undergraduate historiography course. We were able to obtain syllabi either from the specific section of the course the former students had enrolled in, a section offered during the preceding semester, or a section offered immediately after the semester the former students had taken the course. The open-ended questions in this first interview served to offer teachers opportunities to provide specific information concerning how they made meaning from their experiences as undergraduates and how they believed these experiences had shaped them as teachers.

As researchers, we wrote memos and engaged in descriptive and pattern coding (Miles and Huberman, 1994) of the data obtained in the first round of interviews. We identified key words and phrases the participants used and noted emerging themes and patterns in the responses within each case and across cases. We then used these themes and patterns to shape many of the questions that provided the basis for the second set of semi-structured interviews. The second set of interviews took place either in the classroom of the teacher or at another designated location convenient for the interviewee. The interviews were again recorded; the teachers also provided lesson plans and/or supporting materials and assessments utilized in their classrooms. During the interviews, teachers described and explained their use of these sources in the context of their individual approaches to teaching and in the context of the culture of their schools. After the second round of interviews, we again identified themes and patterns in the teachers’ expressed understanding of their own practices. Four key areas emerged from teachers’ commentary:

  1. the importance they place on historical perspective-taking;

  2. the extent to which they use a textbook with their students;

  3. the incorporation of primary sources in their classroom; and

  4. tensions between teaching content in history and teaching the methods and skills of the discipline.

Each of these areas relates to the teachers’ perception of the impact that exposure to historiography has had on their teaching.

Participants and context

Participants in the study were drawn from a history teacher education program at a four-year, large university in the Midwest. This program did not require its teaching candidates to enroll in a historiography course. However, students seeking to graduate with honors in their major were required to take historiography. The three participants in the study completed the university’s teacher preparation sequence with either a major in history or a major in the social sciences, and they graduated with honors in that major, taking a historiography course as part of the honors requirement. The department offered the historiography course as a three credit-hour small seminar to juniors or seniors. The teachers participating in the study completed the historiography course during the late 1990s. None of the three teachers were enrolled in the same section, but two of the three did take the course with the same professor. Syllabi from the course indicate that the seminars were discussion based, and a significant portion of the course grade came from the completion of a research paper. Historians teaching the course focused on schools of historical philosophy, theorists and the use of theory in the writing of history, and notions of truth, universal history, and reason. For example, while the three teachers did not encounter identical readings, they were all exposed to the ideas found in seminal works by Hayden White (1973) and Clifford Geertz (1973). Excerpts from Peter Novick’s (1988) That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession served as a staple in the courses at this time, and all three teachers read Novick’s famous introduction, “Nailing Jelly to the Wall.”

At the time the interviews were conducted, all three participants were experienced teachers in public high schools in the Midwest, having taught for between 14 and 19 years. Michelle was chair of the social studies department at a racially and economically diverse urban school where she had taught US history and other courses for 16 years. As a department chair responsible for leading a professional learning community, she had substantial experience working with colleagues in such areas as curriculum, teaching materials, and common assessments. Beth had taught US history as well as government in two high schools in medium-sized cities for 14 years. During that time, she had been involved in working with colleagues to develop common assessments in US history and government. Finally, Christine was also a veteran teacher who had taught US history and other social studies classes for 19 years. At the time of the interviews, she had spent her entire career at a small rural high school where, as a department chair for a number of years, she was responsible for developing curriculum, leading professional development, and assessing the teaching of her colleagues. All three teachers had experienced numerous changes associated with standardized testing and the emergence of the Common Core Standards.


While the details in the teachers’ responses varied based on their individual background and the context of the schools in which they teach, Michelle, Beth, and Christine all firmly believed that their undergraduate experiences with historiography had a positive impact on them as history teachers. Their commentary offers impressionistic snapshots of their use of historiography in the classroom and provides avenues for a deeper thematic analysis. We begin with each of the teachers’ general ideas about historiography and then organize their thoughts under the aforementioned four themes: the importance of historical perspectives, challenges regarding the use of textbooks, the incorporation of primary sources in the classroom, and tensions between teaching the content of history and teaching historical thinking skills.


When asked to describe her encounters with history in the university classroom, Michelle summarized her experiences as “content galore.” She explained that she excelled in a context in which she saw her role as taking notes, memorizing facts, taking a midterm and final exam, and writing a paper. According to Michelle, the undergraduate historiography class she took late in her major changed her perspective: “I think my experience in both high school and college for history was you just memorize a vast quantity of facts, and this [class] was really challenging what is a fact? What is ‘Truth’? How do we determine what is true? And how do you know what really happened in the past? So it was just a shift from this straight memorization to really thinking about what we are reading [and] when you’re reading these sources how should you be evaluating the sources you are reading.” When asked about the use of historiography in her classroom, Michelle defined historiography as “studying the art of doing history” and indicated that while she does not use the term with students, she and her students “talk about how do we look at history, how do we determine what happened in the past?” In this process, Michelle and her students focus on recognizing the differences between primary and secondary sources and ways to evaluate sources, often emphasizing inquiry processes, and the importance of multiple perspectives in regard to an event.

Beth also spoke about the influence that the historiography class had on her ideas about the discipline. She explained, “This was the first class that really challenged me to think about historical writing […]. I spent a lot of time looking at texts that I did not understand, and I had to figure out for myself how to break that down […]. I would say from the beginning of the semester to the end of the semester I went from hearing somebody say something and being like ‘Oh, ok, I don’t agree with that’ to ‘I don’t agree with that but why do they, you know, where does this come from, what perspective do that have, what in the text made them make that claim.’” Beth noted that she has used the term historiography with more advanced high school students, challenging them to consider “the art of historical writing.” According to Beth, her main focus as a history teacher lies with helping students establish deeper connections with the past and in building students’ literacy skills.

Christine offered two significant memories from her historiography class: the idea of historical perspective and the idea of “building history.” With respect to historical perspective, she emphasized the importance of understanding individuals’ background and experiences in order to comprehend their ways of thinking: “[The class] was the first time I had really deep conversations about how people develop a historical perspective and how […] who we are, how we grow up, how all of that influences our own historical perspective.” Christine also recalled that conversations about the structure of the discipline had an impact on the thinking of students in the historiography seminar: “I know that we talked about how history is a house and [by] laying the brick and the foundation of history you’re kind of building this historical house […]. we are just kind of building the story and these ideas […] and concepts […] are connected to one another. They just don’t stand out [there] by themselves.” Christine did use the term historiography with her students, explaining to them that in college, one night a week, she had a three-hour class in which the professor and students talked about the study of history and the study of historians. She summarized her students’ response as “Oh gosh, that must have been terrible,” and laughingly explained, “I wanted kids to kind-of take on that mindset that we are historians and this isn’t just, you know, you’re not just a 17 year-old sitting in a classroom in [the rural Midwest] doin’ your time, but we are historians and we are studying history and it’s more than just memorizing dates and facts and names, but it really is kind of the story of us and, so I wanted them to take that role on.”


When, during the interviews, Michelle, Beth, and Christine reviewed syllabi from the historiography course they took at their undergraduate institution, all three teachers spoke about the ways in which the course had an impact on their understanding of varying perspectives. The use of the term perspectives was significant. While their initial comments indicated that they fully understood the idea of historical interpretation and the constructed nature of the past, Michelle and Beth shifted quickly to speaking mainly about the perspective of the individuals at the time period being studied, rather than the interpretive constructs offered by historians (and studied in their historiography course). Christine used the term perspectives interchangeably over the course of the interviews, at times referring to the perspective of the individuals being studied in the context of their time, and in other instances referring to interpretive frameworks offered by historians. The findings outlined here adhere to the structure each teacher used to frame her explanation and understandings.

Of the three teachers, Michelle commented the least about historical perspective-taking and focused solely on understanding the ideas of people in the past. She noted that her students performed the best on homework when they had an interest in the topic being studied, but she did not offer examples pertaining to why students might be interested in a topic or the extent to which student interest might be related to their ability to see the past through the lens of the time period studied. When referencing students’ reading of sources, she spoke about the challenges she faced helping students recognize an author’s claim. While she did not elaborate or explain, her use of the word “claim” suggested that she understood perspectives of individuals in the past, or their attitudes, ideas, and beliefs, to be part of the claim she was asking students to identify when reading texts. In response to direct questions about objectivity and perspective-taking among historians as they crafted interpretive frameworks, Michelle shifted to a discussion of social science classes she teaches and offered a general comment: “You do your best to be objective, but you’re probably not objective.”

Beth emphasized inviting students to make “deeper connections to history” in order to engage them in historical perspective-taking. When explaining how she introduces students to historical study, Beth noted that she asks students to consider how students in the USA might study American history differently than would students in another country. She did not elaborate on this idea, and moved quickly to emphasize the primacy she places on engaging students in conversations about why the past matters to them. Beth noted that she uses journals and other reflective activities with students, but even when pressed, she did not provide specific examples. When returning to the idea of connections, Beth noted that when she teaches about immigration, she tries to help students understand the perspective of immigrants by asking questions about immigration today and students’ experiences with immigration (she noted that some students shared the immigration status of their parents). Connecting the past to the present was of key importance to Beth, and she considered it her best avenue to help students engage in historical perspective-taking.

Christine indicated she values historical perspectives, and she used the term perspective in multiple ways, generally meaning historical understanding. Christine also used perspective to mean the ideas, beliefs, and attitudes of individuals living in the past and the ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that exist today and influence our understanding of the past. Her overlapping use of the term is illustrated in the following statement, made when she referred to the College, Career, and Civic Life Framework (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013): “Do these standards teach historical perspective? Well kind-of; ‘analyze multiple factors that influenced the perspective of people during different historical eras.’ Ok, well, you were analyzing these factors, so you have to be looking at that. You’re going to develop your own perspective through that analysis process, but you are also in each of these bringing in your own historical perspective. Your own experience is what’s leading that analysis, that’s what’s going to guide that analysis, so I think it’s kind of that same idea.”

The perspective of historical actors as seen through primary sources dominated Michelle and Beth’s thinking regarding attitudes, beliefs, and ideas about the past. Christine noted this important use of historical perspective, and also repeatedly referenced how one’s ideas today influence the way we understand the past. Based on the syllabi from the corresponding historiography sections in which they were enrolled and the teachers’ recollections of class discussions, the constructed nature of the past and historians’ interpretive frameworks were central points of focus in their historiography course, and these ideas had a lasting impact on how the teachers thought about history. But when asked to explain what mattered to them when teaching history and how they framed historical narratives, only Christine addressed the idea of perspective beyond that found in primary sources, and her focus only referenced historians’ interpretations marginally, but importantly, through the use of textbooks.


Michelle did not mask her disgust with the textbook adopted in her urban district. She believed that the textbook was written above the reading level of the majority of her students, and she disapproved of the organizational structure of the writing, noting that the main idea was not at the top of each paragraph. She explained that she used the text occasionally for students to gather background knowledge because “you need background information to help understand what you’re going to analyze,” but she said that students can get background information from multiple sources, and she often lectured to provide this knowledge for students. Michelle returned to the problematic nature of the textbook several times over the course of the interviews, wondering aloud if the text’s multiple authorship contributed to what she considered a disjointed source for background information. Michelle never considered the extent to which the text was providing a narrative or if she, through lecture or other selected texts, also provided a narrative lens that organized the past for students. Instead, both the text, her lectures, and other materials seemed, in her view, to simply offer necessary facts.

An analysis of one of Michelle’s lesson plans made her lack of consideration regarding the narrative structure of secondary texts even more apparent. In a lesson designed to emphasize disagreements between Jefferson and Hamilton and the development of political parties, Michelle’s lesson plans indicated she distributed a chapter from the website “Digital History” (2016) to students. In this chapter, the author, Thomas Ladenburg, offers an un-cited summary of Jefferson and Hamilton’s respective backgrounds and ideas, followed by excerpts of quotations (drawn mainly from Thomas Bailey’s 1965 primary source reader, “The American Spirit”). According to her lesson plan, Michelle asked students to read this chapter and summarize the disagreements between Jefferson and Hamilton, using evidence to identify the biggest differences between the two men. Students were also to prepare a short biography of each man and explain which man they would have supported had they been living during this time. Neither during the interview nor in the lesson plan itself did Michelle appear to consider the narrative constructed by Ladenburg in his overview of Jefferson and Hamilton or in the primary source excerpts he selected. Rather, students were tasked with summarizing Ladenburg’s narrative and with using that as a basis for biographical sketches. The evidence students were to use to support their claim presumably was to come from the sources provided by Ladenburg and/or his narrative.

Beth purported to use the textbook as a way to teach general literacy strategies and general features of any text. She noted that she relied on the textbook as a source of vocabulary for students, and she utilized charts and graphs that appear in the text. She maintained, “That’s something that was ingrained in me as an undergraduate student […]moving away from the textbook and taking a look at using more primary sources […].” She explained that she also talked with students about why they have textbooks and why one textbook might be different from another. However, as Beth spoke in the interview about different interpretations, she immediately used primary sources as a point of focus in her example, moving away from a discussion of the textbook. When we asked her if she discussed the idea of textbook authorship with her students, she indicated she did not and referred again to the use of such literacy strategies as text features, big ideas, recognizing bias, or summarizing skills. For Beth, textbooks aligned clearly with literacy skills.

Christine explained she used the textbook as a tool rather than as a driver of the curriculum in her rural school. She initially credited her willingness to incorporate – rather than be controlled by – the textbook to early experiences in the classroom. Christine explained that one of the first classes she taught, titled, “You and the Law,” did not have an accompanying textbook, so she quickly became comfortable with drawing upon a variety of sources in both planning and instruction. When she became chairperson of her department, Christine assumed greater responsibility with respect to textbook adoption. She recalled, “I would scour those textbooks, looking for perspective: Is there an agenda to this textbook and what is the agenda […] is it showing kind-of a diverse perspective […]? And it’s interesting because when you are looking for that, you can find it […]. That’s part of my job, to find a book that’s best for our district and so I would say that’s something that goes back to historiography.”

Christine acknowledged that she had not previously made a conscious connection between textbook selection and her experiences in a historiography class. However, over the course of the interview she began to make links, noting the “very deep conversations” she and other students in the course had about historical perspectives and the constructed nature of the past. She once again offered the analogy of “history as a house,” alluding to the “laying of bricks and the foundation of history” to construct the house. Although in the past she had not consciously made connections between her study of historiography and teachers’ use of constructed narratives, Christine demonstrated an awareness of the idea that textbooks represent an aspect of purposeful storytelling.

Christine also described instances of her purposeful use of textbooks in lessons. For example, at one point in her career when she was unsatisfied with the incorporation of women’s history in the US history curriculum, she instructed students to read in their text about women and labor laws. Next she problematized the past by posing historical questions to students about women and work, and students replied, “I don’t know, it’s not in [the textbook], what do you mean?” Christine then engaged in a direct challenge of the textbook, having her students use primary sources to investigate the past and challenge the textbook’s authoritative voice. She recounted, “I can remember the kids just kind-of being like, ‘Wow […]we didn’t think there’s other stuff out there.’” Importantly, while Christine clearly understood the constructed nature of the textbook, she did not link historiographic ideas or traditions to her understanding of textbooks until she was asked to describe, during an interview clearly about historiography, her approach to the use of textbooks in the classroom. In addition, the instance she described regarding the use of the textbook in concert with primary sources appeared to be more of an aberration than a consistent practice in her classroom. Christine claimed to have used the textbook as a tool consistently, and she also described her constant use of primary sources. But she offered only one example of any overlap between the use of the textbook and primary sources. Instead, like Michelle and Beth, she appeared to focus heavily on having students read primary sources in class.

Primary sources in the classroom

The teachers often tied their criticism of history textbooks to their commitment to use primary sources in the classroom. The teachers referenced sources related to historic topics such as the Boston Massacre, Alexander Hamilton, Prohibition, and the Second World War, as well as specific documents such as Jacob Riis’ “How the Other Half Lives,” Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. All three mentioned their substantial use of primary source materials developed by SHEG, or the Stanford History Education Group (2017). Michelle provided examples of analysis guides such as the “HAPPY” document analysis strategy often used by Advanced Placement US History teachers, and both Michelle and Christine mentioned Document Based Questions as part of their instruction and assessment. Beth identified primary sources as part of “student-centered learning,” and all of the teachers referenced the importance of students being able to source and compare documents as well as the use of primary sources to meet the Common Core standard of citing “textual evidence” (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of State School Officers, 2010). However, the teachers remained vague in the interviews as to why and how they select certain historical evidence to use in the classroom. While the teacher’s undergraduate historiography course did not require them to read traditional historical primary sources, each of the teachers suggested that the course’s emphasis on the perspectives of historians and the role of historical evidence informed their thoughts on primary sources. Beth claimed that she “uses some of the same skills” that she developed in the historiography course and Michelle linked the course to the importance of “historical thinking skills” which she develops through “document-based teaching.” Beth mentioned developing her students’ analytical “habits” while Michelle described how frequent activities with sources made such skills “almost automatic” for students.

This emphasis on teaching the methods and skills of history became a central point of the teachers’ discussion when they described tensions with their colleagues in the context of teaching and assessing in history.

Content and skills

While the teachers worked in different school contexts, all three reported the existence of a sharp divide among their colleagues concerning a focus on content in history and an emphasis on the methods of the discipline. Christine recounted a heated exchange with a fellow teacher whom she described as “very content driven.” She summarized this individual’s approach as: “This is why we are here, and if we’re not here to teach content, then why in the world are we teaching history to begin with, you know I could be here teaching anything.” Beth and Michelle offered similar anecdotes based on their experiences, and each of the three teachers articulated their belief that historical thinking skills and history content must be taught in tandem. While Beth explained that she sought a balance between content and skills in her teaching, her understanding of content was telling. She explained, “the challenge of teaching history is the importance of events, you know, of the objective facts, but then also teaching the kids these skills, you know, while they are learning about these events in history.” Even when pressed, she offered no further explanation, leaving us to wonder the extent to which she considered how events and objective facts made their way into narratives and what her role might be in making such decisions.

Michelle, Beth, and Christine reported that when they and their respective colleagues attempted to make department level decisions about what to teach and what to assess, they encountered significant barriers with respect to determining content emphasis. Neither Christine, Beth, nor Michelle explained specifically what made content discussions so challenging for their colleagues. All three remarked that they had engaged in very difficult and often contentious conversations with fellow teachers, but they were unable or unwilling to delve deeper into examples of specific topics or points of disagreement. Christine, Beth, and Michelle reported that their respective department members compromised by agreeing to focus on assessing skills; unable to arrive at consensus regarding content (and in spite of many colleagues’ want to emphasize content), each of their departments focused on assessing historical thinking.

To an extent, Christine, Beth, and Michelle shared common experiences regarding assessment of student learning; each teacher participated directly in the creation of departmental history exams, and the exams focused on historical thinking. Michelle provided us with a copy of her department’s exam, and Christine and Beth described these exams to us. In all three schools, the assessments that emerged consisted of traditional history assessments – multiple choice, short answer, and document-based essays. Michelle’s school relied on multiple choice questions that were based on knowledge and analysis of primary sources. Some questions included an excerpt from a textbook as well. Christine’s school focused heavily on document-based questions that emphasized primary sources, while Beth and her colleagues designed multiple choice questions that were structured around Bloom’s taxonomy and incorporated primary sources. Other than a few textbook excerpts on the assessment taken by students at Michelle’s school, secondary sources were not part of assessing student learning.

When asked about the decision to leave out secondary sources, Christine matter-of-factly said their emphasis was on primary sources. Michelle also indicated that the departmental exam focused on the reading of primary sources; she registered surprise when it was pointed out to her that a source other than a primary source was on the exam. With respect to secondary sources, Beth acknowledged, “It’s not something we thought about.” She then wondered aloud why they had not included secondary sources, noting that she and her colleagues emphasized the difference between a primary and a secondary source in class. She also indicated that if secondary sources were included in curriculum materials such as those from SHEG, they used such sources with students in class. In other words, teachers were not purposefully avoiding the use of secondary sources; rather, the use was happenstance and not a consideration.


Michelle, Beth, and Christine reflected on their experiences as students of historiography and considered the extent to which they believed having taken a historiography course had an impact on their teaching. Four themes emerged in the context of their discussions on historiography: the importance they place on historical perspective-taking; the extent to which they use a textbook with their students; the incorporation of primary sources in their classroom; and tensions between teaching content in history and teaching the methods and skills of the discipline. A close analysis of these themes suggests important ideas about these teachers’ use of sources and their understanding of narratives in the classroom.

These teachers talked extensively about the use of primary sources to help their students understand historical perspectives, emphasizing comprehension of the positions of individuals who lived during the time studied. Only Christine spoke about interpretive aspects of the historian’s work, and even she made no mention of the bias involved in selecting and using primary sources. The three teachers did not mention “giving meaning” to the past nor did they consider new questions asked by historians or new evidence used to revise past interpretations. Michelle, Beth, and Christine undoubtedly understood the difference between primary and secondary sources, and they communicated this difference to students. Each teacher placed a clear emphasis on the use of primary sources in her classroom and stressed the importance of engaging students in considering primary sources as historical evidence. Less clear was each teacher’s rationale for selecting specific sources. Michelle, Beth, and Christine seemed unable or unwilling to articulate the thinking behind their selection of the primary sources they utilized with students.

Each teacher considered herself an individual who does not rely on the textbook. While their reasons for rejecting textbooks and the ways that they did incorporate texts varied, Michelle, Beth, and Christine staked much of their professional identity as teachers on their distaste for textbooks. Rejecting narratives offered by textbooks, the teachers did not identify specific narratives – or any organizational scheme – that guided their classes.

The teachers’ description of their work with departmental assessment also highlighted challenges they faced in identifying points of emphasis with respect to content. Seeking to avoid conflicts with colleagues over content, these teachers reported that their departments decided to assess historical thinking. This compromise enabled the teachers to avoid conflicts over what content to teach. The assessments they designed focused largely on students’ reading of primary sources. Interestingly, none of the teachers commented on decisions made and narratives constructed – consciously or unconsciously – when selecting these primary sources.

The teachers’ apparent lack of awareness about their role in crafting narratives is key. To avoid conflict in their schools, the teachers and their colleagues eschewed conversations about content emphasis and narrative. Emphasizing historical thinking, they equated primary sources with skill acquisition (in the discipline specifically and in general literacy) and as a path to understanding content. But, they did not perceive selection of these sources as either a reflection of their narrative or the foundation for students and them, as teachers, to craft a new narrative about the past.


The purpose of this study was to surface teachers’ perceptions about the impact that having completed an undergraduate historiography class had on their teaching of history. All three teachers professed a belief that their historiography class had an impact on the decisions they make in the history classroom. They maintained that their exposure to historiographical schools of thought through various readings and the requirement in their undergraduate course that they write a research paper incorporating historiography broadened their understanding of the discipline. Michelle acknowledged “a shift from this straight memorization” to considering “how should you be evaluating the sources you are reading.” Beth recalled, “This was the first class that really challenged me to think about historical writing,” and Christine emphasized the construction of a “historical house.” While she was not speaking for anyone but herself, a comment offered by Christine appears to summarize the perspective of all three participants: “Did this class change my life? I don’t know that it changed my life, but did it influence how I teach history? Yeah, and those are things that I took specifically with me from this class.”

The three teachers reported a more nuanced understanding of historical “perspectives” in the sense that having taken the class, they did not think of history as objective or as just the facts. Yet, as accomplished teachers, they neglected to recognize the role they have played over the course of their careers as crafters of historical interpretations and narratives (Bain, 2006). The three teachers had taken a rigorous historiography course; the interviews demonstrate they understand the idea of a contested past and narrative constructs, and the interviews reveal that they view history as an argument without end and agree that historiography offers an endless variety of interpretations. Yet, they do not appear to have considered how the choices they make as teachers contribute to their students’ understanding of what history is, what it does, and what it means.

Seixas (2000) identified three approaches teachers tend to take when addressing conflicting interpretations of the past: enhancing collective memory, using disciplinary criteria to study the past, and pedagogical postmodernism which involves a consideration of how different groups have organized the past into a coherent story. While the three teachers’ emphasis on primary sources in their classrooms might suggest they value disciplinary inquiry, their lack of ability or unwillingness to articulate how and why they make specific decisions in the classroom make us wonder: Are they making decisions with respect to lesson design that represents building collective memory through telling a “best story”? Is there any story? As undergraduates, they encountered historiography in a specific course; they made no mention of discussions of historiography in the other history courses they took as undergraduates. Did the historians who taught these classes unwittingly present a “best story” to students (Seixas, 1999), building collective memory and mistakenly leaving history majors with the impression that history is, in fact, a single story? While their self-described challenges with respect to agreeing with colleagues about how to organize content might tend them toward a postmodern approach, the teachers offered no indication that they asked their students to consider how various groups organize histories or use rhetorical or narrative strategies for specific purposes.

Monte-Sano and Budano’s (2013) articulation of four aspects of pedagogical content knowledge in history marginally incorporates historiography through the component they label “framing history.” When teachers “select and arrange topics of study into a coherent story” and make decisions regarding “significance, connections, and interrelationships” (p. 174), this interpretive act could tend toward historiographic mapping if teachers have a deep understanding of historiography on which they might base these decisions. The three teachers in this study understood the concept of historiography broadly, drawing from their experiences in a specialized course. They did not have knowledge of concrete examples of historiographic trends tied to specific content in the school history they teach.

Because the purpose of this research was to investigate teachers’ understandings and perceptions, many avenues for further study exist. Did the teachers’ increased comprehension of historiography help them better understand and analyze primary sources? Did their abilities carry over to teaching their students about understanding and analyzing primary sources? While the teachers struggled to identify narratives at work in the respective classrooms and drew attention to their rejection of textbooks and their want to focus on historical thinking, were no narratives actually present in the three teachers’ classrooms? Each time we asked questions related to narratives our three excellent teachers avoided identifying narratives that were actually present in their classrooms. Why? We live in a time when history is a most controversial part of the curriculum and is part of a politicized debate on such issues as national history standards, the revised Advanced Placement US History exam, and the meaning and purpose of Confederate monuments. Understanding teachers’ approach to historiography and recognition of the role they play in creating historical narratives and introducing students to the contested nature of the past is vital. Such understanding informs the work of many stakeholders in secondary history education such as university history departments, teacher education programs, and secondary schools.

Thus, we ask questions related to historiography, primary sources, and historical thinking competencies. First, how might teachers become better able to identify, respond to, and craft historical narratives for and with their students? Since this study focused on teachers’ perceptions, classroom observations were not conducted, but extensive observations would contribute to a better understanding of possible narrative constructs that exist in the classrooms.

As undergraduates, Michelle, Beth, and Christine learned about historiography, but no purposeful connection was made to this understanding in their teaching methods courses (even though some of these courses were taught by historians). Fallace (2009) found that a purposeful link between historiography and lesson planning made little impact on the work of pre-service teachers. But, when we asked the three teachers to reflect on their experiences in historiography, these experienced teachers were quite insightful with respect to their understanding of the discipline, and they understood their experience in the course to have had an impact on their teaching. Michelle recognized her shortcomings as an undergraduate, and in the course of her interview mused, “So it kind of makes me think, I wish I had a historiography class right now because it would probably really have a greater impact after teaching for some time.”

And so we ask a second question: Might professional development be key in improving teachers’ ability to recognize and surface their crafting of narratives? Could an emphasis on historiography – later in a teacher’s career – help turn the structure of narratives and the choices a teacher makes into something more history teachers think about? Weintraub (2000) offered descriptions of teachers’ experiences with historiography in professional development that were encouraging, and specific examples provided by teachers who use historiography in the classroom suggest that contextualizing students’ use of primary sources by exposing them to historians’ interpretations can be quite useful (Organization of American Historians Blog, 2016).

Much of the work conducted in reforming American education follows a top-down approach; through their work, researchers indicate what teachers should be doing in the classroom and how it should be done. This study focused on asking experienced teachers to reflect on what historiography means to them and their perception of the impact that a specific course had on their teaching. Bringing teacher thinking to the surface has the potential to help researchers pursue avenues that matter to practicing teachers and therefore provides opportunities for researchers to serve teachers as they strive to improve their work.


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Corresponding author

Sarah Drake Brown is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: sedrakebrown@bsu.edu

About the authors

Sarah Drake Brown is an Associate Professor of History and the Director of History/Social Studies Education at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she teaches undergraduate content methods courses. Her research focuses on the scholarship of teaching and learning in history and teachers’ use of secondary sources in the classroom.

Richard L. Hughes is an Associate Professor of History at Illinois State University, with research interests in social studies education and modern United States social and cultural history. He teaches undergraduate courses in history and social science teaching methods as part of Illinois State University’s secondary teacher education program.