Disciplinary Approach In Of School History


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Abstract: This article aims to elucidate how social studies educators' lack of attention to or neglect of disciplinary history and historiography distorts their studies on the teaching and learning of history. To that end, the successive exploratory studies of Ronald W. Evans, the most vociferous opponent of the disciplinary approach to teaching history, on teachers' conceptions of history are first described and then critically examined in the light of historiography. The importance of teaching history via disciplinary approach for promoting students' historical literacy is discussed and suggestions for educational practices are made.

Key words: Social studies, History teaching, History Education, Historiography, Teaching Methods


Many research studies on history education have been conducted without drawing sufficiently on the implications of the discipline of history for school history. This shortcoming manifests itself in many forms such as the questions asked, concepts explained, argument made, and conclusions drawn. This article aims to illustrate how social studies educators' lack of training in history or inadequate understanding of disciplinary history distorts their studies investigating the teaching and learning of history. I will show this by scrutinizing Ronald W. Evans's successive exploratory studies on teachers' conceptions of history. I selected his studies because (1) Evans is the most vociferous opponent of the idea of teaching history through disciplinary approach and (2) his studies have had a tremendous effect on social studies education, serving as a model for other researchers to emulate (To articulate his perspective, Evans wrote a book entitled "The Social Studies Wars: What Should We Teach the Children?"). For instance, Jere Brophy and Bruce VanSledright, both of whom are preeminent figures in the social studies field, employed Evans's typology to represent their research on the teaching and learning of U.S. history in fifth grade classrooms (Their book is entitled "Teaching and Learning History in Elementary Schools.").

Refuting the Attack on Disciplinary Approach to Teaching History: Critique of Conceptions of History

Evans (1988, 1989, and 1990) investigated teacher and student conceptions of history in successive exploratory studies by employing qualitative and quantitative research methods. In his first study (1988), he explored teacher and student conceptions of the purposes of historical study and evaluations of its usefulness; conceptions of patterns in history or informant beliefs on progress and decline; the degree of generalization with which informants were comfortable; and informant conceptions of the relevance of history or the relation of historical data to the present. According to the study results, teachers' conceptions of the meaning of history differed distinctively from each other. Their conceptions of history not only affected their instructional practices but also shaped student conceptions and learning Each teacher's conceptions had significant effects on their curricular decisions such the goals to be attained, questions to be asked, and the content or issues to be selected and taught in the classrooms. With respect to students, firstly school or previous teachers and secondly family had the greatest impact on the origins of their concepts. Other factors affecting student conceptions were the media, curiosity about the past, geographic location, and visits to historic places respectively. Their conceptions seemed to be poorly formed, often muddled, ambiguous, vague, and incomplete.

In a follow up study, Evans (1989) continued to explore and clarify teacher conceptions of history, the relationship between their concepts and teaching methods, and background factors influencing development of conceptions of history. He looked at four types of respondent conceptions: (1) conceptions of the "purposes" of historical study, (2) conceptions of "patterns" in history, (3) the degree of "generalization," and (4) conceptions of the relevance of history to the present. Five categories of teacher conceptions of history were constructed on the basis of qualitative and quantitative data: storyteller, scientific historian, relativist/reformer, cosmic philosopher, and eclectic. These typologies were based on (1) an epistemology, (2) teacher conceptions of history, (2) teachers' pedagogical approach. The descriptions of each teacher type are as follows:

Storytellers as conservative see the knowledge of other times, people and places as the most important rationale for studying history. Scientific historians as liberals consider understanding historical processes and gaining background knowledge for understanding current issues to be the key reasons for studying history; help students to gain insight into historical generalization and process skills of historical inquiry; emphasize objectivity and neutrality, pose open-ended questions; and see historical explanations and interpretation as a means to make history most interesting. Relativist/reformers, by far the largest group (32 out of 71 teachers surveyed), are democratic liberals; stress the relation of the past to present problems; and examine problems drawn from the present day issues to make history relevant to student lives. Cosmic philosophers are liberals but have strong religious connection; regard grand theory, generalizations or laws of history as the most interesting aspect of history; and see patterns in history. Eclectic teachers are politically moderate; have no central tendency on any category; and display the characteristic elements of two or more conceptions of history.

In his third study, Evans (1990) sought to answer the following questions: How do teacher conceptions of history affect the transmitted or enacted curriculum? How do those conceptions influence student beliefs about history and society? Are the teaching of history and political ideology linked? Qualitative research method was employed to find answers to these questions. Five teachers, each of whom was the most representative of one of the five typologies developed earlier and total six students were interviewed. According to the research findings, each of teachers had a different approach to teaching history; their conceptions of history were overlapped; and their teaching of history was influenced by their conceptions of history. According to the study results, teachers of the reformer and the eclectic orientation had little or not effects on their students beliefs about history and society. Students of the scientific historian embodied the clearest notions about history, acknowledging the empowering impact of the history course on their thinking about history and on their beliefs about society. While students of storyteller and scientific historians had reported positive attitude towards studying history, students' perceptions of history were quite negative in the eclectic teacher's classrooms. Cosmic philosopher's conceptions had little effects on students' beliefs.

I am now returning to the evaluation of Evans's successive exploratory studies on teacher and student conceptions of history. [i] In his articles, Evans makes unwarranted criticisms against historians' and some social studies educators' call for teaching school history via disciplinary approach. To begin with, making comments on the status of history in schools, Evans (1988) argues, "Confusion over purpose is at the heart of the crisis in the teaching of history" (p.205), attributing the state of crisis to the historians who he thought have failed to come to terms with the meaning and purposes of teaching history in schools. Several objections can be raised against this unsupported argument. First of all, the miscellaneous reasons that historians offer for studying the past is not confusion over purpose but a reflection of the multiplicity of perspectives (Evans's arguments suggest that he favors only one mode of thinking, assimilationist, and expects historians to assimilate their perspectives on the purposes for studying history). Secondly, the question over purpose is open-ended and value-laden in nature, so it makes sense to expect historians of different philosophical, ideological, and disciplinary orientations to offer divergent responses to the question of what is history for. As Tosh (2002) argues, instead of "assimilating" different perspectives on the purpose for studying history, recognizing and "accommodating" them can help improve history education at all levels from primary to graduate school. Thirdly and equally importantly, the responsibility for setting the stage for exemplary history teaching first and foremost falls on the shoulders of not historians but social studies educators because every state in the U.S. requires prospective teachers to take substantial number of courses at colleges of education to grant them the license to teach in schools. Teachers do not need to have a major or minor in history to teach social studies.

There must be, therefore, other reasons why the teaching of history is in a state of crisis. One of the reasons is the fact that teachers are not prepared well in the discipline of history. The majority of social studies teachers do not have either a major or minor in history. As a school subject, history "suffers a higher rate of out-of-field teaching than either mathematics or science." According to the NCES's Schools and Staffing Survey, 53.9 percent of students were enrolled in history classes that were taught by teachers who did not have at least a minor in the field (Ravitch, 2000). That is one of the reasons why many social studies teachers have difficulty helping students develop "history's habits of mind" such as the acquisition and practice of historical insights, perspectives, understanding, and thoughtful judgment beyond more generic skills of critical thinking.

We need to look at social studies teachers' academic experiences in pre-service teacher education programs as well to understand the embarrassing state of history teaching. There is a more formidable problem in teacher education programs than schools. The problem is the fact that not disciplinary scholarship but professional practice characterizes teaching methods courses in pre-service programs. "Few teacher educators are engaged in scholarly research in any discipline and may have little understanding of what historians and social scientists do as scholars" (McDiarmid & Vinten-Johansen, 2000). This shortcoming sheds light on the reasons for poor history teaching in secondary schools. Since many social studies educators lack training and experiences in disciplinary history, one can argue, they are unlikely to prepare would-be teachers to confidently meet the demands and challenges of history teaching in the twenty-first century.

Evans (1988) does not seem to recognize the diversity in the types of historians too. He says, "As a student of history, I have the distinct impression that historians as a group reject attempts to attach any overall meaning, direction, or coherence to history and are reluctant to address explicitly the lessons of the past" (p.205). This statement sounds as if all historians could be put under one category. As opposed to Evans's impression, there is not just one group of historians but are a variety of historians whose orientations are characterized by different schools of thought. Which "group of historians" he is talking about is cloudy. As a matter of fact, the group he is unconsciously referring to embraces the Rankean approach to the study of the past which emphasizes the analytical philosophy of history. But, there are some historians who engage in speculative or teleological interpretation of the past even today (One of the contemporary representatives of this historical practice is Francis Fukuyama, whose work, "The End of History and the Last Man," had a great repercussion in many fields of social sciences throughout the world).

The neglect of historiography manifests itself in Evans's typology of teachers' conceptions of history as well. Evans (1989) identifies five categories of teachers as storyteller, scientific historian, relativist/reformer, cosmic philosopher, and eclectic in terms of their conceptions of history and beliefs about the purposes of history instruction. Evans's categories are characterized by not only a lot of similarities but also internal contradictions. That is, Evans exhibits a tendency to categorize teacher responses by surface similarities rather than deep structures. When his typology of social studies teachers is examined through the lenses of historiography, it becomes clear that it is vague and thus needs clarification. The reason for this is the fact that Evans used the concept of scientific historian inappropriately when he described teachers' conceptions of history. He ascribed a sort of distorted meaning to that concept without considering its meanings in the discipline of history. In addition, what he calls scientific historian and cosmic philosopher display almost similar approach to the past as defined by Evans in his categories. In the discipline of history that Evans did not heed when categorizing teachers, those historians who, like Marxist historians and psycho-historians, search for general laws and patterns in history -as a cosmic philosopher does in Evans's study- and put a strong emphasis on the importance of a rigorous research methodology are called scientific or positivist historians. What is objected here is Evans's approach to describe teachers' conceptions of history by resorting to an intrinsically historical concept but without paying attention to its purported meaning and implications in the discipline of history.

I will give a couple of more specific examples to illustrate how an inadequate understanding of disciplinary history distorts one's study and presentation of the teaching of history. Referring to the teachers who were categorized as scientific historian, Evans (1989) contends, "These teachers' practical philosophies resemble the analytical positivist philosophy of history… For the most part, they see no pattern in history," but share some agreement with the idea of progress (p.220). In contrast to Evans's assumptions which are not adequately informed by historiography, scientific historians do see patterns in history as reflected by the Marxist historians' and psychohistorians' attempt to show patterns in the modes of production and psychological forces over time respectively. What is more, the above quote suffers from an internal contradiction. If these teachers shared agreement with the idea of progress, it indirectly means that they see patterns in history in that progress in history, if any, is a reflection of pattern (The most commonly seen patterns in history are progress and decline). Likewise, Evans says each relativist historian sees patterns in history. That is not the case. In contrast, many relativist historians are even suspicious of the possibility of attaining objective historical knowledge, let alone patterns.

Evans's construction of the category of cosmic philosopher is also problematic. One hardly finds a teacher whose mode of thinking and conception of history resemble those of Neuman, cosmic philosopher. This is because this participant was a convert and kept belief in Bahai faith which emphasizes the unity of humanity. On the basis of this idiosyncratic case and category, Evans attempted to identify other teachers' conceptions of history. That is, he imposed this pre-established odd category on the informants' responses. Not surprisingly, that category neither worked nor served well to illuminate teachers' conceptions. Evans was able to identify only two teachers out of 71 whose conceptions were similar to those of cosmic philosopher (Evans could have used another category or metaphor to make fine distinctions among teacher conceptions. Doing that could have prevented him from running the risk of describing many teachers as eclectic too).

Evans (1988) repeats the canard about the disciplinary approach by stating, "The current revival of history is failing to address many of the underlying questions which have kept the teaching of history in the schools in a perpetual state of crisis" (p.204). Still, he does not bother to clarify or elucidate how the concern with disciplinary approach fails to address key questions in history education. Likewise, drawing attention to the threat to the existence of social studies as a school subject (posed by the National Commission on Social Studies in the School's call for disintegrating the strands of social studies), Evans (1990) says that the Commission's call met with a great hostility by social studies educators including himself (p.101). However, this negative reaction is not informed by reasoned judgments. Nationally and internationally recognized scholars have articulated the value of disciplinary approach with well-grounded arguments which have not been refuted or challenged by social studies educators yet as will be shown in the following section.

Why Teach through Disciplinary Approach?

As opposed to Evans's and many social studies educators' unfavorable attitude toward disciplinary approach to history teaching (Stearns, 1998, p. 238), Gardner and Mansilla (1994) argue that students need to be provided with the disciplinary tools to experience quality education and advise educators not to throw away "disciplinary baby" with the "subject matter" bathwater. Refuting the views of those critics who see the disciplines a significant part of the problem in schools today, they assert convincingly:

We maintain that the scholarly disciplines represent the formidable achievements of talented human beings, toiling over the centuries, to approach and explain issues of enduring importance. Shorn of disciplinary knowledge, human beings are quickly reduced to the level of ignorant children. (p.199)

Teaching for understanding, Mansilla and Gardner (1997) contend, requires an "understanding of the disciplinary modes of thinking embodied in the methods by which knowledge is constructed, the forms in which knowledge is made public, and the purposes that drive inquiry in the domain" (p. 382). Other scholars of high caliber also emphasize the importance of disciplinary approach. Wineburg and Wilson (1991) stress that helping realize the goals for teaching history requires social studies teachers to understand the nature of the discipline. Similarly, Seixas (2001) notes that models in the discipline of history need to be identified and used in the teaching and learning of history in schools to be able to explore students' thoughts about history. These cogent arguments suggest that social studies educators bring disciplinary approach to bear on the teaching and learning of history.

There is empirical evidence to demonstrate the value of disciplinary approach in fostering historical literacy on students' part too. Ironically, it comes from Evans's own study. What Evans (1990) vaguely defines and describes as the scientific historian is the reflection of the disciplinary practice of history. In reference to the teacher described as a scientific historian, Evans says, his students "had the clearest notions about history" (p.105), positive perceptions of history course they took, and reported becoming more critical, more analytical by asking questions about their world (p.112). Students of the scientific historian embodied the clearest notions about history. They also reported the empowering impact of the history course on their thinking about history and on their beliefs about society. To characterize the overall course, Evans says, "The course seems a liberating experience (p.113)…. It would be wonderful if more teachers could emulate such teaching" (p.125).

So, why not experiment disciplinary approach to history teaching? The assertion that teaching history in a disciplinary way in schools is useless is based on a rhetorical argument in that we do not yet have any research evidence that shows it is the case. To support that claim, the critics should teach history to students of different socio-economic backgrounds and ability levels in a variety of settings and get research findings on its status. For this reason, those social studies educators who are opponents of the idea of teaching history through disciplinary approach engage in a straw-man argument as Evans did. Some social studies educators may raise objections to this observation. They are welcome. But, I suggest that rather than rhetorical arguments, they should come up with research studies to refute it. Whether historiography and historical theories have educational values to offer school history teachers can be empirically validated or refuted by conducting quantitative, qualitative, and mixed studies.


Since history is the backbone of secondary social studies curriculum, teachers' pedagogical content knowledge should include an understanding of how different schools of thought construct historical explanations. If social studies teachers understand and appreciate the nature of history and multiplicity of historical explanations, they can help students not only avoid accepting any claim at face value but also come up with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the past. To improve the teaching and learning of history in secondary schools, a course on historiography needs to be incorporated to social studies education departments so that pre-service social studies teachers can have an opportunity to read, discuss, reflect on, modify, and change their understanding of history on the basis of the different approaches to interpreting the past. As Lee (1983) argued, educators need to draw on historical frameworks so as to develop a rational way of teaching history and to address the fundamental issues in history education. Models in the discipline of history should be identified and used to be able to do rigorous research studies aimed at exploring students' thoughts about history (Seixas, 2001, p. 546). For these reasons, teachers should command of various methodologies of history and their impacts on history education (Appleby, Hunt, & Jacob, 1994). These suggestions can be put into practice best via a historiography course that should be introduced to social studies education departments. To that end, every state needs to require prospective teachers to take a historiography course as one of the prerequisites for certifying teachers to teach history.

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