By the time I signed on to teach History at a prep school, I had spent five years learning to be a college professor; in my new job, I was expected to be a teacher. I was informed by my department head that we in the History Department were supposed to rely on the “lecture-discussion method” of imparting knowledge of our subject to our students. While I nodded dumbly when the term was mentioned, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at the time.
In my high school History classes, “discussion,” to the extent we had any, seemed to entail a top-down, formulaic excursion into the questions at the end of the chapter assigned for the day. Then, in college, introductory History courses involved the dreaded “quiz section”: we listened to lectures from our professor for several classes each week, then, broken into smaller groups, gathered in a “discussion”—or “quiz”—section, led by one of the professor’s graduate assistants, for the final class of the week. Usually, these sessions were scheduled at an ungodly hour like 8:00 am, Saturday, so you can imagine how much we anticipated each meeting. In other words, through the end of my undergraduate education, the notion of “discussion” was anathema to me.
Based on my experience in graduate school, I saw “lecture” and “discussion” as very different approaches to History. Most of my grad school professors lectured, with discussion kept to a minimum. In one of my favorite courses, The Civil War, which was open to both undergraduate and graduate students, the professor sat the grad students up front and picked on us regularly, testing our grasp of Civil War “trivia.” (Want to know who President Lincoln’s balloonist was? Just ask me, because I still remember!) In courses required strictly of grad students, AKA “seminars,” on the other hand, such “discussion” as occurred usually featured attention-hungry grad students, each eager to show off for the professor, playing “can you top this?” by boning up on “conflicting interpretations” before each class, always keeping in mind which of said interpretations the professor seemed to favor. (Do I sound cynical? I’m sorry. . .)
As a graduate teaching assistant in the American History survey course, I taught classes of my own. To prepare for that experience, I naturally drew on my college and grad school background. The result, not surprisingly, was that I created lectures that formed my own personal American History textbook, and then I proceeded to deliver those lectures to my students. The bell rang to start the class; I lectured for the next hour or so; the closing bell sounded, and I stopped talking. “Discussion”? Not really.
* * * * *
So, back to my perplexity when told by my new department head that I should use the “lecture/discussion method” in my History classes: What exactly did that mean, in the context of a high-powered independent (or “prep”) school? That question turned out to be a key one as I adjusted to the demands of my new job, and I spent several years trying to answer it. By the time I did so, I had, probably without realizing it, made the transition from being a “professor” to being a “teacher.”
In American History, this conundrum was not really a problem, at least at first, because I used my graduate school lectures in both my “Regular” and “Advanced Placement” American History courses. It was familiar, comfortable even, for me, though from the beginning I detected resistance from at least some of my students (e.g., those who were awake). Oh, each day I did put on the board a list of important names, dates, and events, telling my students that they would be held responsible for knowing the significance of those items on tests, and that, if they didn’t recognize one or more of the terms on the board, even after my no doubt illuminating lecture, they should ask me about them. And, God help me, it actually worked, for a while.
Then came the day when things began to turn around. My AP seniors staggered into class in a zombie-like state, took their seats, and did their best to seem excited about the day’s lecture—or so I thought. However, I hadn’t more than begun my presentation when one brave lad raised his hand to ask me if I “really” intended to lecture. Why is whether I plan to lecture even an issue, I asked. Well, he explained, most members of the class had just come from a heavy-duty Calculus lecture laid on them by a very demanding math teacher, and they were in no shape to follow where I hoped to lead them with my lecture.
In other words, I was getting resistance from my oldest students, the ones who were best equipped to benefit from my lectures—because they were closest to being in college—or at least so I believed. As a result, I began to re-think my approach to the American History course. OK, so I was relying almost exclusively on lectures, with very little discussion. What could I do to remedy the situation?
* * * * *
As far as the other courses assigned to me were concerned, a full run of lectures was out of the question—there wasn’t enough time in the day for me to create comprehensive lectures for Modern European and for Ancient and Medieval History. I had only written one—count it, one!—lecture for Modern European History, on Napoleon, if memory serves. That was my “Introduction to College Teaching” debut in grad school, a sort of “guest lecture” on which I was graded, but I spent the next two years teaching only American History (and writing all those American History lectures!).
Yet, I still ended up with Modern European classes, both AP and “regular,” in my new school. As I slogged through them, I was forced to rely more on discussion, because, in the absence of a full sheaf of lectures, what else could I do? And, as time went on, I did write a number of lectures for my MEH classes, but, because this had not been my major “area of concentration” in graduate school (though it was a “minor” concentration), I tried not to hand them down as “received wisdom,” even leaving room for questions—imagine that!
The real challenge as a new teacher came in my dealings with younger students. For the first few years I was on the faculty, the initial high school History course was Ancient and Medieval History, a one-semester course required for sophomores. Eventually, though, in response to a request from the school’s “Director of Studies,” I created an elective one-semester course open to freshmen and sophomores, called “Introduction to History.” This offering rapidly became my “baby”; in fact, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that I was perhaps the only member of my department who enjoyed teaching it! The course opened with a unit on “doing History,” including a lot of “historian’s vocabulary,” then moved into pre-history and archaeology, followed by a study of the early civilizations in the Near East and Greece, and culminating in a study of the Persian War, using Herodotus, The Histories, as a primary text. The scope of this elective course, which attracted perhaps half of each year’s freshmen class, effectively reduced coverage in the department’s first required course, History of the Ancient World, for sophomores, to Rome and the Middle Ages.
And yet—let’s get serious for a moment, shall we? I had a PhD., and few “Education” courses, but I understood instinctively that high school students were not nearly as adept as college students when it came to grasping the essentials of History courses. In fact, first-semester freshmen, who were only about three months removed from middle school, were practically worthless when it came to grasping “college-level” concepts, let alone actually discussing them, especially the boys, many of whom seemed to be stuck in eighth grade. Some of the girls, on the other hand, arrived in ninth grade seemingly on the brink of college! Hmmmmmm. . . . . By the second semester (and remember that Introduction to History was a one-semester course) some of the boys had begun to pull themselves together and could actually participate constructively in class discussions; some of the freshmen girls by that point, however, had begun dating older boys and so were often less interested in academics than they had been in the first semester (now, there’s a surprise!).
In short, the problem was that my department’s notion of “lecture-discussion” classes ran up against the reality of adolescent intellectual development, such as it was. I saw this quite early in my career, but it took me a while to come up with possible solutions to this particular problem. And, of course, my notion of a solution might—or might not—be realistic. Obviously, I was in search of a mixture of lecture and discussion that would vary for freshmen and sophomores, juniors, and seniors. As I struggled with this conundrum, however, I came to realize something else: regardless of what combination of lecture and discussion I devised for each of my courses, none of them would mean a hill of beans unless they also involved reflection. As I told my students each year, I firmly believed that History was a discipline for “thinking people,” so, unless my attempts to use lecture and discussion offered opportunities for reflection as well, they wouldn’t amount to much. Put another way, merely “answering the questions at the end of the chapter” or working through a list of “important” items on the board probably were not encouraging my students to think!
* * * * * *
For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: