The Ol’ History Curriculum Merry-go-Round Comes ‘Round Again (History Lesson Plans, 12)

[NOTE:  In a two-part series in The American Historian, David Arnold reviews a recent movement aimed at reforming  the way history is taught in colleges and universities.  An eighteen-year veteran of teaching history in a community college, Professor Arnold’s average teaching load is ten classes of forty-five or so students a year.  This alone, Arnold wryly notes, means that he has probably taught more history survey courses—and history survey students—“than most university professors will teach in two lifetimes.” (I, 11)

The reform agenda Arnold reports on is (rather clumsily) labeled “the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” (or SoTL); its purveyors consider the traditional lecture method ineffective.  Instead, they  proclaim an “inquiry-based” approach far superior, because it encourages students to “do, think, and value what practitioners in the field are doing, thinking, and valuing.” (I, 10)  Put bluntly, SoTL reformers “seek to destroy the authoritative ‘sage on the stage’ professor, who sees history teaching as simply transmitting content from his mouth to students’ brains, and nurture the ‘guide on the side’ who focuses on student learning rather than the expertise of the professor.” (I, 10)]

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Arnold admits at the outset that the requirements of the SoTL approach proved impracticable when he and several other History faculty evaluated them for possible use at his junior college, because “large classrooms filled with non-history majors, large teaching loads, and little institutional support restrict our teaching choices.”  Moreover, professors at four-year colleges and universities haven’t exactly been flocking to the SoTL movement, largely because of the “significant logistical challenges” involved in re-organizing introductory survey courses on the SoTL model. (I, 11)

Professor Arnold opines that perhaps SoTL might work on the K-12 level and in large, wealthy universities, but not in junior colleges or lower-tier four-year institutions. SoTL’s proponents, he avers, are “ensconced at universities where they teach less and receive more funding, as well as graduate research assistants to carry out their scholarship on teaching and learning.” (I,12)

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Professor Arnold is aware that this is not a new battle being fought for the soul of “history education.”  In different guises, historians and history teachers have been wrestling for generations with the distinction presented by SoTL’s backers between what are now called the “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side.”  The “sage” represents the stereotypical history prof, handing down the wisdom of the ancients (himself  included) in lectures, as his adoring students stare raptly, all the time taking detailed notes.  The “guide” is more up-to-date, using gentle nudges to draw eager students in the direction of “doing history,” employing primary sources, critical thinking, essential questions, and the innate interest in history all his students surely harbor (don’t they?).

Overdrawn?  Sure, yet, as Arnold concedes, “No amount of research will convince true believers on either side.” (II, 31)  Nevertheless, he argues that SoTL is at least worth a shot, for three reasons:  unlike the lecture approach, SoTL “privileges the historical method above all other things”; links its practitioners “to a larger community of scholar-teachers who are grappling with similar problems and concerns”; and might convince history teachers to see their classrooms “as places of scholarly investigation and problem-solving rather than drudgery.” (II, 33)

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History Curriculum Merry-Go-Round

When I was in college in the early 1960s, a history major at a state university, our faculty evinced little concern about “teaching style,” because, at that time and place, the lecture method ruled the roost, except during the dreaded early Saturday morning “quiz section,” when one of our professor’s harried teaching assistants tried to convince us that “discussions” were fun.  Uh-huh. . . .

A few years later, when I was in grad school at a southern university, ideas about how to pass on historical “knowledge” hadn’t changed much.  Although classes, now called “seminars,” were smaller and courses more specialized, our professors still relied on lectures to convey information, at least for the first couple of years.  Thereafter, we were launched into dissertation research mode, while also teaching a class of our own each semester, usually employing lectures, the teaching, um, strategy emphasized in a required first-year course, “Introduction to College Teaching.”

When I began teaching at an Atlanta prep school in the fall of 1973, my department head explained that the school’s history faculty was committed to the “lecture-discussion method.”  As I understood it, this meant that, while lectures should continue to be used to convey “knowledge” (i.e., names, dates, and other significant facts), teachers should feel free to employ class discussions, primary sources, videos, etc., at least for part of each period.

So, I began my prep school teaching career by lecturing to my AP and “regular” American History students (using lectures I had written while a teaching assistant in grad school) but relying more on alternative approaches in Ancient and Medieval History and in  European history.

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Professor Arnold is absolutely right on a key point in this curricular kerfuffle:  the distinction between “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side” is both artificial and misleading.  Over my long career teaching history on the secondary level, I participated in this debate several times, every dozen years or so; and I concluded—surprise!—that a teacher needs to include both approaches in his or her academic arsenal.

For example, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere, I created a course, “Introduction to History,” a one-semester elective for high school freshmen and sophomores.  I felt that I was “introducing” the discipline of history to young students who were, while not blank slates or empty vessels, still products of earlier classes that tended to be more content driven and heavier on memorization, without much time spent on appreciation of context and complexity, let alone the importance of critical thinking. (Folks without the latter experiences, by the way, while chatting later in life at social gatherings with a grizzled history teacher in attendance, are apt to observe, “I didn’t really enjoy my history courses—too many names and dates!”)

But, this did not mean that I spent each semester in my Intro sections solely as the “guide on the side.”  There was always room for “sage” action, especially mini-lectures to provide my charges with necessary information not covered very well in the text.  No question, though, Intro frequently used primary sources in translation, from various early civilizations east and west, and tried to foster critical thinking during discussions of the textbook, primary sources, and videos.

The department’s first required course, History of the Ancient World, a one-semester offering for sophomores, treated Roman history, the beginnings of Christianity, the so-called “Middle Ages” in Europe, and Asian civilizations.  Once more, the emphasis was on trying to keep a balance between the teacher’s “sage” and “guide” proclivities, though, in my classes at least, the “guide on the side” predominated.

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In upper level history courses, required or elective, older students were expected to build upon the foundations laid in earlier classes.  A key element in these offerings was the distinction between “regular” and Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

AP classes are supposed to be taught “on the college level,” yet the most significant grade, the score on the standardized, end-of-year, comprehensive, content-driven exam, does not affect the student’s final average in the course. While AP offerings do not require an AP teacher to be a “sage on the stage” every day, the emphasis remained on presenting content through lectures.  AP history exams also include a documents-based essay question (DBQ) that assesses a student’s facility with inquiry-based assignments grounded in primary sources.  An obvious way to prepare students for this part of the exam is to have students tackle old DBQs at appropriate chronological points.

Even if a school encouraged stronger students in “regular” European or American history classes to take the AP exam (as mine did), teaching regular classes still provided room to experiment with more “guide on the side” activities, including a few DBQs, while also employing lectures, discussions, projects, and videos.

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 It is also true, as Professor Arnold states, that, like other aspects of life in the classroom, curricular “guidelines” and “reform” efforts for secondary schools history programs are frequently created, not by historians, but by “education” professors, who might not have been in an actual history classroom for quite some time.   Yet, once their ideas take off, these pearls of  “scholarship” tend to be handed down as received wisdom, at least for a season.  This leads to a final point. . . .

Education “reform” efforts are both cyclical and faddish.  They come along as the “next new thing,” flourish for a season, and are eventually superceded by a new “reform” effort.  Oh, and then these discarded movements manage to return—again and again—pushed by younger professors and usually with different labels attached to them. For example, “inquiry” based instruction, like SoTL?  Been there, done that, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. . . .  “Interdisciplinary instruction”?  Don’t get me started. . . .  Lecturing?  You betcha!  Few of its proponents call lecturing a “reform,” at least not with a straight face, but they do love, every decade or so, to remind us how crucial the lecturer’s proficiency as a “story teller” is to passing on the wisdom of the ages to students, around that ol’ classroom campfire, whether students enjoy lectures and whether the lecturer bothers to try to keep students interested in the material.

In other words, if your favorite instructional technique falls from favor, do not despair; it will return after a few more turns of the history curriculum merry-go-round.


David Arnold, “Kill the Professor and Save the Teacher:  History Professors and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Part I,” The American Historian, Number 10 (November 2016), 10-15.

___________, “Kill the Professor and Save the Teacher:  History Professors and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Part II,” The American Historian, Number 11 (February 2017), 28-34.

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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)


About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in "Education Courses", American History, Education, Elective History Course for 9th and 10th Graders, Historical Reflection, History, History Curriculum, History graduate school, History Teaching, Interdisciplinary Work, memoir, Prep School, prep school teaching with a PhD, Retirement, Teaching, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Ol’ History Curriculum Merry-go-Round Comes ‘Round Again (History Lesson Plans, 12)

  1. Glen Browder says:

    Interesting to learn of your experience as a long-time and functioning educator. I suppose most of us do a decent job of teaching by making adjustments–this reform or that reform–in what we think works for us and our students, I’m glad that I never had to perform in a highly-structured environment of “reform” as dictated by authoritarian academic administrations.

  2. You nailed it, Glen: It’s the ability to adjust–to use what fits your situation and ignore the rest–in the face of pressure (from those above you in the academic food chain) for sweeping change– Oops! there goes the baby with the bath water!–that enables teachers to survive the never-ending, and utopian, quest for the perfect curricular reform. Thanks, as always, for your comment.

  3. admiral17(RB) says:

    As usual you see the fertilizer at the roots of the forest AND the trees. I am “authentically” tired of the cycles of “educational reform” wherein no one seems to remember that unless you can solve the riddle of THIS year’s group of students whatever technique you use is throwing seeds on cement. If you can light them up in their seats your methodology is almost irrelevant. After all, the critics said Gauguin and van Gough were hacks.

  4. You know, Rick, the more I think of it, the more I believe that it’s probably a mistake, if you are a serious classroom teacher, to stay in the profession more than, say, a decade or so. Remain in the classroom any longer, while keeping your mind about you, and you begin looking at your world with a sense of deja vu: “Gosh, this latest attempt to reform the teaching of History, looks very much like the one that fell on its face back when I was a beginning teacher.”
    And, as usual, you hit the proverbial nail on its head with, “If you can light them up in their seats your methodology is almost irrelevant.” Let me suggest that the problem with many curriculum “reformers” is that they’ve been out of the classroom for so long that they’ve forgotten that a teacher needs to “light up” his/her students at regular intervals, and that a variety of methods (not one carved in stone) will be needed. Good thing I’m “retired but not shy,” isn’t it. . . .

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