“What do you teach?” For teachers, it’s a frequently asked question, and on its surface, it seems so simple. Indeed, I tend to respond to it with a single word—“history”—as if that about sums it up. However, the more I reflect on the question itself, the less satisfied I am with my standard response.

That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy teaching history. On the contrary, I try to share my passion for the past with my students by de-emphasizing simple memorization in favor of historical inquiry. To borrow a phrase from Parker J. Palmer, I prefer to “teach from the microcosm” and expose my students to a variety of perspectives on a smaller number of issues or events.[1] Of course, this means that I tend to “cover” less content, but I would argue that I “uncover” a great deal more in the process.[2] I recognize that every approach has its own limitations, but ultimately, I think it is more important that my students be able to think historically than to recall historical trivia.[3]

My passion for history aside, though, when I reflect on “what I teach,” it occurs to me that disciplinary knowledge is really only the tip of the iceberg. My frustration with my typical response comes from my growing recognition that no traditional discipline—even one with the breadth and depth of history—can possibly convey everything that I hope to accomplish with my students. Apart from any content-specific or skill-specific goals, my personal goals as an educator are as follows:

1)      To stimulate in my students a genuine interest in ideas.

I believe that if we want students to develop a genuine curiosity for the world of ideas, we must give them the freedom to inquire. We must encourage them to take risks and “try new ideas on for size.” Of course, grappling with new ideas can be an uncomfortable experience, but as I tell my students, “If you’re completely comfortable in what you’re doing, you’re probably not learning anything.” My students spend considerable time developing open-ended questions about both primary and secondary sources, and I emphasize that questions are more valuable than answers. The ability to ask a good question will ultimately serve students much better than the ability to recall any name or date, because unlike “answers” (which are often implicitly dictated by others), questions allow for independence of thought and open new doors of intellectual discovery.

2)     To prepare my students for participation in a complex democratic society.

I believe that if we want students to contribute something of value to society, we must teach them how to think critically, communicate clearly, and collaborate productively. We must also show them that disagreement and conflict can be good and healthy things if properly harnessed. In addition to developing thoughtful and critical questions, my students express their ideas in a variety of contexts. Like many teachers, I stress the importance of persuasive writing, but I also make extensive use of the Harkness method because I believe it best mimics democracy in the classroom.[4] In a Harkness discussion, students are united in a collaborative exploration of some or text, but the format also demands that they challenge each other’s ideas and ask for supporting evidence. In some ways, this parallels the dynamics inherent in team sports. Discussions can become competitive at times, but too much competition may threaten the group dynamic. Similarly, strong students sometimes resist the collective nature of the enterprise, and so my challenge is to act as the coach, maintaining the delicate balance between individuals and “team” so that all can accomplish their goals.

3)     To assist my students in the development of healthy habits of mind.

Lastly, I believe if we want students to grow into successful adults (regardless of one’s definition of success), we must help them develop a healthy approach to failure and self-improvement. We must prepare them for the many challenges that they will inevitably encounter after leaving our classrooms. Mindful of this, I strive to create an intellectually rigorous learning environment, but also one that allows students to see failure as an opportunity for increased self-awareness and improvement. I ask my students to reflect critically on their own learning, and I provide opportunities for them to improve upon past performance so that failure becomes a stepping stone on the path to success rather than a boulder that blocks the way.[5]

[1] Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, Tenth Anniversary Edition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 123-126.

[2] Two sources that have been influential in my thinking about “uncoverage” are Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design, Expanded 2nd Edition (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005), 228-239; and Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal of American History 92 (March 2006): 1358-1370. A companion website for Calder’s article is available at http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org/textbooks/2006/calder/.

[3] The concept of historical thinking is explained most clearly in a publication of the American Historical Association. See Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” Perspectives (January 2007), available online at http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2007/0701/0701tea2.cfm.

[4] The Harkness method is a student-centered, discussion-based pedagogical approach pioneered at Phillips Exeter Academy and named for the philanthropist Edward Stephen Harkness whose gift prompted its development. For an introduction, see Exeter’s website: http://www.exeter.edu/admissions/109_1220.aspx.

[5] On the importance of failure in education, see Paul Tough’s excellent article, “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” New York Times, September 14, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/what-if-the-secret-to-success-is-failure.html (accessed November 17, 2011).


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