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Rounding Up Unusual Suspects: Facing the Authority Hidden in the History Classroom

by Robert B. Bain - 2006

Educational reform literature is filled with criticism of the omniscient tone that teachers and textbooks assume in history classrooms. Such widely acknowledged criticism often accompanies calls for more ambitious pedagogy. The focus on teachers and texts essentially ignores the ritualized and traditional deference that students afford to the authority of texts and teachers. Disturbing these rituals is essential for reform pedagogy to take root. However, we lack examples of successful classroom alternatives, namely descriptions of challenging history instruction that treats textbooks and teachers from within the discipline. This article provides such an example by considering activities that encourage students to question the omniscient tones of history text and teacher. Using my high school history classroom as a case study, I consider two questions: What might encourage students to raise disciplined suspicions of the typical sources of scholastic authority? Further, what might we learn about history instruction by trying to situate textbooks and teachers within the realm of historical inquiry—that is, making them the objects of students' historical study? The article suggests ways to narrow the gap between reform rhetoric and pedagogical predicament when confronting the classroom authority of text and teacher.

Historians have long defined history as investigation, casting themselves in the role of detectives seeking plausible explanations for historical events, trends, and controversies.1 Conducting historical inquiries demands knowledge, skill and “a modicum of irreverence toward the received wisdom” because “if you are willing to accept unquestioningly what ‘everyone’ says, then the story is over before the investigation begins.”2 Unfortunately, for most students study­ing history in our schools, the story is over before the investigation begins. Rarely do we find history classrooms defined by the detective’s love of a good mystery or passion to tease out the story, context, or causation from available evidence. Rarer still is the “modicum of irreverence toward received wisdom” as school history appears to be shaped by the assumption that “students learn best and most usefully . . . [when] being asked to master the conclusions of scholars about questions the students only dimly comprehend.”3 In reversing the historian’s logic of questions and answers, texts and teachers first defin­itively and confidently provide answers and then pose the questions. Suspicions are rarely raised, except the suspicion that the students have not yet mastered the facts found in the texts and classroom’s materials.

Such rhetoric of certitude permeates the history classroom, undermining a stance toward instruction grounded in the discipline of history itself. This is seen most clearly in the ways that textbooks and teachers often present history’s stories as finished and closed to student investigation. Using his­tory textbooks effectively is a complicated and paradoxical instructional process, often ignored in professional development and teacher education. Educational reformers typically vilify textbooks and their role in classrooms. Indeed, denouncing history textbooks has been one of the central features of almost every reform movement in history instruction for over 150 years.4 Yet, despite such bad press, the textbook continues to form the bedrock of history teaching, the foundation upon which most teachers build their cur­riculum. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that over 84% of 12th-grade U.S. history students claim to read a textbook at least once a week, and 44% say they read from the textbook “about every day.”5 The textbook market (and size of the books) grows steadily, but so do the attacks on the veiled (or not so veiled) ideological stances in these books and their banal rhetoric, incoherence, and failure to help students learn the content. Commentators across a wide political spectrum strongly criticize the market forces that shape both textbooks’ form and content.6 Though teachers regularly use textbooks and often report that texts are necessary instructional tools, it is a rare teacher who proudly asserts this fact or an educational reform movement that places textbooks within its vision for change. Students, at best, share these contradictory attitudes toward texts. They regularly express disdain for using (and carrying) these tomes while simultaneously holding the books as among the most reliable and trust­worthy sources of knowledge.7 Apparently, critics find it easier to denounce texts than teachers do in replacing them. It is an odd paradox that finds teachers and educational reformers viewing textbooks with such misgivings while district adoptions and classroom assignments continue unabated, and students regularly consider the books above suspicion.

This gap between the rhetoric of instructional reform and actual teaching practice has ill served history teachers, and consequently, history students. The heavy reliance on textbooks remains a widely known pedagogical “secret” that reform movements typically ignore or disown. In linking textbooks to teacher-centered instruction and then pejoratively connect­ing both to “teaching as transmission,” educational reformers often deny the persistent reality that teachers face. Giving scant attention to text­books’ ubiquitous presence or their pedagogical possibilities narrows our instructional horizons, cutting off lines of inquiry that might help students learn historical content and develop critical sensibilities. This article steps into the gap between reform rhetoric and teaching reality by accepting as com­monplace the presence of textbooks in history classrooms, and then consid­ering activities that encourage students to question the omniscient tone of history texts and teachers. Building on scholarship critical of textbooks and informed by sociocultural theory,8 this article takes an epistemically ground­ed look at textbook use in my high school history classroom. As a veteran high school history teacher with over 25 years of experience, I ask two questions that reside at the intersection of theory and practice: What might encourage students to raise disciplined suspicions of the typical sources of scholastic authority? What can we learn about history instruction by situating textbooks and teachers within the realm of historical inquiry, making them the objects of students’ historical investigations? The article captures one effort deliberatively to develop a classroom environment that supports stu­dents’ inquiry into the authority hidden with textbooks and teachers. In constructing the following case study, I have drawn on multiple data sources, including students’ formal and informal writing, classroom artifacts, audio tapes, and my own observation notes to explore ways I sought to disturb students’ ritualized interactions with standard history textbooks.


In recalling his role in a conference to commemorate the suffering of Italian villagers during World War II, historian Eric Hobsbawm described the his­torian’s predicament in encountering authoritative accounts.9 On the piazza of a rebuilt village, Hobsbawm and other historians met with survivors of a series of massacres to hear the commemorative narratives they or the chil­dren of dead villagers created. Standing there listening to villagers, Hobs­bawm realized that the history he understood was at odds with the villagers’ story, “not merely incompatible with theirs, but in some ways destructive of it.” The differences rested in how historians and villagers came to their understandings of the events. Using the “accepted criteria of the disci­pline,” historians compared the village narrative with the sources and con­cluded that “by these standards it was not history.” Historians qua historians, Hobsbawm argued, cannot ignore their professional standards to say what they could prove to be untrue because the historian’s authority rests “in what s/he can or can not show using evidence.” The villagers, on the other hand, could not support, nor did they try to support, the narrative with historical evidence. In their minds, they had little reason to doubt their story, while the historians recognized the narratives—so recent and central to villagers’ identities—were “partly mythological.”10

The pedagogical version of this predicament is more complicated for history teachers trying to help others learn to use the standards and prac­tices of history to analyze and study authoritative accounts of the past. Such a history teacher works, in a sense, to help students become “Hobsbawm on the piazza,” to help students recognize for themselves where history ends and a simple acceptance of authority begins. This is no small task, and as others have written, not one that children master naturally on their own.11 The teacher’s work is complicated because as a school subject, history surrounds students with vast evidenceless expanses and authoritative-sounding sources. Each promotes, as Lowenthal has argued, a “credulous allegiance” to some version of the past. “Historical faith is instilled in school,” he claimed, where “textbook certitude makes it hard for teachers to deal with doubt and controversy” and often finds “history teachers adopt[ing] the omniscient tone of their texts.”12

Judging from the scholarship on textbooks, this problem begins with the construction of and rhetoric in the books themselves. Focusing an analytical lens on the publishers’ or authors’ workspace rather than the classroom, this scholarship identifies the role that textbooks play in ideological and culture wars13 ; as a commodity shaped by and responsive to market forc­es14 ; as a piece of the hidden curriculum15 ; and as a form of historical scholarship.16 Though not aimed specifically at classroom teachers, such analyses helped me as a practitioner consider the texts that I used within larger contexts, often pointing to important and nuanced messages con­veyed in or removed from textbooks. For example, Carlson argued that textbooks often depoliticize policy decisions, casting them as a rational ends-and-means relationship.17 Such knowledge—in this case, that private eco­nomic interest might not play a role in the way textbooks represent de­cisions—alerted me to areas that could warrant supplementary instruction. Studies of textbook censorship offers teachers crucial insight and credible explanation into how market forces and interest group politics conspire to produce banal and standardized features of most texts.18 The research on “textbook-speak,” with its “objective” voice, tone of certainty, and dry presentation of undocumented facts, points to ways that the language itself interferes with students’ capacity to learn from texts.19

However valuable this scholarship is in helping teachers situate text­books, it places pedagogical reform outside the classroom by locating the problems within market and publication processes, or in textbooks’ lin­guistic style. Short of writing our own books, or abandoning texts alto­gether, there is little in this scholarship that helps teachers understand ways that we might effectively use extant materials with students. With so much discussion on issues beyond the immediate control of teachers, it is not surprising that many commentators urge history teachers to abandon text­books for primary sources while simultaneously urging publishers to turn schoolbooks “into teachable texts that provide a teacher with resource base for classwork . . . concerned with historical thinking.”20 Recent empirical studies have demonstrated what such reformed texts might look like and the potential instructional value in creating more “considerate” text­books,21 books that reveal the author’s voice22 or make evident the histo­rian’s methods of inquiry.23

But what should a classroom teacher do while waiting for publishers to create reformed texts or for a change in the market? Some reformers, recognizing the need for action, have urged teachers to rewrite sections of their texts to promote the missing metadiscourse.24 More realistically, oth­ers have called for teachers to improve their and their students’ skills in reading and analyzing textbooks, improving their abilities to penetrate the ideological subtexts embedded in their history textbooks.25

As a high school history teacher, I employed this latter line of thinking, working hard to teach students to read texts more strategically, encourag­ing them to raise questions about what the author was doing and saying in a text as they read. In class, I used active reading approaches similar to Beck and McKeown’s “Questioning the Author” dialogues or those rec­ommended by other scholars.26 Using such cognitive strategies, I posed or helped the students pose questions toward specific passages and related textbook features, such as pictures or sidebars. However, I regularly en­countered serious complications in trying to help high school students learn to see the textbook as one of many historical sources and not the historical source. To paraphrase sociologist Erving Goffman, my high school students already had well-established interactions with textbooks, interaction rituals that framed ways that they “talked” to authors and texts.27 Typically, the students assumed conventional stances toward texts and had participation patterns that afforded the books an authority that my teaching methods barely dented. Students’ habitual conceptions of and practices with text­books held sway over my interventions and strategies aimed at raising their suspicions of the texts. The problem, I came to understand, was greater than sharpening their tools for critical reading, but rather involved a trans­formation in my students’ relationships to the books, to the historical con­tent in the books, and to the authors who wrote them. Given the weight of textbooks—literally and figuratively—in the lives of my students, such a transformation required me to do something different.


In hindsight, using expert reading strategies to help students sharpen their reading of textbooks and deepen their epistemic stances—though similar to and consistent with approaches we took toward reading primary sources28—was all the more difficult because books play a large role in con­temporary society and in schools. Books, Olson argued, have power in our culture because they serve as an authority on issues in dispute.29 Textbooks, anchored as they are within a hierarchal community of teachers and stu­dents, assume a special authority in part because both teachers and students treat them “as the authorized version of a society’s valid knowledge” and cast students’ obligation as “primarily to master this knowledge.”30 Such a stance and the practices it entails, Olson argued, are analogous to religious ritual.

Textbooks, like religious ritual, have both some validity and a tran­scendental source. Textbooks, like religious ritual, are devices for putting ideas and beliefs above criticism . . . stored in written form, it appears as lists and tables and in the detailed, explicit expository prose of essays, encyclopedias . . . knowledge so stored carries great author­ity because it appears to originate in a transcendental source, at least in a source other than the present speaker or a member of his or her peer group. Textbooks, thus, constitutes a distinctive linguistic register involving a particular form of language (archival written prose), a particular social situation (schools) and social relations (author-reader) and a particular form of linguistic interaction (reading and study).31

The form in which textbooks “store” knowledge, therefore, gives them an authoritative “edge” in the classroom, particularly when compared with the primary sources students use. However, like other ritualized encounters, authority is not located simply in an object—in this case, the textbook—no matter how explicit or “objective” it appears to be. Rather, authority exists within communities and the social situations from which objects draw their meaning. Teachers must enlarge their understanding of the textbook’s au­thority in the classroom by considering the “interactional practices of text which mediate its educational use,”32 particularly the ways in which stu­dents frame the knowledge and content that the textbooks archive and the ways that teachers approach the books and the knowledge within. However, complicating the role of the teacher in helping students reframe the text­book is the “acquiescent, non-authoritative status [students assume] in relation to both the text and the teacher.”33 Does the hidden authority of the teach­er—authority built into long-standing, normative classroom interactions— undermine the pedagogical strategies that teachers use to challenge the hidden authority of the textbook, authority also supported by long-standing and normative interactions?

Taken more broadly, the work in front of us involves more than mod­ifying a feature or two of a conventional and meaningful activity—reading a textbook or teacher for information—to create a similar-seeming activity with a quite different meaning: the reading of a textbook or teacher with a disciplined and critical eye. What is required is a process that transforms embedded interaction patterns in a way analogous to Goffman’s notion of musical transcription. Such “rekeying” involves a “systematic transforma­tion that . . . may alter only slightly the activity thus transformed, but it utterly changes what it is a participant would say was going on.”34 However similar the new activity might seem, Goffman argued that such transfor­mation requires us to “turn matters on their head” and disorganize the established routine.

To talk differently to the sources of classroom authority, students must not only appropriate the tools of the discipline but must also disturb their conventional interactions with classroom authority, assuming new status, role, and voice in relationship to texts and teachers. Transforming the par­ticipation framework of an activity requires us to find a way

[i]n which the activity can be, bit by bit, systematically altered. And to do this what is needed is an infrastructure of some kind, that is, a patterning of activity, a structural formula that is repeated throughout the course of the activity. Once this continuously repeated design is found, something about it can be changed or altered, which, when accomplished, will have a generative effect, systematically transform­ing all instances of the class, and, incidentally, systematically under­mining the prior meaning of the acts.35

Such transformation, Goffman argued, does not require extensive control or equipment, nor reside outside the domain of individuals. Rather, he asserted that the only necessary condition “is that others in the situation must continue interacting with [the individual] in some way.”36 But as the nature of the interaction and the participation frames must change sys­tematically, simply continuing interacting with individuals, while necessary, is not sufficient.37

If Goffman’s insight is accurate, how might teachers—themselves a source of classroom authority—help “rekey” students’ interactions and participation with textbooks and teachers to enhance students’ capacity to use disciplinary tools in reading the authority hidden in the classroom? It is this question to which the following case study turns.


To guide this case study, I used sociocultural theory, stressing the mean­ingful interactions of people within particular social contexts.38 I selected a qualitative case study approach to describe events bounded in both time and space and to uncover key characteristics of an activity in which I participated.39 This case study focused on a single instructional unit in three of my high school world history classrooms involving 76 students. My ul­timate goal was to generate grounded theory by describing features of the activity that supported students’ disciplinary and critical assessment of the history textbook and of me, their history teacher.40

The ninth-grade classrooms presented in this article were located in a suburban area of a large city in the Midwestern United States. The school was middle class, with a student population consisting of approximately 80% white students, 15% African American, and 4% Asian American students. The three world history classes in this study consisted of 76 ninth-grade students, with 12% of the students being African American. I taught all three classes. Each class was heterogeneously grouped in terms of academic back­ground and included a number of special education students. At the time of the study (1997), I was a history and social studies teacher with 25 years of teaching experience and a Ph.D. in history. For a number of years, I had been collecting data on my history teaching, trying to understand the char­acteristics of history instruction grounded in the epistemology of the dis­cipline. A central feature of my instruction was infusing the epistemology of the discipline throughout my pedagogy, using the discipline to shape course goals, assessments, and instructional practices. In short, the syntactical and substantive knowledge of the discipline combined with sociocultural theory to inform most of my curricular and pedagogical decisions, a stance toward instruction that I have previously called epstemically grounded pedagogy.41

The instructional activity in the center of this study is a three-week unit on the bubonic pandemic in 14th century Afro-Eurasia. This unit was the third major historical problem that students worked on, following an ex­tensive opening unit that problematized history as both a school subject and a way of knowing. In this opening unit, students pondered questions at the heart of the discipline (e.g., because history happened in the past and his­torians were not there to see it, how is it possible for someone living in the present to study and accurately report on the past?) and engaged in an intensive look at particular historical tools and heuristics for working with evidence and constructing historical accounts (e.g., significance, corroboration).42 The second unit centered on the problem of representing the world in the 14th century, structured around a “virtual” tour of the world in 1300 CE.

In the unit under study here, students worked with a document set of approximately 40 primary sources ranging from woodcuts to papal bulls to stained-glass windows to excerpts from official documents. Students also used data compiled by historians, including population estimates, mortality rates, and economic indicators such as fluctuations in prices and labor. The stu­dents had access to electronic versions of the sources and hard copies (I had created a Web site to support students when they used the material in the library or from home). Further, we had constructed electronic conferences that enabled students to engage in conversations across the three classes, an opportunity that electronic tools opened up.

I drew upon a range of data sources to craft this study, including course materials (e.g., syllabi, overhead transparencies, document sets, and assign­ments), student journals, my teaching journal, field notes and jottings, audiotapes of select classes, and e-mail messages. With the exception of the audiotapes, all the materials originated within the normal context of teach­ing and learning. That is, student journals, my teaching journal, and the notebook for classroom jottings were essential features of classroom in­struction and not added for research purposes. For example, I regularly kept a teaching journal and a notebook for classroom jottings. The students in my classes also maintained “idea journals” that we used for informal writing in and outside class. From this data, I pulled two sets of student papers (assignments related to plague), their informal journal entries, one audiotape, and my field and teaching notes to form the basis of this study. The field notes included open jottings made while teaching that I turned into teaching memos at the end of each day. To analyze this material, I used constant comparative method as a tool for inductive analysis.43 I initially used an open coding scheme to formulate “avenues of inquiry” and to “identify and develop concepts and analytical insights through close ex­amination of and reflection” on the data.44 Because the documents reflect­ed many authors, purposes, intended audiences, research, and instructional functions, my interpretation of these documents took into account their original purpose.45

Conscious of the difficulties in constructing a case study involving one’s own teaching, I worked to employ the qualitative practices as articulated in the literature.46 However, I should also stress that in reading the texts and materials, I employed another research tradition: that of a historian trained in working with documents and evidence to reconstruct past events. Be­cause I returned to this event and the documents emerging from it a number of years after the activity, I found myself approaching it as I had been trained to approach every historical event I studied—working to sit­uate documents in temporal context, attending to both text and subtext while corroborating among and between sources.47 Thus, I do as Mandelbaum suggested that all history must, and I provide a “descriptive nar­ration of a particular series of events which has taken place.”48 In this sense, I am not making causal claims, but rather analytically describing features of a set of shifting ideas, interactions, and engagements by my students and myself as we worked with and in historical content and materials, classroom structure, and context. Though using evidence to describe changes over time and, at times, using language that sounds “consequential,” I am not asserting that one pedagogical change caused all others. Rather, I seek to make visible the understandings that shape my practice as a history teacher, not just, as Taylor argued, to make “constitutive self-understandings ex­plicit, but [also to] extend, or criticize or even challenge them.”49

In this sense, I follow in the tradition of researchers such as Deborah Ball and Magdalene Lampert and describe features of the “problems in practice that teachers need to manage in order to teach productively,” without seeking to prove that this teaching practice works definitively.50 This nar­rative case study approach, grounded in history, allowed me to capture key features of the complexity of the practice of history teaching and, in par­ticular, practices related to helping students face authority hidden in the classroom.51 As McEwan has argued,

We can only understand the nature of a practice when we set the picture in motion and trace the history of its constitutive elements: the actions, thoughts, language, and intentions that contribute to it and give it character and direction. When we place these descriptions within a historical context and, so to speak, account for the way that the practices have evolved, then we have not merely described them but helped to explain them as well.52


As a high school history teacher for over a quarter of a century, I often felt like Hobsbawm-on-the-piazza facing classroom narratives that I knew would not stand against disciplinary scrutiny. Sometimes these stories were in texts or films, but often they came from my students, who entered the classroom certain of something they knew about the past. Jason, a 14-year-old student, introduced himself on the first day of class by explaining that he did not want to learn lies anymore but wanted the truth of how Eu­ropeans had forcefully introduced slavery into free Africa. Slavery, Jason explained, was purely a European invention and act. Only seconds before, Sara, another student, had been extolling the virtues of learning history by claiming that its stories prevented us from repeating the ignorant mistakes of prejudiced people in the past. “Prejudice, and prejudice alone caused slavery,” Sara asserted. “And the Holocaust too.”

As their history teacher, I was not concerned by the content of these stories because I knew that later evidence would complicate, expand, and reveal them to be, in part, mythological; rather, it was the students’ un­questioned certitude that struck me as most incompatible with the historical work we were about to undertake in that course. Sara and Jason spoke without doubts, with certainty, utterly confident about these self-evident truths. Neither displayed suspicions about their own understanding nor how they arrived at it. In fact, their stories were all the more potent for being unquestioned. History for Jason and Sara consisted of indisputable stories told about the past, packaged with clear lessons and unfettered by considerations of evidence. In this, the students shared the authoritative stance and tone often taken by teachers and texts.

However, the history course that Jason and Sara were beginning as­sumed a different epistemological stance toward history, historical inquiry, and historical sources.53 Though concerned with teaching students about important changes in the national and global stories, and committed to helping students comprehend key content, I also worked to develop their understanding of history as a “way of knowing,” to help students carefully consider the nature of historical arguments and claims. The value of the class, I thought, resided not just in history’s content, but also in the nature of the discipline itself. Indeed, I saw the conventional debate of “facts ver­sus thinking skills” as a false dichotomy; one needs content to employ thinking skills, and one could hardly learn facts without doing some think­ing. My course worked to merge historical processes—the syntax of the subject—with facts and concepts to create stances and procedures that served as “the touchstone whereby we [could] distinguish what we are en­titled to believe from what we are entitled to doubt.”54 I used what I was learning from scholarship in history,55 in disciplined specific cognition,56 and in cultural psychology57 to design learning environments that filled the classroom with history-specific scaffolds, discourse practices, and technol­ogy. These sociocultural tools helped students analyze primary sources, re­construct context, make historical arguments, conduct disciplined inquiry, and create understanding.58 For example, within the first week of class, the students developed “tools” for determining significance. These rubrics (e.g., “something impacting lots of people is significant” or “effects that last a long time are significant”) helped push students’ thinking beyond con­ventional adolescent ideas of historical significance as the residue of what an authority asserts or simply what fits personal interest.59 We used these ru­brics to create significance posters and bookmarks that students used when reading, writing, or building a case for why an event was or was not sig­nificant. Students initially relied on the posters and bookmarks when read­ing, writing or thinking about historical significance; eventually they employed these rules without using the external referents.60

The classroom environment and such epistemically grounded pedagog­ical practices encouraged students to study historical events by asking a historian’s questions (e.g., What makes this event significant? What evidence do we have for reaching those conclusions?) and using historian’s practices (e.g., reading primary sources and corroborating evidence). Students often created their own accounts from multiple sources, participated in conferences to consider classmates’ interpretations, or struggled with his­torical problems. Over the semester, I thought that my students were dem­onstrating a growing skill in making reasoned argument. In their written work, they were increasingly using historians’ heuristics (e.g. sourcing, corroboration, attribution, counterfactuals) made more accessible to them through a variety of classroom-based cognitive tools such as posters and discursive strategies.61 I thought that the students were increasingly show­ing changes in their understanding of history as way of knowing, that his­tory involves more than facts, that it demands choices and interpretations to reach tentative conclusions grounded in available evidence.62

However, two areas in the curriculum and pedagogy appeared immune to this epistemic stance: the textbooks and the teacher. Except for the times when I made these the formal topic of conversation by pointing an occa­sional finger at textual “bias” or at my own interpretations, there was little that my students did or that I asked them to do that demonstrated that they could use their historical imagination to think about—or more specifically, to challenge, critique, or reason about—the influence of textbooks and teachers. Rhetorically, we all recognized that these authoritative sources were open to criticism and students could try to ask critical questions (e.g., What is the bias in the text?), yet students rarely answered these in a sub­stantive manner, making the exercise hollow. When these breaks in “nor­mal” classroom procedure passed, students returned to treating the textbook and my classroom choices as above suspicion. Indeed, most of the time, these classroom authorities seemed invisible to students.

Why, I wondered, did the textbook seem to be out of bounds? I did not think it a case of students’ failing to understand that historians made in­terpretations or grounded their interpretations in evidence. Nor did I think that students lacked the capacity to use disciplinary tools to raise critical questions, use evidence, or make arguments. Rather, it seemed as if the students rarely turned these tools back on the texts or teacher. In designing history instruction, I had failed to consider the long-standing ritualized interactions that students had with these authorities and thus minimized the complications that students faced when trying to challenge (or to even see) the authoritative stance in texts and teachers.

By the time students reach high school, they have had continual and regularized interactions with dozens of textbooks that school officials have officially “adopted,” that teachers have demanded be treated with rever­ential respect (e.g., cover your books, don’t mark them up), and that au­thors have filled with facts presented in a confident, omniscient, and objective tone. History textbooks assume a tone of authority while being authorized by those in authority. They “resemble encyclopedias . . . thick, heavy, and crammed with information divided into subchapters and col­umns.”63 Students treat the history textbook as the last word in discussions, exclaiming definitively, “the book says. . .’ as if the words had no author.”64 Asking 14-year-old students to critically analyze textbooks, then, is certainly a daunting task.

Yet, typically, that was what I told students we would do, usually within the first day or two of class. I often explained to students how the textbook was but one source and that we would analyze it as we do all sources. On the day that students received their textbooks, they engaged in an activity that posed questions to the textbook and thus directed students’ attention to the text and its features, (e.g., Who is pictured in the book? Why use those pictures and not others?). Over the term, we would read the textbook aloud and pose questions to the text and the author to help students both un­derstand the content and see the author’s stance.

However, critical stances that they learned to employ when working with primary sources did not seem to transfer to textbooks. Students did not easily or effectively use classroom supports to read and criticize the texts. Students did not place textbooks within their understanding of disciplinary criteria, nor as an outgrowth of their developing historical understanding. This motivated me to reconsider the students’ relationship to the text, its author, rhetoric, content, and tone to construct instruction aimed at “re-keying” the familiar approach to using the textbook.

In short, students did not have a relationship with the textbook or the author(s) that enabled them effectively to criticize the textbook. There was a status difference—a footing, as Goffman called it—created in part by the knowledge differential that made it very difficult for students to take a substantive and critical eye to the textbook’s accounts.65 Students were not, and did not see themselves as, peers of the authors. This made peer-based disciplinary criticism very difficult, if not impossible. Beginning to recognize the disadvantage that students faced, I wondered how students might en­gage with textbooks if we could reverse the knowledge differential between the students and the authors of the textbook to give the students the dis­ciplinary advantage. Shifting the ways that we approached the textbook in class would enable me to examine the ways that students made sense of the textbook as a historical account. Would helping students acquire a deeper expertise in and knowledge about a particular historical event covered by text make it easier for the students to see that textbook account as a his­torical account? Might switching the expertise differential also enable stu­dents to “see” and analyze my role in shaping classroom content?


I used our study of the 14th-century pandemic of bubonic plague to help students use disciplinary criteria to scrutinize first the textbook and then the teacher. The unit on plague was the third major historical problem these that these ninth-grade students had studied, following an elaborate intro­duction into historical knowledge and a long, detailed “tour” of the 14th-century world.66 By this point in the course, the students were using the language of the discipline, such as “primary source” or “corroborating ev­idence,” though simple use of language hardly qualified for deep under­standing.

We began our study of plague with a historical problem or question about the impact of pandemics, and in particular, the bubonic plague of the 14th century. The students’ immediate goal was to create an account of the plague supported by evidence that addressed their problem or question. With assistance from their classmates and from me, students created good historical questions or problems that they then investigated using, for the most part, a teacher-selected set of documents. The overwhelming majority of the 40 documents consisted of primary sources taken from the European record, with an occasional piece from China or the Muslim world, and a handful of secondary snippets from historians such as William McNeil and Rondo Cameron. The primary sources included items such as the preface to the Decameron, papal decrees, city law codes, demographic data, wood­cuts, pictures of stained-glass windows, reports from university societies, and parish records. It is important to note that the document set did not include the textbook. Nor did I, as I often did, assign the textbook treat­ment of the plague as a supplementary reading. Although each student had a copy of the textbook, it is interesting to note that no students voluntarily read the textbook to help them grapple with their historical problem or question.

Students, however, did use other tools and resources in their work. They used the document set on the plague and occasionally a resource discovered by classmates. Students also used the classroom-based posters on reading primary sources or determining significance; wrote in informal journals; and met in small groups to discuss what they were learning, share resourc­es, or read drafts of classmates’ papers. I provided help by sitting in on group discussions; working with students individually; leading full-class discussions of certain documents or issues emerging in their work; and giving an occasional lecture to help set context, clarify confusion, or provide information absent from sources at hand. In constructing their historical arguments about plague, students read, weighed, and corroborated evi­dence; assessed how various sources supported, contested, or extended their understanding of the plague; and wrote a paper that used evidentiary support. As we might expect, the quality of students’ accounts of the plague and its impact varied in topic, depth of understanding, and skill in em­ploying disciplinary tools. Yet, in creating their accounts, each student de­veloped familiarity with the plague, with a range of historical sources about the plague, and with the challenges of using evidence to create an account before looking at the plague account offered by their textbook.

Consider, for example, the essay by Eric (a pseudonym), who investigat­ed the institutional response to the plague:

The government was greatly effected [sic] by the plague being con­cerned about public health. Many new laws were made and old ones were altered . . . As described in “The City of Pistoia Responds to the Plague with Laws” city councils made laws quarantining the people and put restrictions on the clothes that could be brought into the city. No one outside of the city could bring clothes in unless they were returning home from a trip. Even then one could only bring a sack no more than 30 pounds. It also says that the dead can’t be moved until placed in a casket. The dead person must then be immediately buried in that casket. No one was to go into the house of that person. All these laws are punishable by fines . . .

Though not always evident in these excerpts, the ways that the students used documents varied in sophistication and skill. In this case, Eric grouped sources about government for his own purposes and then looked for re­lationships and contradictions among and between sources, selecting one source to support his case about governments’ responses. He essentially trusted what he read and showed little evidence that he attended to who wrote the sources, or what such attribution meant for his problem This contrasts with the second student, Maya (a pseudonym), as I discuss below. Eric continued his discussion by looking at ways families and religious institutions responded:

Families also suffered from the plague. In some cases whole families died without heirs. Their houses were left abandoned. Other times houses were abandoned because people wanted to get away from the plague in the cities so they’d move to the country. Sometimes family members would abandon a dying relative because they feared if they stayed around them too long they too would die. . . . Language and art also dramatically changed. Skeletons and pictures of death dominated the artwork. Stained glass windows and motifs of death were ordered to be done by city councils and churches . . .

Religion in the 14th century was altered quite a bit . . . . since there were so many people dying and there was a shortage of the things needed such as priests, candles, and other equipment. Since there weren’t enough priests people were dying without receiving penance and they thought that they’d go to hell. To avoid this problem the church said that instead of confessing to a priest one could confess to anyone, even a woman. Another effect of there not being enough priests was that the standards for becoming a priest were lowered . . . .

Like most of the students working on this essay, Eric used global or uni­versal language to discuss governments, religion, or people worldwide, rather than situating his case within a particular region or culture. Here, though using information gleaned from European sources, Eric described a global reaction to plague by religious leaders, creating statements that do not easily fit the Islamic world or China. Eric’s account of religion is grounded in evidence about the Roman Catholic Church and not from religious institutions outside Europe. Eric’s essay reflects the way most of the students overgeneralized from European sources to explain “people’s” reactions to plague. In one sense, this was a by-product of my design be­cause I created the document set with a decidedly European flavor. Their inattention to my selection bias in providing them primary sources to study, however, illuminates a key point about the challenges of “doing” history in schools, and it forms the foundation for the activity that I describe in the next section. Regardless of that built-in bias, Eric was using evidence and drawing inferences from that evidence, a skill demonstrated even more clearly in his closing paragraph on the economy:

Finally, the economy was effected [sic] tremendously by the plague. The prices of everything went up. Items ranged from sugar to meat to wax to wool. Whatever it was the price for it went up. This was due to the labor shortage. Farmers, peasants, and carpenters were few so they could charge a lot for their produce. Doctors fees and under­takers fees skyrocketed. Since their jobs required contact with the dead or dying they were at high risk for getting infected. That allowed them to charge a lot for their services. Not everyone got rich though . . . .

Another student, Maya, displayed more sophisticated historical skills in taking up the problem of explaining how people in the 14th century un­derstood and made sense of the pandemic.

People in the 14” century were extremely frightened by what was happening. A third of the population was dying, and no one knew why. People came up with all sorts of explanations on the causes of Plague and cures for it . . .

One explanation was that this was a punishment from God. This belief is evident in many of the pictures and documents of the time. Giovanni Sercambi of Italy drew a picture of angels shooting poisonous arrows at people, with one angel pouring liquid on them . . . . Some Christians even claimed to see heavenly arrows strike the Mon­gols and cause Black Death during the siege of Kaffa in 1346. Boccaccio . . . writes that plague came “either because of the influence of the heavenly bodies or because of God’s punishment to mortals for wicked deeds.” Being that this was the popular opinion, and because the people were so religious . . . groups of Christians got together and became flagellants. Flagellants would march through cities and towns beating their bare backs and drawing blood, thinking that they were sacrificing themselves for the world’s sins like Jesus to soothe God’s anger.

Maya’s essay demonstrated that she attended to attribution and authorial purpose, connecting authors to the documents that they produced. For example, she identified authors as “educated” or “not” and “leaders” or “not” to tease out greater social variation in the response to plague than was immediately evident within a document’s text. She also qualified her state­ments (e.g., “Some Christians”), showing an emerging awareness of the limitations of the evidence.

Another explanation was that human villains deliberately caused plague. Physician Alfonse of Cordova even goes as far as to explain step by step how someone would go about infecting an entire city with plague. With this theory came the persecution of these “evil” people, particularly the Jews and some “bad” Christians. The popular view was that these people were injecting plague into wells and corrupting the water and air. A woodcut showing Jews being burned in a pit supports this, as well as document about the persecution of Jews in cities everywhere including Strasbourg and Basel.

The “learned” opinion was that Plague had to do with natural occur­rences on earth; that the conjunction of stars in a certain time caused the earth to exhale poisonous vapors. Most learned people didn’t be­lieve that Jews were causing it, or if they were, that was not the only cause. Pope Clement says that plague is everywhere, but the Jews aren’t, and also that Jews are dying of Plague too, so they can’t be causing it. Still, though, the common people’s fear is so extreme that they wouldn’t listen, even to the pope.

Maya used the evidence to corroborate and contextualize her account, standing outside the event. She worked to let the sources “talk” to each other. For example, her survey of evidence not only revealed differences but also real disagreements among people, (e.g., the Pope asserts one position on the role of Jews in the plague, yet Catholics in Strassbourg persecuted Jews nominally for their role in causing plague). The author also shows her stance toward the documents by use of quotation marks. These differentiate her position from that taken at the time of the event (e.g., “learned” or “evil” or “bad”). However, like Eric’s essay, Maya also moved from the European based evidence to global inference:

That bad air or odors in the air was causing it was another belief, shown in the mask that doctors wore, which had a beak on it filled with spices, and by the picture of people holding handkerchiefs in front of their faces around dead bodies.

Bloodletting was a popular treatment for plague because people thought that corrupt humors were causing it. Some prescriptions in­cluded not eating poultry, not taking naps, no excessive exercise, nothing to be cooked in rainwater, olive oil is deadly, bathing is dan­gerous, etc. A way to avoid plague, a man says, is to think only happy thoughts and not about death, and to go to beautiful places, eat de­licious things, listen to melodious, good music, etc. People in the 14th century, facing death everywhere and not knowing what was happen­ing, were frightened. Life became disorderly and unpredictable.

In constructing her account of plague, Maya, like Eric and the other stu­dents, worked with classmates, soliciting help in identifying and using rel­evant sources with a range and variety of documents and resources, and with me. Maya, like Eric and the other students, did not use the textbook at all in crafting her arguments or papers.

After developing an understanding of the plague, students then turned to the textbook in response to an assignment. I assigned the textbook’s treatment of the plague after they turned in their papers, asking students to read it and be prepared to discuss their reactions in class on the following day.67 In the subsequent discussion, students displayed almost no reaction to the textbook, giving only the most mild or vague comments, (i.e., “it is fine” or “I didn’t really learn anything new”). Nothing in the text had aroused curiosity or promoted interest. When I asked if in reading the text, they had applied to the textbook the “tools” they had used in working with historical sources (e.g., heuristics for determining significance or corrobo­rating sources), the students stared in disbelief. Left on their own, the students had found no intellectual problem in the text worthy of their consideration.

So, I created a problem for students to consider in the form of an as­signment that asked them to “write a letter to the authors of the text, assessing their [authors’] representation of the plague. Do you think it is an effective representation? Why? Why not?”

Because the textbook was not the first source that students used but the last, the activity placed students in a different relationship to the textbook and its authors. Indeed, now the authors of the textbook described events about which the students were quite knowledgeable in both substance and disciplinary process. Like the authors of the textbook, my students had evaluated evidence, made decisions about significance, determined facts to include and exclude, and gave relative weight to various points in their arguments about plague. Thus, when they turned to the text, they were no longer novices about plague, but had acquired some expertise and could assume peer status. That the students did not do so without the prompting from the assignment is, I think, significant. Their tepid initial approval of the text’s account of plague belies their own depth of understanding, as if they had bottled up what they understood in favor of the “normal” ac­ceptance of the information in the text. However, once we picked up the task of looking seriously at the text as a historical account, as I will show below, the students seemed to engage in a more substantive and critical stance toward the textbook.


Now, when prompted by the assignment to consider the textbook as an account rather than the account, the students applied tools that they had used in reading primary sources and in constructing their own historical accounts but that they had not used before in reading the textbook. Though there continued to be a range of sophistication and degree in which indi­vidual students analyzed the textbook, as a community of scholars, each class engaged in sophisticated discussions, identifying five historiographic shortcomings in the textbook: its reliance on insufficient, misleading or inaccurate facts; treatment of events in isolation; lack of supporting doc­umentation; absence of the human story; and prevalence of a Eurocentric bias. In their individual letters to the authors of the textbook, each student referenced at least two of these criticisms. In their collective analysis, they paralleled the scholarly critique that several world historians recently pro­vided of the current edition of the textbook.68

Students thought that the book needed more facts, a somewhat surpris­ing criticism for students to make of a textbook. As one student stated, “one weakness in the way the textbook addresses the Black Death is that it leaves out many details that contribute greatly to the story” (ES). Another wrote to the author, “You should have backed it up with some harder facts and written more about the plague in your text” (PG). Their demand for facts was not a call for memorization, but rather a request for details that would yield a more robust understanding of particular events. Consider this stu­dent’s call for demographic details:

Demography can be used to determine how the plague changed the social face of Europe. [For example] . . . the statistical [parish] data for Halsowen, a typical medieval manor compares the number of people in each age group who died to the number who had lived before 1349, showing important statistics . . . younger people survived the plague . . . In older age groups, the death rate increases . . . a higher percent of older people died than younger people. . . Therefore, the social structure was changed dramatically. . . It is not enough to simply state that the plague had an effect; it should be explained why, especially when the changes were as major as these. (BA)

Students also expressed concern that the facts the text included were mis­leading or inaccurate. The way that the textbook collapsed information into global generalizations was at odds with how the students understood the plague. For example, the book simply informed students that “[w]hen ships from Asia reached the Mediterranean the disease spread to Sicily, North Africa, and western Europe.”69 For students who had chronologically mapped reported outbreaks of plague and then compared the reports to known trade routes, such collapsing of detail was misleading and, as a few students argued, wrong. A number of students pointedly reminded the author that “plague could not have been carried over by Asian ships to the Mediterranean. Map wise, you’d have to sail around Africa back up to the Mediterranean, and by your own book, such a voyage wouldn’t have been made for another forty years!”(TC). Other students familiar with parish records and large-scale demographic figures questioned the textbook’s mortality estimates, arguing with the author that “unless you mean nearly 25 million [estimated dead] in Western Europe, your figure is a few 10 million too short” (MA).

The text, many students thought, treated the plague as a disconnected, isolated event, thus minimizing its historical significance:

[Y]ou considered the plague an isolated event and did not mention how it effected [sic] any other aspects of life . . . Children began to inherit land much sooner than planned due to unexpected death. Property dropped in worth due to the great deal of land and a few people . . . People suffered from a lack of labor workers to work the fields (CK).

Students who had tried to tease out the long-term significance of the pan­demic found the absence of such reasoned speculation in the textbook very disappointing.

The large consequences of the Black Death are hard to pinpoint. However, he [sic] book makes no reference to any long-term conse­quences that might have come about due to the plague . . . certain developments [might] have come about from an influence of the plague: the Protestant Reformation, urge to explore the high seas and further away from regions the Muslims controlled, and the increasing importance of major vernacular European languages—Spanish, Ital­ian, French, German, Dutch, and English. (DL)

One student cited historian Rondo Cameron and wondered why the text­book ignored postplague changes in attitudes toward public health or “major health innovations” such as 30-day quarantines and sick houses as “perhaps the forerunner to today’s hospice care.”

The absence of citations, documents or sources in the textbook also concerned students who had been developing habits of using evidence to support arguments. The “final troubling detail,” one student wrote, was “was that there were no primary documents as true evidence included in the plague description.” Another urged that the textbook “needed to add . . . many more references to outside sources.” Students were not asking for evidence as a move in an academic game, but rather for the explanation and authority that such evidence provided or because of the questions that the absence of evidence raised:

[S]ince it [textbook] does not give any specific cases where the Bubonic plague occurred,” as one student wrote, “we do not know much about how it affected separate towns and cities. Whereas if we know specifics of death rates and so on in one town, we can actually have some idea of what it must have been like [sic].”

One student explained that although “it is probably true that [as the text­book says] wars stopped and trade slowed,” she could not fully accept this claim because “I haven’t read a document that directly stated that.” Her skepticism was targeted and specific. She was not cynically rejecting the text but only raising doubts about what she or the text had not documented. Indeed, later in her letter to the author, this same student said she trusted another of the textbook’s claims because she had “corroborating evidence that people fled cities” (MS).

Students also criticized the textbook for ignoring the human story, be­cause “an effective representation of the Black Plague must begin with an understanding of the fear people expressed and lived with everyday” (MA), and “the poor explanation of the plague’s effect on the lives of people is the idea that disturbed me most about your interpretation” (ME). A few stu­dents raised critical questions of how the textbook represented human agency. For example, one student remarked that the text never explained “what people did to try and combat plague.” Omitting such a discussion, she concluded “can lead to the misconception that people did nothing to try and protect themselves. This is not true” (SW).

Finally, the students concluded that the text was Eurocentric because it only described the impact of plague in Europe. Students thought that such exclusive detail was incomplete in a world history book.

Even though Europe was hardest hit, there is no mention of other parts of the world. In Africa, there was a substantial amount of death . . . It shot up like wildfire in the world of the Muslims since their economy was dependent upon trading. Cities like Alexandria, Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad were . . . breeding grounds for plague. Due to the mas­sive amount of people visiting Mecca for el Haij, the plague spread easily. In China the plague started years before it reached Europe . . . infected farmers [resulting] massive food shortages . . . By leaving the rest of the world out, the student doesn’t get a clear picture. (DL)

This last point is key because their own study had been decidedly Euro­centric, a point that had not yet dawned on them. Like their initial tepid look at the textbook in this activity, students had simply accepted what I created in the classroom as above suspicion, unaware of the water in which they were swimming. Though they had the capacity, as their essays about the textbook demonstrated, the students had not turned their critical eyes toward the classroom as a historical account—a turn that I promoted in class and discuss in the next section.


Just as students initially accepted the textbook uncritically, so too did they trust my choices in providing the document set that formed the base for their study of plague. Although they criticized the textbook’s Eurocentrism, my students were not critical of the European bend to the primary sources I gave them to investigate. Because students used so many primary sources and were often constructing historical accounts, they saw themselves as doing the work of history. Therefore, although highly visible as their teach­er, I was invisible as a historian who had shaped their understanding and their study of the past. Yet, it was clear to me that by selecting documents and marking off the problem space, I was shaping their experiences, no less than any historian shapes an account in deciding what to include and how much attention to give to an event.

Could I help students cast a historiographic eye to the classroom, to consider our work in the history classroom as an account of the past and, in a sense, open my pedagogical moves to historical analysis?

I began by extending the issues of Eurocentrism and human agency that students raised in analyzing the textbook. Simply, I asked the students for supporting details for what they claimed was the European bias in text­book’s discussion of the plague. “What evidence can you provide about how people living in China or Northern Africa or the Muslim world responded to plague to support your claims the textbook got it wrong?”

Beyond demographic data and one or two sources from outside Europe, however, students had no corroborating documentation for the impact of the disease on China or Africa or the Muslim world. A few students began to recognize the scope of their generalizations and the narrowness of their documentation. To elaborate, I asked the students to work in small groups to locate the geographic origin of the sources and documents they used to study plague. The activity quickly revealed the European slant of the sources I gave them to “do” the history of the plague.

Dr. Bain limited our sources on the Bubonic Plague. He just gave us sources on Europe and no other places in the world. He made it seem like the only place really effected [sic] by plague was Europe even though the class knew that the world was effected [sic] by it. (EA)

This opened up space to talk with students about the problems facing history teachers in finding sources, including the limited time and knowledge that most teachers have. We also discussed why students did not consider my or other teachers’ influence in creating classroom accounts. Students wrote in journals about this experience, often calling their entry “Bain’s Bias.”

We can’t blame him for causing our biased opinions on the Bubonic Plague because Dr. Bain can only give us what is available to him . . . I was getting a biased opinion and didn’t know. The thing that I knew was what happened in Europe was not necessarily the same for China or Islam. I learned that next time I should ask questions on what’s going on. (AT)

Students also grew aware of their “a-critical” stance toward the classroom:

I think it’s kind of scary that a teacher or historian can control what someone’s knowledge on something is. Knowledge can control reason and reason can control action. So misknowledge [sic] can cause an unnecessary action. I didn’t really notice that all of the documents on the web were European . . . . (MB)


It is almost axiomatic that teachers mediate students’ experiences learning with and from text and that different types of mediation encourage differ­ent types of learning. For example, to foster comprehension of textbook material, teachers can effectively employ research-based metacognitive strategies, such as those discussed by Beck and McKeown (“Questioning the Author”) or Palinscar and Brown (“Reciprocal Teaching”).70 Further, by using discipline-specific scholarship—in this case, history—teachers can modify these more general cognitive strategies to parallel the “toolkit” that experts in disciplinary fields use to do their work.71 History teachers and students can construct learning environments that surround students with supports aligned to the intellectual demands of the enterprise in which they are engaged. The accounts, discussed above, that the students produced about the plague suggest that such disciplinary-specific mediation (e.g., posters, visual criteria, bookmarks, discourse strategies) helped students engage in the work of reading primary sources, corroborating evidence, determining significance, and locating perspective to develop historical ac­counts.

In a sense, the mediation occurred at two levels. The scholarship and research altered my instructional understanding, mediating my instruc­tional design of a “history-considerate” learning environment; that in turn helped support change in students’ understanding, mediating the students’ work with primary sources and creating historical accounts. By intention and design, I sought to alter the frame in which students placed primary sources and historical accounts. However valuable these mediating tools were for working with historical evidence, limitations appeared when stu­dents crossed over from using historical documents or objects to the more familiar, contemporary sources, the textbook and teacher. It was almost as if the students in my class had two categories of materials, those inside and those outside the classroom activity of “doing” history. The tools and ex­periences that we had developed did not appear to be up to the task of helping students see and challenge the “normal” sources of classroom au­thority. Moreover, my instructional theories at first offered little support to respond to these anomalies to the disciplinary work in which students were engaged.

Informed by my experience as a historian and history teacher, and the scholarship that pointed to the epistemological difficulties in working with primary sources, I had worked to establish an instructional context in which students would be able to work as historians do in using primary sources and creating historical accounts.72 However, in establishing this special frame for students to see and question the authority of historical evidence and their own accounts, I paid less attention to the larger classroom context. Thus, initially I exaggerated the students’ capacity for transferring their experiences to textbooks and teachers. Or, more accurately, I exaggerated the flexibility of the “doing history” frame to expand and incorporate textbooks and teachers.

Working with primary sources did present significant challenges. Yet, the students came to see these texts and objects as distinctive, holding a priv­ileged place in the instructional (if not historiographic) landscape and call­ing for a special set of rules for use. I do not want to minimize the difficulty entailed in helping students use disciplinary practices when working with historical evidence. In other work, I have described and analyzed the chal­lenges that I faced in helping students rethink history as evidentiary, re­quiring distinctive ways to use evidence, make inferences, and develop and assess accounts of the past.73 This case study, however, calls into question the degree to which students’ developing skills with primary sources were transferable to their work reading textbooks and teachers, two sources of classroom history whose most distinctive features might be how ubiquitous and typical they are in the school lives of students. To see the challenge, it is useful to stop and consider the differences between the sources that stu­dents encounter in history classrooms.

One critical difference is the temporal relationships among sources and students. Adolescents quickly understand that primary sources are taken from the past, while texts and teachers (and they) are contemporary sourc­es. In addition, students typically use (or get) only a fragment of a primary source, seeing but a mere glimpse of a document or an event to be inter­preted. Teachers and textbooks, however, represent definitive and com­pleted accounts, rarely exposing raw evidence or interpretative edges. Further, textbooks and teachers encompass primary sources, framing them in special ways. Textbooks break the normal narrative to include fragments of primary sources, often using pastel colors to foreground the “voices from the past” from the voice of the present. Like teachers, history textbooks give students advice on how to read the special source. Thus, textbooks and teachers seemed to create a place for students to stand outside the normal discourse of the classroom or the textbook to analyze primary sources. Indeed, normal discourse of textbooks and classrooms now seems to in­clude these special breaks in authoritative narrative to look at historical evidence. Textbooks and teachers typically, however, do not stop to provide students such space and support to analyze their accounts, evidence, and interpretation.

Of course, this narrative case study does not offer, nor did it seek to provide, definitive proof that this “intervention” was or will be the key to help students see the historiographic limitations of the text or teacher. And in my focus on the class as the unit of analysis rather than individual stu­dents, I offer little generalizable guidance for working with different types of students. In many ways, this case study simply explicates the ways that I interpreted and transformed my practice, documenting the growth of my pedagogical content knowledge and demonstrating, as Gudmundsdottir argued, that such knowledge is mostly “‘home made,’ developed on the job by working with texts, subject matter, and students in different contexts year after year, and in the case of some experienced teachers, for dec­ades.”74

However, it is exactly in my attempts to capture and document this “home made” theory that this case has its value in thinking about ways that teachers might help students begin to find a space that enables them to engage in a disciplined analysis of the historical accounts embedded in textbooks and classrooms. What, then, are the theoretical implications of this study?

Olson suggested that the willingness of a reader to ask critical questions or make assertions of a text depends in part on the reader’s relationship to the text, claiming that it is a “peer relationship . . . which invites critical reading and critical thought.”75 Students can achieve such status, Olson argued, by becoming authors themselves; in part, this work supports this claim. However, this case also suggests that, for novices reading history textbooks, attaining peer status is more involved than being a participant in the act of authoring. Given the established practices with history textbooks and teachers, peer status also demands that students share or even exceed the content knowledge presented in the textbook and the classroom.

Thus, it is not enough for students to learn to engage in reasoned, dis­ciplined criticism of textbooks and for teachers to know that authors/his­torians collapse or exclude content in creating accounts. Rather, students learning to criticize textbooks must know specifically what knowledge au­thors collapsed and excluded. Knowing simply that authors use evidence in writing history does not enable a student to offer anything but the most superficial form of criticism. However, if before reading the textbooks, stu­dents understand specific evidence that an author did use or could have used, it provides a space to look critically at how the author used evidence, and encourages frustration with the absence of footnotes and documenta­tion in the textbook. In this case, students who had searched for sources to support their argument about plague and talked with classmates about plague sources were curious about sources that the textbook authors used in their narrative of plague. Because students had experience with specific documentary evidence, they read the relevant pages in the textbook with substantive questions about whom the authors used to create their inter­pretation and to what end. This case suggests that prior disciplinary knowl­edge of the specific events and sources treated by the textbook helps students reframe the relationship between themselves and the textbook by establishing a small but rich space for the meeting of equals.

Establishing such a space for students to reframe the teachers’ voice also is difficult and, because it calls into question classroom authority, potentially more dangerous than reframing the textbook. However, it is critical to keep in mind that peer status was not given automatically, but established through student participation in the practices of a disciplinary community. In this case, they achieved peer status by virtue of their knowledge of the commu­nity’s intellectual practices and by understanding the specifics of using those practices to represent a particular historiographic problem within a partic­ular event or period. Separating or privileging procedural over substantive knowledge places students at a disadvantage when confronting the historical authority of either teachers or textbooks by encouraging facile or pedantic criticism. Yet, that did not appear to be the case in the analysis that my students provided of their textbook, or later of the way that I selected pri­mary sources for them to study. Mapping the plague documents allowed a powerful yet safe way for me to reveal my influence over the history that they were studying. Their knowledge of and experience using those sources helped them criticize their textbook and their teacher—a criticism, however, tempered by an understanding of some the pragmatics of the discipline. I extended this activity over the semester by narrating historiographic un­derpinnings of units, trying to discuss choices I made and problems that I faced, as a historian, in crafting the class. While brief and limited, such activity offered students a place to consider history’s tentative, constructed, and evidentiary nature in whatever form they encountered it.

Revealing the history teacher’s historiographic stance in the classroom is filled with paradox, irony, and complications. One complication I had ex­pected but did not find was an increase in student cynicism or relativism. Colleagues had warned that treating the classroom and the textbook as historical accounts would lead students to conclude that “all accounts are equally valid,” thus leaving them mired in undifferentiated relativism (e.g., Who is to say that the Holocaust or slavery really happened?). I found no evidence in class discussion or student writing of such a position. Rather, students expressed a critical sensibility about accounts, enabling them to weigh some accounts as more or less credible.

This class taught me not to just believe something is right just because the teacher says it or if it’s in a text book. I now think and even perhaps act like a historian. If I disagree with something the teacher or the book says I can listen carefully or read through to check for internal consistency. Internal consistency is important especially when I’m listening to a teacher because if he/she contradicts themselves, it would be hard for me to know, what is correct. Also, if a teacher says something which I think is wrong, I can corroborate with other sources to check which was correct. By far the most important thing I learned was not just to accept what is being said, but check to see if it corresponds with what I had previously learned. Honestly, through this course, I have become a better thinker.

Another student, Mary, took a different perspective on the issue, noting how limiting it is to rely on only one source. She described her deep un­derstanding of plague—an understanding that included people’s causal theories of and reactions to plague, the “details on how it spread, and the economic, social, and religious changes that occurred in medieval Eu­rope”—by noting that “[i]f I had only read the textbook I would not have any of this knowledge” (MA).

The value of history education rests in helping students engage in a rational investigation of the past; as Peter Lee observed, “since we cannot escape the past, we had better seek the best knowledge of it we can get.”76 At the borders of this rational, critical investigation lives memory, heritage, and hidden sources of authority defined in part by an uncritical acceptance of past narratives. Standing like Hobsbawm on the piazza, the work of history teachers involves keeping history as a discipline alive within those borders. This requires going beyond mere “content” but involves devel­oping students’ historical sensibility and practices, that “modicum of irrev­erence toward received wisdom,” and the critical capacity to make honest, informed, reasoned, and grounded assessments of authoritative accounts, including those in textbooks, and their own lives. Developing the students’ authority to hold and express honest and informed interpretations, to fairly evaluate and criticize their own and others’ views, and to reason toward new ideas may be history education’s most difficult and complicated instruc­tional task. There are few challenges more worthy of our efforts.


Anyon, Jean. 1979. Ideology and the United States History Textbooks. Harvard Educational Review 43, 361-85.

Anyon, Jean. 1981. Social Class and School Knowledge. Curriculum Inquiry 11 no. 1: 3-34.

Apple, Michael W. and Linda K. Christian-Smith eds. 1991. The Politics of the Textbook. New York: Routledge.

Armbruster, B. B., and T. H. Anderson. 1984. “Producing ‘Considerate’ Expository Text: Or Easy Reading Is Damned Hard Writing.” Urbana: University of Illinois, Center for the Study of Reading.

Bain, Robert B. 1997. Building an Essential World History Tool: Teaching Comparative His­tory. In Teaching World History: A Resource Book, edited by Heidi Roup, 29-33. New York: M. E. Sharpe.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 10, 2006, p. 2080-2114
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12723, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 9:08:35 AM

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About the Author
  • Robert Bain
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    BOB BAIN is an assistant professor of history and social studies education in the University of Michigan’s School of Education. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Case Western Reserve University. Before coming to the University of Michigan, Bain taught high school history and social studies for 26 years in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. He studies the teaching and learning of history in a variety of instructional settings, including K–16 classrooms and museums. His research focuses on students learning history, teachers learning to teach history, and the cognitive tools to support such learning. A central tenet of this work is that because it is a distinctive form of knowledge, history teaching is, or should be, a distinctive epistemic activity. Recent publications include “‘They Thought the World was Flat?’ Principles in Teaching High School History” in How Students Learn: History, Math and Science in the Classroom (Washington: National Academy Press, 2005) and “Issues and Options in Creating a National Assessment in World History” in The History Teacher (forthcoming). In 2000, the Carnegie Foundation selected him as a member of its Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.
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