Pete Burkholder, a history professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, is writing a series of columns for a website on teaching US history. He doesn't teach US history, having only taken a course on it in high school. So it's not surprising that his first column addresses this apparent lack of qualifications. He's not qualified if this assumption holds: teaching and learning issues are specific, in this case, to the subfields of history. In other words, only those who teach US history can talk meaningfully about teaching US history with each other. Burkholder doesn't accept that assumption, in part, because he's responsible for the University's Teaching Development Program, which puts him in contact with faculty across a range of disciplines. He writes, “This experience has heavily emphasized to me how much we have in common in the realm of education, and how the walls separating our teaching fields are more self-imposed than real.”
The argument that teaching every subject is unique just won't go away. Maybe that's because there's some truth to it. What's unique is the relationship between the kind of content being taught and the methods used to teach it. If the content is US history, what a fellow US history teacher can help with is providing examples that explain concepts, reading assignments that pique student interest, sequencing challenging content so students work up to understanding it, and so on. But what isn't unique are teaching methods, a host of concerns about student learning, and sometimes even the goals teachers are trying to accomplish.
Burkholder offers a great example of what appears to be a difference but really isn't. He was working with a group of scientists, and they did not understand how students could take history courses out of order, given that historical knowledge so obviously builds on and grows out of the past. “My response was that, although the specific content of our history courses differs, it's more the habits of mind that we seek to nurture.” What's important are the historical thinking skills. The topic doesn't matter. It's those skills that are transferable, and they're taught in every history course, no matter when a student takes it.
But the scientists remained unconvinced. Burkholder then asked them about the periodic table and whether anyone present had memorized the elements. No, they hadn't, because that's not what those people interested in the periodic table need to understand. They need to know why it's arranged the way it is and the explanatory powers of that arrangement. That's what matters. Burkholder made the point. Those who teach history and science face the same overarching learning issue with students—teachers in both fields aspire to “more ambitious learning goals,” those that transcend basic content knowledge. And this means that people who teach history and people who teach science can productively converse about how to move students beyond basic content knowledge to these larger and more significant learning goals.
Those who talk teaching across disciplines have productive dialogues about a wide range of shared interests and instructional challenges: getting more students to participate, making groups function more effectively, promoting academic integrity, responding to entitled students, and creating climates for learning in classrooms and online—and that's only the start of a much longer list.
Those who read publications like this aren't the faculty who need to be convinced that there's much to learn from those in other fields. It's the faculty member who's never looked beyond his or her field. What's likely to persuade them to cast a wider net? Perhaps most compelling are the experiences of faculty who have learned and are learning from others—more testimonies buttressed with examples.
Is it important? Does it matter? If someone doesn't want to connect with others from outside the discipline, is that a problem? It's not so much a problem as a missed opportunity. No one discipline has a corner on pedagogical knowledge. Good ideas, creative approaches, unique strategies, and interesting research on teaching and learning can be found in every discipline. The world of pedagogical knowledge is so much bigger than any one field. And then there's the fact that some disciplines do better in some instructional areas than others. Those who are teaching students to speak a new language know how to constructively handle dreadfully wrong answers, and their techniques are applicable to all kinds of wrong answers. Those who teach physical education don't deal with students at desks. Their students are on the move and frequently playing games, which means those teachers have had to learn effective classroom management skills. Finally, instructional issues and agendas are more likely to be accomplished if they are collectively advanced.
It doesn't have to be one or the other. We can and should make use of the pedagogical knowledge being generated in our field. We can and should look for knowledge that exists beyond it. We need both, and that's something good teachers recognize.
Burkholder, P. A. (2017, September 14). Medievalist visits the Americanist teaching neighborhood. Teaching United States History.
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