Tim Roberts Digital History Teaching Despite the past, can the latest attempt to change history pedagogy succeed? And is there a role for digital history?

Despite the past, can the latest attempt to change history pedagogy succeed? And is there a role for digital history?

The readings illustrate that though periodically challenged by reformers, mainstream history teaching at both the secondary and college level has attempted to ensure that students acquire sufficient knowledge of historical facts, or “content.” A recurring reason for this emphasis is history’s particular role among the humanities and social sciences to contribute to students’ understanding of citizenship. This definition of studying history seems based on the assumption that diverse Americans, both native-born and perhaps especially foreign-born, will become supporters of the country the more they know information about its past. In 1942 a Columbia University professor, Allan Nevins, warned that in wartime, “we cannot understand what we are fighting for unless we know how our principles developed,” but the idea that historical knowledge is important to develop citizens who will support the nation-state has retained influence in peacetime as well (Wineburg, 1405). The founder Benjamin Rush theorized in Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic in 1786 that education could “convert men into republican machines.” History education has generally sought to fulfill Rush’s wish (Kaestle, 6).

Apparently, however, students have failed history’s mission to make them into historically conscious republicans. Somewhat eerily periodic national tests of historical knowledge among high school students have been treated like fire bells in the night. Generations of teenage students have shown little recall of American people, places, and events, both important, and obscure.

The most recent generation of reformers has critiqued the content model of history knowledge in several ways. Studying the nature of standardized history tests administered by various institutions since World War II, Sam Wineburg has observed that the tests are designed to statistically delineate strong, average, and weak students. Thus, the tests must include questions about historically obscure facts, and exclude questions that might actually gauge what E. D. Hirsch called “cultural literacy,” or a student’s awareness of Americans’ commonly known past events, names, and places, sufficient to participate in society (Hirsch).

More broadly, recent reformers interested in how the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) may shape history teaching argue that historical knowledge should be redefined, from focus on content knowledge to knowledge of historians’ methods of inquiry, so-called procedural knowledge. SoTL’s emergence as a field for historians has served as a corollary of a perceived “crisis in the humanities” in the last few decades, during which numbers of college history majors have dropped significantly, and critics have asked searching questions about the value of an education in history. Resembling SoTL’s focus on scholars’ demonstration to students of best research practices and focus how students learn, the American Historical Association in 2012 establishing a Tuning project to “define what a student should understand and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program” (American Historical Association). A leading reformer, Lendol Calder, identifies the essential “habits” of history education as “questioning; contextualizing; sourcing; using evidence; recognizing multiple perspectives; and recognizing limits to what one knows.” With a focus on skill-building, not knowledge accumulation, in the classroom, Calder describes the potentially new kind of historical study “uncoverage,” a term he originally coined in 1996 (Festle, 242).

The digital turn in the humanities may or may not offer ways to encourage and strengthen the recent movement away from content knowledge and towards skill-building in history teaching. On one hand, online websites and databases are quickly becoming the main repository of historical knowledge. Students hardly think twice about using Internet sources, some reliable, some unreliable, to find quick answers to common research projects. Digital information thus runs the risk of making it even easier for students to get answers to content-based research questions. On the other hand, digital humanities tools that encourage students to develop their own research questions while fostering Calder’s and other reformers’ prescribed “historians’ habits” may address several problems that plague traditional history instruction.  Already highly accustomed to using technology, students offered digital tools to learn what historians do are less likely to feel a sharp boundary between what they do every day and what they do in the history classroom. Digital tools that teach students to think and solve problems using historical data and techniques can help re-validate the history major by preparing students for careers in which they possess “problem-solving and practical strengths necessary to help companies and organizations succeed and grow” (Calder and Steffes, 63).


American Historical Assocation, “Tuning the History Discipline in the United States,” https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/tuning-the-history-discipline.

Lendor Calder and Tracy Steffes, “Measuring College Learning in History,” in Improving Quality in American Higher Education: Learning Outcomes and Assessments for the 21 st Century, edited by Richard Arum, Josipa Roksa, and Amanda Cook (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016), 37-86.

Mary Jo Festle, Transforming HistoryA Guide to Effective, Inclusive, and Evidence-based Teaching (University of Wisconsin, 2020).

E. D. Hirsch, et al., Cultural LiteracyWhat Every American Needs to Know (Vintage Books, 1987).

Carl Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860 (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2011).

Sam Wineburg, “Crazy for History,” Journal of American History, 2004, 1401-14.

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