Explicit Teacher Purpose in the History Classroom

This semester, I’ve been wrestling with curricular issues in world history, as well as investigating the role of teacher purpose, particularly when it comes to history classes. Teacher purpose, whether implicit or explicit, impacts teacher content and pedagogical decisions. When I talk about teacher purpose, I don’t just mean content deliverables or state-mandated learning targets. Instead, this refers to the larger skills and dispositions teachers are trying to foster and how classroom exercises contribute towards the purpose.

Education scholars Barton and Levstik (2004) emphasize the impact teachers’ purpose has on their practice. “Unless they have clear sense of purpose, teachers’ primary actions continued to be coverage of the curriculum and control of students, no matter how much they know about history, teaching, or the intersection of the two” (p. 258). Though I do not believe teachers would say curricular coverage and behavior management are how they define a successful teacher, they nonetheless propel much teacher decision-making. This is particularly noteworthy for history courses, as history teaching is known for employing “sage on the stage” pedagogy. Additionally, the importance not only of purpose but a “clear sense of purpose” is a key element to this. If one’s purpose is vague, then consequently the aims for pursuing this purpose will be, as well. Vague generalities substituting for a clear purpose will do little to inform the day-to-day of teaching practices, as there will be little meaningful connection to content.

What is the purpose of history?

Much of my perspective concerning history’s purpose has been shaped by Barton & Levstik’s (2004) Teaching History for the Common Good. The authors believe that as members of a pluralist democratic society, both on a national and global scale, students need to have the conceptual tools that will allow them to better reflect on the processes of history, so as to apply these connective threads to modern contexts, thereby making informed decisions to promote the common good. In this context, historical knowledge informs social responsibilities and civic decision-making. Indeed, in his address to the American Historical Association, William McNeill (1985) stated, “democratic citizenship and effective participation in the determination of public policy require citizens to share a collective memory, organized into historical knowledge and belief.” History is touted as essential to citizenship, but do history teachers intentionally shape instruction with this explicit purpose in mind?

Barton and Levstik (2008) consider the assumption of historical knowledge contributing to citizenship, assessing the extent to which these contributions are supported by empirical research. They found that historical knowledge alone does not inform citizenship practices in the presumed manner. This purpose may be implicit, but that same implicitness may be why students do not make explicit connections between history content and application to their lives. They found the same disconnect when assessing whether historical skills inform students’ civic lives. Research shows that historical skills, such as evidence-based argumentation, do not necessarily lead to more evidence-based decision making in terms of public policy.

This emphasizes the need for history teachers to explicitly connect content to relevant issues or desired outcomes. That is not to say that a teacher should introduce a topic and tell students: “this topic will make you more considerate of promoting the common good.” Rather, connecting historical knowledge or skills to students’ current lives in a meaningful way is needed to bridge the relevancy gap. To be clear, these connections may be direct and concrete or they may be much more abstract. Additionally, teachers should not make connections that essentialize cultures or people.  However, as attacks on the humanities continue to permeate education discourse, teachers have an obligation to show students how history should inform their thinking and decision-making. If there isn’t a clear, well-defined understanding of the content’s purpose in this manner, it can mean everything and nothing.

In the spirit of this post, I’ll be explicit as to my purpose:  to challenge history teachers to spend time articulating a clear purpose of their teaching. Whether to promote social responsibility, knowledge for informed national (or global) citizenship, or teach the skills needed to be discerning and analytical thinkers, teachers must reflect on how their class works towards that purpose – and whether students can also make this connection. Finding space for students to connect the content and skills to their lives will not only make the content more meaningful, but contribute towards history’s enduring relevancy.


Barton, K. C., & Levstik, L. S. (2008). History. In J. Arthur, I. Davies, & C. Hahn (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Education for Citizenship and Democracy. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Barton, K. C., & Levstik, L. S. (2004). Teaching History for the Common Good. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McNeill, W. H. (1985). Why Study History? American Historical Association. American Historical Association. Retrieved from https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/historical-archives/why-study-history-(1985)

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