How CCAS helps educators navigate evolving trends in the teaching of history
By Susan Douglass
Trends in Teaching History
Over the past few decades, there have been paradigmatic shifts in the ways educators teach world history. Rather than the traditional survey courses that interpret history through a linear series of civilizations existing in isolation, the field has moved toward a global approach that uses world eras,—Prehistory, Middle Ages, etc.—as its historical units of organization. This dynamic, global framework allows for greater interdisciplinarity and the incorporation of topics that don’t fit easily within the civilizations model, such as world religions and how they spread across times and places, and regions that were not sites of major civilizations. It also makes room for discussing zones of interaction, such as the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, where diverse peoples interacted, exchanged goods, and gained exposure to new languages, ideas, and cultures.
Parallel to the trend toward global education in recent decades, there have been growing efforts to overhaul standards for how various subjects are taught. Following the publication of national standards in school subjects in the mid-1990s, states began to overhaul their own academic standards and curriculum. The subject of history, and how it should be taught, proved to be highly controversial, spurring debates over the amount of time that should be devoted to “the West” versus “non-Western” societies. More recently, political concerns have expanded around the way content on race and slavery, among other hot-button issues, is handled. In such a political climate, a change of majority party in a governorship or state legislature can impact the decisions of state-level departments of education or the alterations made during the regular curricular revision process, which occurs in regular cycles every five years or so.
Elementary and secondary teachers of history and social science find themselves contending with political efforts to impede change while also struggling with limited access to good scholarship that supports these changes. Moreover, they are often thrust into roles that require breadth of knowledge beyond that of university faculty who teach within their fields of specialization. The nature of world history, cultures and geography courses, as well as U.S. history classes, require those who teach them to be extreme generalists able to craft enriching lessons on myriad historical topics. While educators often acquire a love for their subjects, new teachers need a lot of support and experienced ones seek continued enrichment and training. Education outreach programs based within institutes of higher education are often where these needs are met. The Department of Education designates certain universities and departments, like CCAS at Georgetown, as National Resource Centers (NRCs) on global regions. Title VI grant support enables these NRCs to offer specialized programming and professional development for teachers that would be challenging for even the best-funded school districts to provide.
CCAS as a National Resource Center
For nearly four decades, CCAS Education Outreach program has served as a bridge between the expertise of Georgetown faculty and the needs of teachers in public and private schools in the Washington region and beyond. The program was founded in 1983 with a mission to provide educators with accurate and well-rounded information to support teaching about the Arab world. The following decade, CCAS and Georgetown were designated as a National Resource Center on the Middle East and North Africa (NRC-MENA), receiving funding from the Department of Education to support teacher outreach and a host of other activities across the university. More recently, CCAS entered a partnership in 2020 with Georgetown’s Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding to combine the longstanding outreach efforts of both centers.
An essential part of our outreach work is tracking national and local trends in standards and curriculum. It is hardly glamorous work, but it’s where the rubber meets the road. The CCAS outreach director has served on state history standards committees, published on national and state standards trends in academic journals, and worked with district curriculum supervisors to implement standards at the granular levels of lesson planning and professional development for teachers. Our efforts also entail providing resources on topics within the standards that relate to the Middle East and working with state and district officials to support the inclusion of current scholarship and interpret the often-vague language of the standards in ways that open windows to good teaching and interesting topics. Beyond our efforts related to teaching standards, we work with college of education faculty at universities to address the needs of pre-service teachers by offering workshops and providing teaching resources such as books and curricula. Curriculum development is a time-consuming endeavor but one that bears fruit long into the future. Several historical and cultural background units and lesson plan collections created by CCAS over the past decades are still in use. More recently, CCAS has contributed to the development of documentary films and their companion websites and lesson plans on historic subjects such as Islamic Art, the Crusades, and Muslim Spain.
While the work of CCAS is focused on helping teachers access scholarship and teaching pedagogy related to the Middle East, as a National Resource Center, our outreach work must overcome the constraints of a regional focus to meet teachers’ wider needs. Shaping our programs around the wider lenses of “the region in the world,” and “the world in the region,” enables us to meaningfully connect with educational trends toward a global history approach and to engage a multitude of fascinating topics. For example, in recent years we have offered week-long summer institutes for teachers on “The Mediterranean in World History,” “Beyond Ibn Battuta: The Indian Ocean in World History,” “Connected Histories of the Renaissance,” “The Enlightenment as Global Phenomenon,” and “The Arab Legacy in the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America.” On a smaller scale, CCAS Education Outreach holds topical workshops throughout the year that support history pedagogy. Our programs have brought together scholars from African, Asian, Latin American and Middle East studies within the School of Foreign Service to collaborate on transregional, intersectional issues such as migration, water management, and economic development.
As multi-faceted as these initiatives are, their influence on the way history is taught comes down to the willingness of educators to seek out these opportunities and resources. The curiosity and commitment of teachers to professional growth is what turns sparks into flames within their schools and classrooms, and brings benefit to their students beyond the study of any one part of the world. It is an honor to serve their needs and move the field of history education steadily forward.
Dr. Susan Douglass is the Education Outreach Director at CCAS.