Historical Thinking and Teacher Professional Development: The Poor Cousin of Curriculum Reform

By Carla Peck

Plaque on the Last Chance Saloon in Wayne, Alberta. Photo Credit: Carla Peck, 2013.

Plaque on the Last Chance Saloon in Wayne, Alberta. Photo: C. Peck, 2013.

Curriculum reform is an enormous and expensive undertaking. Educational jurisdictions across Canada regularly engage in curriculum renewal, investing time, energy and a great deal of money into redesigning curricula to reflect current research, trends and societal priorities in teaching and learning. In Canada, history (and social studies) curricula are no exception, and currently much work is being done across the country to revise how history is taught and assessed in kindergarten through to grade twelve.

But changes to history and social studies curricula do not automatically lead to changes in teaching and learning. Why not? Doesn’t it automatically follow that if curricular content changes, then what is taught and learned will also change? No, it doesn’t.

Allow me to explain.

‘Do you mean to tell me that what is written in the history textbook isn’t what really happened?’

My answer to this question, which was asked by an experienced teacher during a week-long summer institute focused on teaching historical thinking, was a short and succinct, ‘yes. A murmur started to creep around the crowded lecture theatre and I could tell that, at least for some in the room, the idea that historical narratives – like those found in history textbooks – are constructions that involve working with evidence to make decisions about historical significance, analyze continuity and change, or understand historical perspectives, was something new. If history isn’t what is found in textbooks, what is it?

Research in history education has found that teachers’ beliefs about the discipline of history influence not only how they teach it (Mayer, 2006), but also determines how they fit new epistemological or historiographical insights into their practice (Sawyer & Laguardia, 2010, VanSledright, Kelly and Meuwissen, 2006). One’s beliefs about history greatly influence how one understands history, how one works with and interprets evidence, and how one approaches the teaching of history (Maggioni, VanSledright, & Alexander, 2009).

Teachers’ epistemic beliefs about history can be resistant to change without sustained professional development (De La Paz, Malkus, Monte-Sano, & Montanaro, 2011; Peck, in press). For example, in a study that followed up with teachers after they had participated in a professional development program, Sawyer and Laguardia (2010) found that 7 of the 21 participants “continued to exhibit a relatively generic and instrumental view of teaching for historical thinking” (p. 2016) despite having participated in professional development that challenged these views. My research with teachers in Alberta confirms that changing beliefs and practice is a complex process.

From 2010-12, I led a professional development project focused on teaching historical thinking in Alberta. The project was grounded in the theoretical framework for historical thinking articulated by the Historical Thinking Project. The teachers engaged in 40 hours of professional development each year, with some teachers participating in both years of the project. For the teachers who participated in the first year of the project, it was not until the end of the year that they began to feel even somewhat knowledgeable about the historical thinking concept they were working with, and therefore required a significant amount of time to develop lessons and units for their students. Those teachers who participated in both years of the project reported a deeper understanding of the historical thinking concepts compared to the first year. For all but one teacher, the framework of historical thinking explored during the PD project was completely new and learning about and incorporating the historical thinking concepts into their practice required a fundamental – and essential – paradigm shift in their understanding of history and how to teach it.

It is crucial that teachers have time to develop their own understanding of historical thinking if they are going to embed it into their teaching. Yet, even with 40 hours of professional development (each year) dedicated to this one project, some still struggled to understand the historical thinking concepts and find ways to integrate them into their teaching. Thus, the importance of providing teachers – beginning or otherwise – with opportunities for long-term professional development cannot be overstated. While improvements to curricula occur, so must our investments in teachers’ professional development, otherwise teachers, despite their best efforts, may end up teaching new material in old ways.

Although many provinces and territories invest a great deal of resources in developing new curricula, in many cases much less is spent on providing professional learning so that teachers are able to transform their teaching to meet the new requirements of the curricula. This is a fundamental flaw in curriculum reform and needs to be addressed. What is the point of investing all of that time, energy and money into creating innovative curricula if teachers are never provided with opportunities to learn how to unlock the potential of the new curricula?

The research is clear on another point as well: One-off professional development opportunities are not enough. While one day sessions may spark a teacher’s interest, what is needed is long term, sustained professional learning where teachers are challenged to examine their preconceived notions about a discipline or practice, have opportunities to collaborate with their peers, try out what they are learning, reflect on what worked and what their missteps might have been, revise and try again.

In addition, it is important to be aware that a teacher’s professional learning needs are specific to the stages of her or his career – not surprisingly, research suggests that beginning teachers require more professional development than their more experienced peers. However, even teachers at the middle and end stages of their careers also require professional development but their needs will be very different from those of beginning teachers’. These factors need to be taken into account when designing professional development for teachers.

Likewise, teacher education programs need to communicate to beginning teachers that becoming a teacher means a making a commitment to continued professional learning. In teacher education programs, elementary-track students may take between three to six credits of social studies pedagogy courses, but it should be noted that these are not courses that focus exclusively on teaching history. Students who wish to become secondary social studies teachers may take more (between 6 – 12 credits) courses focused on social studies pedagogy, but again, these courses may not focus exclusively on teaching history.

Given the prominent place of history within social studies courses, it seems imperative that teacher education programs find ways to, at the very least, introduce teacher candidates to the concept of ‘historical thinking,’ including some pedagogical approaches for engaging students in critical historical inquiry. Perhaps more importantly, beginning teachers should leave their teacher education programs with a solid foundation upon which they can begin their teaching careers, but also with an understanding that there is still much to learn.

Carla Peck is an associate professor of Social Studies Education and a founding advisory board member of the Historical Thinking Project. This post is adapted from her forthcoming book chapter “Can teacher education programs learn something from teacher professional development initiatives?” in Ruth Sandwell and Amy von Heyking’s Becoming a History Teacher in Canada (Univeristy of Toronto Press, forthcoming).

This week ActiveHistory.ca is running a series of 11 essays marking the end of the Historical Thinking Project. Click here to see a list of all the papers published during this theme week.


De La Paz, S., Malkus, N., Monte-Sano, C., & Montanaro, E. (2011). Evaluating American History Teachers’ Professional Development: Effects on Student Learning. Theory and Research in Social Education, 39(4), 494-540.

Mayer, R. H. (2006). Learning to Teach Young People How to Think Historically: A Case Study of One Student Teacher’s Experience, Social Studies, 97(2), 69-76.

Peck, C. L. (in press). Can teacher education programs learn something from teacher professional development initiatives? In R. W. Sandwell & A. von Heyking (Eds.), Becoming a History Teacher in Canada. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Sawyer, R., & Laguardia, A. (2010). Reimagining the Past/Changing the Present: Teachers Adapting History Curriculum for Cultural Encounters. Teachers College Record, 112(8), 1993-2020.

VanSledright, B., Kelly, T., & Meuwissen, K. (2006). Oh, the trouble we’ve seen: Researching historical thinking and understanding. In K. C. Barton (Ed.), Research Methods in Social Studies Education: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives (pp. 207-233). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

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