For a moment, the room is a cacophony of charges and countercharges. “It’s the same as in Birmingham,” shouts a loyalist. A rebel snorts disparagingly, “Virtual representation is bull.” Thirty-two students seem to be talking at once, while the presiding judge, a wiry student with horn-rimmed glasses, bangs his gavel to no avail. The teacher, still in the corner, still with spiral notebook in lap, issues her only command of the day. “Hold still!” she thunders. Order is restored and the loyalists continue their opening argument (from Wineburg and Wilson, 1991).
Another example of Elizabeth Jensen’s teaching involves her efforts to help her high school students understand the debates between Federalists and anti-Federalists. She knows that her 15- and 16-year-olds cannot begin to grasp the complexities of the debates without first understanding that these disagreements were rooted in fundamentally different conceptions of human nature—a point glossed over in two paragraphs in her history textbook. Rather than beginning the year with a unit on European discovery and exploration, as her text dictates, she begins with a conference on the nature of man. Students in her eleventh-grade history class read excerpts from the writings of philosophers (Hume, Locke, Plato, and Aristotle), leaders of state and revolutionaries (Jefferson, Lenin, Gandhi), and tyrants (Hitler, Mussolini), presenting and advocating these views before their classmates. Six weeks later, when it is time to study the ratification of the Constitution, these now-familiar figures—Plato, Aristotle, and others—are reconvened to be courted by impassioned groups of Federalists and anti-Federalists. It is Elizabeth Jensen’s understanding of what she wants to teach and what adolescents already know that allows her to craft an activity that helps students get a feel for the domain that awaits them: decisions about rebellion, the Constitution, federalism, slavery, and the nature of a government.
These examples provide glimpses of outstanding teaching in the discipline of history. The examples do not come from “gifted teachers” who know how to teach anything: they demonstrate, instead, that expert teachers have a deep understanding of the structure and epistemologies of their disciplines, combined with knowledge of the kinds of teaching activities that will help students come to understand the discipline for themselves. As we previously noted, this point sharply contradicts one of the popular—and dangerous—myths about teaching: teaching is a generic skill and a good teacher can teach any subject. Numerous studies demonstrate that any curriculum—including a textbook—is mediated by a teacher’s understanding of the subject domain (for history, see Wineburg and Wilson, 1988; for math, see Ball, 1993; for English, see Grossman et al., 1989). The uniqueness of the content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge necessary to teach his-