Shifting Our Approach to Teaching History

What Do We Want Our Graduates to Understand?

Upper School History

How does identity/culture shape people’s perspective? How does history inform us about the present? How and why do interpretations of history change? What is the purpose of government? What should be the balance between freedom and security? Why does the control of resources matter?

These are the types of questions Durham Academy Middle School and Upper School students are now seeking to answer in their study of history — a comprehensive approach framed through the lenses of identity, history, power, economics and geography, rather than bookended timelines with memorized lists of names, dates and facts.

This shift in approach started with a shift in departmental culture — away from a culture where individual teachers operated in largely siloed autonomy, and toward a culture where we are in constant dialogue with one another. This culture shift was reinforced by our recent physical shift into shared faculty offices and classrooms (rather than teachers with their own individual classrooms) in the new Upper School STEM & Humanities Center. As new academic leaders, we were excited about working toward creating a North Star for history instruction. But we were also apprehensive about asking passionate, experienced and successful history teachers to rethink what and how they have been teaching for years.

We began by asking ourselves, “What do we want our graduates to understand and be able to do because they took history courses at DA?” We want students to connect to history in ways that lay a foundation for an adult life that approaches important and ambiguous questions in thoughtful, informed ways. Current educational research is clear: the more students understand why they’re learning what they’re learning, the more lasting and meaningful that learning will be.

In departmental retreats (often combining Middle School and Upper School faculty) and professional development meetings, history teachers learned a lot from one another. Our discussions were both reflective and aspirational. It was demanding and ultimately fun, because we were talking together far more frequently and systematically than ever before. We developed a list of categories and concepts that served as our North Star for curriculum alignment — helping to guide our faculty through change and toward compromises.

We call it a “Portrait of a DA History Graduate.” In addition to serving as a roadmap for teachers to use in the classroom, we wanted it to be clear and useful for students. And they’re using it — fifth- and sixth-graders even have the document taped to their binders. One of the broad lessons that the “Portrait” hopes to convey is that even though the most important questions can lack definitive answers, pursuing them in an informed way can be enlightening and empowering. As they move through the Middle School and Upper School, students will return to the concepts of identity, history, power, economics and geography with increasing depth and complexity.

We hope that our still-evolving curriculum — of which the “Portrait” document is just one component — gives students the historical information, skills and curiosity to engage meaningfully with these concepts well after graduation and propels them toward deeper and more lasting learning. Studying history can cultivate a critical and open-minded disposition that is well-suited to achieving a moral, happy and productive life.

This kind of curricular work is never really over. We should always be reflecting on why and how we teach what we teach, and we should always be willing to adapt. The most important consequence of our department’s strategic work is that we’ve more fully embraced collaboration as the route to innovation, and we’re more committed to articulating clearer reasons for why we teach everything that we teach.