Controversial Issues in History Instruction
Carole L. Hahn Emory University
My interest in the role of controversial issues in the teaching of history in particular and social studies in general grows out of my experiences as a student in social studies classes, as a teacher of junior and senior high school social studies, and as a professor of social studies instruction. I regularly begin my social studies instruction courses for university students who are preparing to teach either elementary or secondary school students by asking the adult students to recall their earlier experiences as pupils in elementary and secondary social studies classes. Their recollections tend to be very similar. With regard to their elementary school experiences, some have no memories at all of social studies instruction. Some recall memorizing states and capitals and have a vague sense of having read textbooks. On the other hand, with a sense of enjoyment, a few students remember projects and active learning. I myself remember constructing models of Native American villages and Spanish missions when studying early California history in the third grade.
Memories of high school social studies classes are of reading textbooks, listening to lectures about events in the past, and studying for tests. Not surprisingly, the students recall such classes with displeasure. The few students who want to teach social studies usually had one experience in which they were exposed to an alternative model: Either they had a teacher for one course who engaged them in controversial issues, or they had such an experience in extracurricular activities such as the Model United Nations, the debate club, or Close Up (a program that takes high school students to Washington, DC to see public policymaking "close up").
My own experiences of secondary school parallel those of my students. I