Teaching History Without Textbooks? Stanford Proves It’s Possible.

In 2008, Stanford University introduced “Reading Like a Historian,” a non-traditional history curriculum to five schools in the San Francisco Unified School District.  According to Sam Wineburg, who directs the Stanford History Education Group and has been a longtime proponent of revising the teaching of history, “We need to break the stranglehold of the textbook by introducing students to the variety of voices they encounter in the past through primary sources.”  It seems this new curriculum is doing that and more, as recently reported in Futurity:

There are no orderly rows of desks in Valerie Ziegler’s 11th-grade history class—students sit in groups of three or four at small tables around the room. There also is no lectern because there are no lectures. And perhaps most striking, there are no textbooks.

These students at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco learn about the Vietnam War, women’s suffrage, civil rights, the Great Depression, and other major events in U.S. history by analyzing journal writings, memoirs, speeches, songs, photographs, illustrations, and other documents of the era.

“I always tell my students they’re historians-in-training, so the work we do in here is that of a historian,” Ziegler says.

That sounds like fun, but does it have any impact? Yup, it succeeds in spades. Assessments in reading comprehension, historical thinking, recall of historical facts, and general reasoning showed that these “non-traditional” classes outperformed the typical textbook-based classroom. They also discovered that, “embedding historical content in meaningful activity leads to better recall.”  This approach seems to be appealing to teachers as well–more than a quarter million copies of the curriculum have been download so far.

Hmm.  Those of us who work at historic sites knew this all along, but perhaps now we have some data that will further convince the school district that collaborating with us is not just a luxury, but essential to effective education.  Just think what would happen if they enriched the study of historic documents with historic artifacts and places!

To learn more about this project, see a video, review the curriculum, and get a link to the scholarly assessment, see “Students Excel in ‘Textbook-Free’ History Class” by Brooke Donald on March 7, 2012 on Futurity.

3 thoughts on “Teaching History Without Textbooks? Stanford Proves It’s Possible.

  1. readerareadevelopment

    Great post! I agree that it is time for a shake up in curriculum. Local history starting from the town the students live would be an additional suggestion. My hope is that would lead to greater preservation and in turn innovation.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      You’re right, Beth–and you’ve been working on this for years (decades?) through the Teaching with Historic Places program. For folks who aren’t familiar with this program, it builds lesson plans around topics associated with historic places listed on the National Register. Sometimes people miss the point and can’t find any lesson plans that relate to them, but consider them just as examples (and there are nearly 150 of them now online) and use the process to create a lesson plan for your site, neighborhood, or community.


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