Learn to Teach, Teach to Learn

by Dr. Strojny

Recently, Salon online magazine ran an article that touched on whether successful teaching is just a learned talent or a natural skill that some people have, and some don’t. The article touches on that author Elizabeth Green titles, The Myth of the Natural Born Teacher.”


This type of myth-making—that some folks are just “born to teach,” and others will hopelessly bore (at best) or (at worst), mis-educate and harm the learning of our students, is surprisingly prevalent, Green asserts, on not only both sides of the political spectrum, but even in the Schools of Education of colleges and universities across the country. Yet considerable evidence exists, that, in fact, using particular skills and strategies result in increased levels of learning for students. This is fantastic news. Just as no one would want a “a natural born surgeon,” (as opposed to one who had spent years in medical school) and pro sports players don’t get paid the big bucks for potential, so too, teaching well is a learned skill, one that takes hard work, and willingness to adapt to new strategies.

For many teachers, the problem can be in sorting through the tremendous amounts of “noise” out there to find the best practices that will truly result in increased learning. In 2008, Dr. Monte-Sano compared two different types of teaching strategies for secondary Social Studies/History teachers. Specifically, Monte-Sano was looking for results the writing skills of history students based on type of instruction. In Monte-Sano’s work, both teachers engaged in a mix of lecture, regular reading and writing assignments and some use of textbook reading. (Monte-Sano, 2008). However, in other important ways, teacher practices differed. One teacher modeled active reading strategies, and encouraged students view history writing as an interpretive exercise, with the interpretation of historical documents as critical to creating meaningful and intelligent interpretations. The other teacher leaned towards teaching history more as serious of static factual events.

Monte-Sano found that those students whose teacher who relied more heavily on memorization of facts and assigned frequent essays, but provided limited feedback, had writing skills that stayed the same or even declined slightly over the course of the school year. However, students whose teacher gave consistent targeted feedback had students whose scores improved over the year. The teacher also engaged in traditional “English teacher” type reading comprehension and writing strategies, such as modeling, creating scaffolded opportunities for students to write, one-on-one conferencing and targeted feedback.

See: Monte-Sano, C. (2008). Qualities of effective writing instruction in history classrooms: A cross-case comparison of two teachers’ practices. American Educational Research Journal, 45 (4), 1045-1079. 

Nevertheless, many history teachers continue to maintain the first type of more “traditional” type of classroom, expending a lot of work on reading and frequent essay practices that may result in more limited in feedback for students. Why is this? In general, teachers work hard and most want to see the best possible results for their students.

Well, the teacher struggling to see gains in low-SES schools may be more amenable to trying something new, since they are can see clearly their student’s English language deficiencies. Many (certainly not all!) students in low-income schools may already be scoring at a low level on high stakes tests, and so teachers are willing to adopt a new strategy in an attempt to help their students.

In addition, students themselves are pre-disposed, as late as college, to view history as a single story, and less likely to view history through the complex lens of interpretative art (Monte-Sano, 2012). Students come in to class “expecting” to hear a story with names, dates, and events they have to memorize, and may be more challenged to adapt to class that offers a truly college preparatory vision of historical writing. If we ask students to write true historical interpretative essays, we are asking type of careful sifting of evidence and crafting of interpretation is some of the most sophisticated and complex writing students in all of their high school careers—and we are asking them to do it in History/Social Studies classes – not English classes! No wonder History and Social Studies teachers are feeling the heat.

So what types of strategies should History teachers focus on in teaching Historical writing to students? The research suggests they should focus on the same high-impact strategies English teachers use, but focused or adjusted appropriately for History/Social studies.

High Impact strategies for ALL students writing in History and Social Studies class include:

(1) Modeling reading strategies to help students navigate texts;

(2) Are taught to study history as evidence-based interpretation, as opposed to a single narrative;

(3) Are taught to read primary source documents, and to point to evidence from such sources to support their own ideas;

(4) Engage in frequent writing work, that includes not just formal essays, but informal writing opportunities;

(5) Receive targeted feedback that encourages them to look at History and Social Studies as a way of asking lots of questions, rather then memorizing a set series of answers.

These types of critical thinking skills are what will help our students to be successful readers and writers not only in high school, but in the collegiate and university setting and beyond. Just as true for us as teachers, as it is for our students: It’s not just WHO you are, but WHAT you do that will make a difference in student learning. Do we really want to teach our students any other lesson?


Monte-Sano, C. (2008). Qualities of effective writing instruction in history classrooms: A cross-case comparison of two teachers’ practices. American Educational Research Journal, 45 (4), 1045-1079. 

Monte-Sano, C. (2012). Toward disciplinary writing in history: Preparing the next generation. Perspectives on History, 50 (5). Available at: www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2012/1205/

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/09/secrets_of_amazing_teachers_what_both_sides_of_the_education_reform_debate_get_wrong_about_autonomy_and_accountability/ (Found August 11, 2014)


For next time, I will look at some of the highest-impact writing strategies for English teachers, and see how they can be adapted for use by Social Studies teachers. If you can’t wait to get started, have a sneak peak at this important study for English teachers: A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students.

Graham, Steve; Perin, Dolores Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 99(3), Aug 2007, 445-476

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