Publications and Research

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For this review of research on the history of teaching, I use the instructional triangle as an organizing tool and frame of analysis to explore what we know about who taught, who was taught, and what was taught across space and time.

In the first section of this chapter I review historical research on who taught in American classrooms. One overwhelming theme throughout this literature is that policy makers, school leaders, and the general public have historically cared a great deal about who a teacher was, often basing their preferences on the belief that a teacher’s social characteristics would shape his or, more often, her teaching practices. We have little evidence to support the notion that teachers’ use of particular pedagogical strategies has consistently varied according to their gender, race, ethnicity, or class origins, but the historical record does suggest that teachers’ social characteristics at times affected classroom teaching in other ways. Specifically, recent research on the history of teachers from oppressed or marginalized communities makes a fairly strong case that teachers’ personal commitment to and belief about the purposes for their teaching often shaped their relationships with students and the interactions that occurred in their classrooms.

In the second section of the chapter I review research on the history of who was taught. We have a strong historical record on the ways in which students’ teaching experiences have varied according to their race, class, and ethnicity, as well as the time and place they attended school. Often these different teaching experiences can be explained by school structures such as segregation and tracking, which functioned to reify social and economic inequities. At the same time, however, recent scholarship reveals that students (and their families) have also played an active role in shaping their teaching experiences—from challenging structural barriers, to contesting curriculum, to influencing teachers’ perceptions of their students and their purposes in teaching them.

In the third section of the chapter I review research on the history of what was taught—a somewhat smaller body of literature than the other two, perhaps because it is more directly related to classroom practice. We have a much better record of what education leaders and reformers believed should be taught in school than we have of what actually transpired in classrooms. Nonetheless, what evidence does exist makes clear that teaching students how to behave has historically been a central purpose of education, although the specific means and ends of this behavioral training have varied. Teaching has also involved academic content, and recent subject-specific histories of teaching suggest that teachers’ understanding of that academic content and their purpose in teaching it has often shaped classroom instruction as well.


This is the accepted version of a chapter that was ultimately published in its definitive version as: Judith Kafka "In Search of a Grand Narrative: The Turbulent History of Teaching," In Drew Gitomer and Courtney Bell, editors, Handbook on the Research of Teaching, Fifth Edition. (pp. 69-126). Washington, D.C.: American Educational Research Association. See: and



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