Adopting and Sustaining Use of New Teaching Strategies for American History in Secondary Classrooms

Adopting and Sustaining Use of New Teaching Strategies for American History in Secondary Classrooms

Ragland, Rachel G


A study of how middle and high school American history teachers adopted and maintained the use of research-based instructional practices is described as a model of professional development for social studies teachers. The teachers participated in a three-year project funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Teaching American History grant program. Teachers were observed, interviewed, and surveyed concerning their use of and feelings about twelve new strategies that were developed with a focus on pedagogical content knowledge. A variation on the Concerns-Based Adoption Model was used to measure the levels of use and stages of concern of the teachers over the three-year grant period and one year following the conclusion of the grant. Results indicate an increasingly high level of adoption and sustained use of the strategies, as well as the developmental nature of the process. Implications for professional development activities in history teacher education are presented.


In 2001, the United States Department of Education’s Teaching American History (TAH) grant program began funding a series of projects designed to improve the teaching of American history and provide high-quality professional development for teachers. This ongoing program has so far funded 539 grant projects at a cost of approximately $450,000,000 in school districts nationwide. The grants are designed to assist schools in implementing research-based methods for improving the quality of instruction, professional development, and teacher education in American history.

The study reported here concerns the results of one such project. The principle partners in the three-year program entitled McRAH (Model Collaboration: Rethinking American History) were Waukegan C.U. District #60 high-need school district, in Waukegan, IL Lake Forest College and the Chicago History Museum. Over the threeyear grant period, the project activities included two five day a week, six hour a day summer institutes (one three weeks in length, one two weeks in length), a series of four-hour Saturday workshop sessions on both history content and pedagogy, on-going classroom observation visits, mentoring by program faculty in the fields of history and education, both in person and through an online community, and teachers working with colleagues on curriculum development and peer observation teams.

These professional development activities were aimed at changing how American history was taught in the participants’ middle and high school classrooms. They were designed not only to introduce new content knowledge to the teachers, but also to introduce new research-based instructional strategies specifically designed to more effectively engage students with the study of American history. The study described here was designed to measure the impact of the project in three broad areas: the adoption of the new strategies in teachers’ classrooms; the concerns or comfort level of the teachers with the new strategies; and the sustainability of the use of the strategies after the project concluded.

Two key principles relevant to this study guided the development of project activities: a focus on pedagogical content knowledge and instructional strategies designed specifically for teaching history; and an awareness of the developmental nature of the process teachers experience in adopting and sustaining changes in educational practice. It is key that content knowledge (knowledge of American history in this case) be coupled not only with pedagogical knowledge (about teaching in general), but also with pedagogical content knowledge (specifically how to teach history in this case) in order to be meaningful (Shulman, 1986). The twelve new McRAH instructional strategies introduced to the teachers during the project were developed as a result of close collaboration between historians and pedagogy specialists. (see Appendix A for a list of the McRAH strategies) Research on discipline-specific professional development in history reveals that the mental models teachers use when they construct teaching experiences for their students change as an outcome of the collaboration with historians in professional development institutes. A study by Medina et. al. (2000) reports that “subject matter professional development plays an important role in teacher preparation – one that isn’t replicated anywhere else” (p. 18). Teachers in the University of California, Davis History and Cultures Project transferred their experiences from the institutes into their classrooms, where subsequently their students demonstrated improved use of primary sources and the ability to identify multiple perspectives in these sources, “…what teachers understood from our programs, they transmitted and taught – even emphasized” (p. 19). Thornton (in Brophy, 2001) also emphasizes the importance of choosing methods of instruction spécifie to the methods of history (p. 311). The McRAH project made conscious use of the knowledge of historians with regard to what strategies historians use in their work and in their teaching. This information was then combined with the education professors’ knowledge of research-based pedagogy to determine what would work best to engage students with historical knowledge and skills in the secondary classroom. The historical methods introduced in our project (see Appendix A) were very much in line with the historical methods addressed by other TAH projects, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s own study (2005). Those used most often included: analyzing historical documents; analyzing history by themes, periods, and regions; and analyzing historical artifacts and/or media (p.xiii).

The second key principle that framed this study was an awareness of the developmental nature of the process teachers experience in adopting and sustaining changes in educational practice. In this case, the goal was to assess how McRAH strategies were being put into practice in the teachers’ classrooms. A modification of the Concerns-Based Adoption Model (CBAM) of Hall, Wallace and Dossett (1973) was used to measure how the McRAH strategies were being used in the teachers’ instructional practice and their attitudes toward their use. The premise of the CBAM model is that innovation adoption is a developmental process rather than a single decision-point. It is also an individual process, which each innovation user experiences differently. Each person decides the extent and manner of innovative use.

CBAM identifies both “Stages of Concern” and “Levels of Use” for educational innovations or changes in practice. The seven stages of concern (SoC) measure the affective dimension of the teachers’ views on using the innovation, including thoughts, feelings, and information needs (see Appendix B). Six levels of use (LoU) measure behaviors actually demonstrated in relation to the innovation (i.e., is it actually used in the classroom?) (see Appendix C) Teachers progress along a continuum of stages of concern (SoC) from concerns about self to concerns about the teaching task to concerns about impact on students. This progression of concerns on the part of the teachers is based on the work of Fuller (1969) who identified such a continuum with pre-service and in-service teachers. This progression occurs with levels of use as well. With continued use, implementation becomes routine, and the teacher is able to be directed more toward increasing the effectiveness of the strategy in order to increase engagement of students. By measuring the use and concerns of the teachers periodically during and after the three-year project, the progress of adopting and sustaining use of the McRAH strategies could be assessed.

Description of Study

An examination of the data collected on teachers’ use of and feelings about research-based strategies for American history instruction during and after the project yielded information that helped to answer three key questions: 1) Which instructional strategies introduced by the project were used most by the teachers in their classrooms during the project?; 2) Which instructional strategies did the teachers continue to use most a year after the project concluded?; and 3) How did the teachers’ feelings about the instructional strategies affect their adoption and sustained use?

Data Collection

The teacher participants in McRAH were all social studies teachers in grades 6 – 12 in Waukegan, Illinois. The district’s student population is 8.9% white, 20.6% African-American, and 68% Hispanic. The teachers voluntarily applied for the program and received stipends and professional development credit for participation. All teachers were state certified, and their years of teaching experience at the time of the study ranged from two to twenty, with gender distribution of males and females being approximately equal. The first stage of data collection (spring 2003, N= 10) consisted of completion of two surveys by all participants that were modifications of the CBAM Levels of Use (see Appendix C) and Stages of Concern (see Appendix B) questionnaires concerning the twelve McRAH strategies, as well as reflective comments from the teachers. In addition, ongoing scheduled, hour-long classroom observations were completed by the researcher and one other teacher education faculty member, using a uniform checklist on the strategies, to verify LoU after one year of classroom experience with the strategies. The second stage of data collection (spring 2004, N= 10) consisted of a second administration of the LoU and SoC surveys, as well as ongoing classroom observations, and teacher reflective comments on their practice. The final stage of data collection (spring 2005, N=9) consisted of another administration of the SoC survey, as well as a focused 45-minute interview conducted and transcribed by the researcher with each teacher concerning LoU and SoC one year after the project had concluded.

Data Analysis

Quantitative analysis of the case study data on the LoU and SoC survey responses consisted of tallying response frequencies by rating for each listed item rank ordering the items based on the tallies, as well as calculating percentages for each data field. Relevant data are reported in the tables below. Qualitative analysis of observation data, teachers’ reflective comments, and open-ended interview responses of participants consisted of organizing responses into categories that matched the data collection areas. This researcher and project assistants performed the data analysis in the areas described above under data collection.


The results of the data analysis will be reported in three sections to correspond with the three key questions of the investigation.

Use of McRAH Instructional Strategies

The 2003 data, collected after one year of working with the strategies introduced by the summer institute of 2002 and reinforced by a series of Saturday workshops during the 2002-2003 school year, revealed positive implementation of the research-based McRAH strategies for teaching history. (See Table 1) Three of the strategies were being used to some extent by all the teachers: use of primary documents and document based questions; perspectivetaking exercises; and use of familiar, familial, and community connections. The highest level of use was for using primary documents and document based questions (44% rated their use at the highest level (7 – renewal). This was closely followed by the use of perspective-taking exercises, rated a 7 by 40% of the teachers.

Classroom observation data supported the changes teachers reported. More “doing history” classroom activities requiring higher-order thinking, such as analysis and evaluation of primary documents were being assigned, and history was being presented more thematically, instead of as facts to be memorized. However, nine of the strategies were still not being used by between 20% and 60% of the teachers, with the highest level of nonuse being reported for historical artifact analysis, “doing history” research assignments, and use of the counterfactual approach. (See Table 1)

Data collected in spring 2004, at the conclusion of the project, indicated a significant increase in levels of use of all strategies in the classrooms. (See Table 2) All strategies were now being used by all of the teachers at some level. Overall, all strategies were reported to be in routine use or higher (levels 4-7) by at least 60% of the teachers. Thematic instruction was 100% for these levels, while use of graphic organizers was at 90%, and perspective-taking exercises and community connections were both at 80%. Further examination reveals some significant shifts in levels of use for many of the strategies. Use of artifacts went from 60% at level 0 (nonuse) in 2003 to 50% at level 4 or higher (routine to renewal) in 2004. “Doing history” research assignments went from 50% at level 0 to 70% at level 4 or higher. Thematic instruction went from 90% at level 4 or less to 100% at level 4 or more. Use of graphic organizers went from 83.3% at level 4 or less to 90% at level 4 or more. Finally, use of the counterfactual approach went from 90% at level 4 or less to 60% at level 4 or more. However, one strategy showed little change. The use of the narrative approach was reported at 60% at level 4 or less in 2003 and was still at 50% at level 4 or less in 2004.

Sustaining Use of McRAH Strategies

The 2005 data collected a year after the project concluded showed a great deal of sustained use of the McRAH strategies. The results of individual interviews indicated that the use of primary documents and document-based questions were still at a high level hi all social studies classrooms. (See Table 3) Most teachers reported using primary documents many times during a unit, most often consisting of newspapers, magazines, and primary documents from the historical period being studied. Teachers were using document-based questions to challenge students and help them understand the material. The use of “doing history” activities was also being maintained, including student investigations, analysis of primary sources, projects, taking snapshots of an historical time period, and less use of memorization. (See Table 4)

The data indicated that use of two of the McRAH strategies had not been maintained or increased over the year following the project. Historical artifacts were still only being used by 45% of the teachers. (See Table 5) In addition, 73% of teachers characterized their overall curriculum design as chronological, as opposed to the thematic approach recommended by project faculty, although some teachers reported imbedding themes within the chronological structure. (See Table 5) Overall, at the end of the year following the project, 64% of the teachers reported using more McRAH strategies, and 45% were revising previous units, compared to one year before. (See Table 6)

Feelings, Attitudes, and Stages of Concern about McRAH Strategies

Data collected on the teachers’ feelings, attitudes, and stages of concern about each of the twelve McRAH strategies over the period from 2003 to 2005 showed a progressively positive attitude and increasingly higher comfort and confidence levels. Negative feelings about the strategies are measured by teachers using a rating of 1 on the SoC scale. In 2003, after one year of exposure to the strategies, only 11% (n=1) rated any strategy as negative (historical artifact analysis). (See Table 7) Subsequent ratings in 2004 and 2005 showed no teachers reported a negative attitude (stage 1) toward any strategy. (See Tables 8a, & 9)

Teachers expressed a low level of concern (stage 2) with the strategies from the beginning of the process. In 2003, no strategies were listed as “of concern” for more than 18% (n=2) of the teachers, with this highest concern listed for use of narrative approaches. (See Table 7) In 2004, no strategies were of concern for more than 20% (n=2), and all were listed by a small percentage of teachers. (See Table 8a)When asked to explain the reason behind their concern with a choice of twelve possible issues, the most common for all strategies was “I am not sure I know enough about this strategy to use it effectively”. (See Table 8b) In 2005, only two strategies were listed as being of concern, each by one teacher. (See Table 9)

Data collected over the three years showed an increase in confidence and excitement about use of the strategies (stages 5 and 6). (See Tables 7, 8a, & 9) In 2003, eleven strategies were rated over stage 4 by 50% or more of the teachers and, in 2004, nine strategies were rated over stage 4 by 50% of the teachers. By 2005 all twelve of the strategies were rated over stage 4 by over 65% over the teachers. Many strategies showed significant increases in teacher confidence and excitement. For example, thematic instruction went from 55% to 100%. Historical artifact analysis went from 66% to 89%, while use of graphic organizers went from 53% to 89%.

Teachers were most excited (a rating of 6) about community connections in 2003 (70%), artifact analysis in 2004 (40%), and conceptual questions and graphic organizers (56% each) in 2005. In 2003, teachers were least excited about “doing history” research assignments (20% at level 6); while in 2004 no teachers rated use of a narrative approach at stage 6. In 2005, use of the narrative approach was rated a 6 by only 11% of participants. The use of images/media and perspective-taking exercises went from being rated least excited about in 2004 to most excited about in 2005.

Finally, teachers showed enthusiasm for the strategies, as measured by low reported levels of indifference (stage 3) overall. In 2003, no strategies were rated at stage 3 by over 11% of the teachers. In 2004, six strategies received no ratings of indifference, while only two were rated as high as 30% (n=3), and in 2005 only one teacher rated one strategy with indifference (use of community connections.)

Conclusions and Implications

Examining the results presented above can provide social studies educators with answers to the key questions that framed this study and support for the two key principles that guided the development of the project. In terms of the adoption or use of the McRAH strategies, all strategies were being using in the teachers’ classrooms to some extent, most by the majority of teachers. Dramatic changes had taken place in the four years since the start of the project, with teachers reporting the biggest changes being in use of more active learning strategies, using document based teaching regularly, having students engaged in “doing history” in the classroom, focusing on the big ideas of history, having more confidence in their teaching, and a greater desire to try new instructional practices. This reinforces the value of the focus on pedagogical content knowledge. The changes in teaching practices were in line with the practices modeled by historians and developed with educators during the project.

The second principle, an awareness of the individual developmental nature of the teachers’ change in practices, was reinforced by the fact that certain of the McRAH strategies were put into practice more than others. Teachers showed individual patterns of adoption. Initially, the wide range of levels of use from 60% nonuse (artifact analysis) to 44% renewal (primary documents) reinforces the idea that adoption of educational innovations is an individual process. Those that were put into practice most overall were use of primary documents and document based questions, increased use of thematic instruction, use of perspective-taking exercises, such as role plays and scenarios, and use of familiar, familial, and community connections. These were also the strategies whose adoption was being sustained after the project had concluded. This result is in line with the developmental nature of the adoption of changes in teaching, in that individual teachers could only be expected to make so many changes in practice at one time.

Teachers chose to adopt certain of the strategies first for several reasons. First, those chosen were the strategies that had been emphasized most by the institutes and workshops during the project. In particular, using primary documents, thematic instruction with conceptual questions, and “doing history” activities were the strategies most often demonstrated by the historians while teaching their sessions during the project, while the narrative approach was not as extensively explained or demonstrated. Second, those strategies adopted first involved changes that the teachers could make individually in their classrooms, without interference from other teachers or administrators within their schools. Third, the most often used strategies were those for which teachers could most easily get new resources. This was particularly true for using primary documents. Teachers had been given access to document collections housed at the college partner and the historical society partner, and were shown how to find necessary materials easily on the internet. This was particularly important to these teachers who work in a high-need district where resources were not available to acquire costly materials. The increased use of community connections is also a reflection of an idea stressed during the project, particularly the importance of helping minority students see a local and personal connection to larger ideas in American history.

A closer examination of one decline in rated level of use from year one to year two shows that for the first year a number of strategies were already being rated at the highest level (level 7 – renewal), and were rated at a lower level after the second year. This could indicate that the teachers focused on the language “seeking major modifications of strategies”, in our description of level 7, meaning that they had not yet really adopted the strategy but were still modifying it and experimenting with it after one year. Lower numbers for the renewal level the following year may mean that the teachers had now adopted the strategy more routinely and saw modifications they were continuing to make as refinement – “varying the use of the strategy to increase the impact on students” (level 5), rather than as “seeking major modifications of strategies” (level 7), thus yielding a lower rating.

In terms of the teachers’ attitudes, feelings, and comfort levels with the adoption of the McRAH strategies, the majority of the teachers expressed a strong sense of confidence and excitement about all of the strategies by the end of the study. They felt particularly positive about the use of primary documents, thematic instruction, artifact analysis, “doing history” classroom activities, and using images and media. Again, these were the strategies most often emphasized and demonstrated during the project activities, thereby reinforcing the importance of the modeling by historians. Results presented did show a dip in confidence on the part of some teachers during the second phase of the adoption process. This could be due to the fact that after teachers had tried the strategies they realized they needed to know even more about them to really put them into action in the way they wanted. The teachers had higher standards for themselves when rating their concerns at this second point. This would account for the description of thenlevel of concern as “I am not sure I know enough about this strategy to use it effectively.” A change in feelings may have occurred after a year of trying to implement and refine the strategies. The second rating was based on more realistic, substantive levels of development in the adoption process (two years of development), as opposed to the first year’s responses which were based on the first level of adoption (one year of development). This again reinforces the developmental nature of the adoption process.

In conclusion, those strategies that had been adopted and maintained to the greatest extent were those that were: emphasized most by historians and teacher educators from the beginning of the project; were easiest for teachers to implement directly into their own individual classrooms; and were the strategies with which the teachers felt most comfortable. The higher the comfort level, as expressed by a high stage of concern rating, the higher the level of use, and the more the use of the strategy was sustained after the project concluded.

These conclusions lead to several important implications for other projects attempting to improve history and/or social studies teaching. The study reinforced the importance of having historians demonstrate and emphasize key principles of pedagogical content knowledge, and the importance of directly introducing and modeling researchbased methods of instruction for teachers. In addition, it is important to make the teachers feel comfortable with the methods introduced. The adoption and maintenance of the McRAH strategies was helped by the gradual, ongoing support provided by the project activities, such as continuous on-line mentoring and contact, workshops, interaction with colleagues, classroom observation visits, and easy access to resources.

Finally, it is important to understand the developmental nature of the process of adopting new instructional strategies. By giving teachers specific strategies and examples of how to use them, and giving them encouragement and time to make the strategies their own in their individual classrooms, teachers felt comfortable trying and eventually routinely using the new methods. Our project may have been too ambitious in presenting twelve strategies all at once. This may have been too much for some individual teachers to absorb. Conversely, it did allow for choice in implementation of a variety of strategies by those who were ready for adoption at different times and were in developmentally different places. Future study of this topic should include continuing follow-up with these teachers to see if the use of the strategies continues to be sustained, and perhaps further routinized and refined, into the future. Comparisons with similar projects across the country may yield important conclusions as well. This study yielded valuable results with regard to adopting and sustaining use of new teaching strategies toward the goal of improving the teaching of American history in secondary classrooms.


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Biography: Ragland is Assistant Professor of Education at Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, II. She teaches curriculum design, secondary instruction, social studies methods, fieldwork and student teaching seminars, and supervises interns and student teachers.

Rachel G. Ragland, Ed.D., Lake Forest College

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