Date of Award

Spring 2004

Document Type

Dissertation - Restricted

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Lowe, Robert

Second Advisor

Pink, William

Third Advisor

Schweizer, Heidi


In Wisconsin, every high school student is expected to take a state-mandated American History course as a graduation requirement. Such curricular emphasis suggests the importance conferred upon the study of American History by educators and policymakers. Yet, despite the enormous effort invested in teacher preparation, curricular standards, textbook writing, and assessment strategies, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that 60% of American high school students have failed "abysmally" to demonstrate "basic knowledge" and historical understanding of American History. Even without closer scrutiny, these findings indicate that something is not working in the history classroom. Clearly, in a traditional sense, students are not performing well. Moving beyond traditional pedagogy in the history classroom might yield improved meaning making for students. In this qualitative study, I examine my own attempt to develop a critical pedagogical approach, as well as the meaning students made from this pedagogical approach and the ways they acted on their meaning making. This study does not intend to malign traditional pedagogical approaches to history instruction, but instead to investigate a critical approach for its pedagogical potential to connect schooling to student identity. This study centers on a one-semester history elective called "The American Dream" and the ways students made meaning from the course one year later. The course was offered to sophomores, juniors and seniors at a private, coeducational, urban high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the 2001-2002 academic year. The analysis relies on a range of data sources which include audiotaped and videotaped interviews and class sessions, observational field notes, student work-free writes, assignments, projects, assessments-as well as follow-up data which were collected through a focus group, IM chat room sessions, and subsequent personal interviews. One implication of this study is that a one- semester course situated in a critical approach is too constrained by time to promote extended reflectivity or support long-term change in thinking. Overall, students indicated that grasping and integrating a critical approach took time and each might have benefited from a longer course experience. Further, students noted a lack of curricular cohesion when they moved back into traditional history instruction after the course was completed. Secondly, this study suggests that teachers need to rethink the methodological assumption that meaning making moves in a linear process from "ignorance" to "enlightenment." Over time, development in student thinking did not follow a neat, chronologically orchestrated sequence. Although there were thematic commonalities that underlined trends, meaning making was highly individual, situational, and ongoing. Thirdly, this study indicates that although a critical approach promotes personal understanding of historical social issues as well as varied levels of reflection, critical awareness did not necessarily lead to enacted change during the span of this project. Much effort was invested in facilitating personal understanding of the social realities behind tacitly accepted democratic principles. Yet, students struggled to act on that understanding. Often, I witnessed a complex balancing act between the selves that students aspired to become and the roles they felt they needed to play or could not escape. Student privilege influenced self-understanding and identity affirmation, frequently obfuscating student thinking about action. Finally, this study points to the contradictions inherent in the false dichotomy of "traditional pedagogy" vs. "critical pedagogy," by exposing the inherent flaws in conceptualizing traditional pedagogy as dogmatic and critical pedagogy as emancipatory. Without deeper consideration, instructional means, such as journaling, autobiographical projects and circle discussions, may support equally dogmatic ends. Authentic efforts at critical pedagogy by teacher-researchers must be approached with sensitivity to real forces that inhibit action. This study was approached from the naive mindset that the teacher would facilitate meaning making as students struggled to make sense of their worlds in an innovative curriculum. In turn, it was I who struggled to make meaning from unsettling realizations. A key realization for me was the tension between "the teacher" and "the researcher." As a teacher, the course upon which this study rests reflected an attempt to design a practical curricular solution to ongoing educational demands. As a researcher, I struggled to reconcile this mindset with a growing awareness that without a better understanding of the forces that shape classroom education, belief in a pedagogical "magic bullet" was provincial at best and critically unreflective at worst.



Restricted Access Item

Having trouble?