George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How do you improve history instruction for young people? My advice might seem hopelessly out of touch with the realities that history educators face in classrooms every day. But as a complete heretic on the subject of history instruction, maybe I can add some outside-the-box ideas to the discussion.

The Wrong Reasons

I produce and host a downloadable audio production that focuses on history. The feedback we hear most often is from people who have discovered that they love history, but never before realized it. "Where are all the boring names and dates?" they often ask. When my two girls, ages twelve and nine, bring history-related coursework home, it seems almost designed to bore them.

Then the chance to write this post arrived and forced me to consider two things:

  1. Why do we need kids to learn this stuff?
  2. What should they know to meet that identified need?

The hard reality we need to accept is that the overwhelming majority of students do not absorb or retain what history they are taught. This historical amnesia is on display everywhere. I watched something on television the other night where random passers-by were asked basic history questions by a producer holding a microphone. Of course the idea is funny to the audience because the answers of the interviewees are so unbelievably wrong. We all ask, "How could they not know that?" Despite having been taught history when they were in school, those interviewees either never learned the content or forgot it. This makes a mockery of any conceivable rationale for employing the same methods of teaching history that were used in the past.

Herein lies the problem. History is not taught to foster knowledge and the love of history. Instead, it serves subsidiary purposes, such as civic responsibility, patriotism, and pride in one's heritage. But that isn't what history is for -- we warp it when we try bending it to achieve such goals. (Do we do this with math or reading?) We mandate that kids must learn about this or that "important event" and then bore them to death with something that 90 percent of students will forget once the test is over. In the era where continuing education is an important lifetime endeavor, we should instead develop a love for studying the past by allowing students themselves to decide what they love about it.

History is Inherently Interesting

Everyone is naturally interested in history. How could they not be? Oral historians for thousands of years have held audiences in the palm of their hands with this material. History is full of all the elements that make great entertainment: drama, romance, war, crime, and fascinating characters. Truth really is stranger than fiction. If the only goal were instilling a love of history in students, then teachers would be out of a job if they couldn't accomplish that with the raw material the past supplies -- provided that they (or better yet, the students) got to choose the material.

If my daughters could develop a love of history from their pre-college exposure to the subject, I would consider that immeasurably more valuable than any specific knowledge of "important events" that they learned about. In college, those civic purposes we deem so important for K-12 kids to learn are going to be undercut anyway. University professors don't buy into the "subsidiary purposes" of pre-collegiate level history -- and in fact will actively work to deconstruct the whole idea.

Were I anointed History Czar, I would ditch the curricula entirely. These things are holdovers from another era of history instruction. My goal would be to get kids to love the study of the past by connecting to their affinities. Into music? It's got a history. Motorcycles? Fashion? Entertainment? Sports? Getting them to explore the history of a subject they already love is a great way to teach historical knowledge and how the current reality came to be. In the 21st century, this is the greatest practical value the study of the past provides. Each student is going to have different stories, eras, people, and places that get him or her excited.

I would encourage kids to pursue their interests and forget about what they "should" know. That's what we should teach them.

For more ideas about creative ways to teach the story of us and to help students become lifelong lovers of history, click here to listen to my podcast on the subject (MP3 file size: 18.3 MB), and think about how you might use this perspective in your own classroom.

Meanwhile, please share in the comments section how you engage students in the study of history.

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Andrew Shauver's picture
Andrew Shauver
high school math teacher in SW Michigan

"(Do we do this with math or reading?)"

Well, by that question, are you asking if we, as you put it, use math to serve "subsidiary purposes", then yes. We do.

Math gets used as merely an employability mechanism. Do more math so you can get a better job. Do math so you'll make more money (because, after all, that is what it means to have "better job", right?)

I'm becoming more and more convinced that education doesn't have any problems that can't be fixed by solving the "why" question. In that, Mr. Carlin and I are in complete agreement.

Not that any of you care, but I discuss this exact topic here:

I don't know if I say anything better than Mr. Carlin, but perhaps there's some value in a second version of the same idea.

Dan Carlin's picture
Dan Carlin
I am a podcaster.

Andrew, I absolutely see your point about how the teaching/learning of Math and such can be justified to achieve "subsidiary purposes", but the difference is that what you are learning hasn't changed, only the WHY you are learning it. Math is still math.

However, in order to make history serve the subsidiary purpose, you often must change the material itself (which is sure easier to do with history than with math!). We can whitewash the past to hide events that reflect badly on our country, we can emphasize elements that exalt our past and we can promote approaches that show us in a better (or worse) light. For example: if a nation decides that the teaching of history is in large part to promote a sense of national greatness or pride in one's culture (say, in Japan), then NOT including events like the war crimes in China during the Second World War becomes an important change. To teach such negative facts (the truth!) would undermine the subsidiary goal.

In the U.S. there are currently movements and funding efforts to re-introduce "patriotism" as a main goal in history education. So we then emphasize the good stuff and whitewash the negative stuff from our past to achieve these goals. It happens everywhere. But what you end up with when you do that is a different kind of history. A reshaping of the past to meet modern goals (which is common in history anyway, and may, to some extent, be unavoidable). But when you teach math for subsidiary reasons, at least the equations are still the equations. What you learn is applicable and relevant, regardless of why you learned it. But when you teach history for subsidiary reasons (and warp it while doing so) you learn material that if you move on to college will be totally reversed, undermined and re-learned. College professors will not only re-teach this history to students, but then show them (via historiography lessons) how their lessons were manipulated to foster goals that had nothing to do with actually "learning history". When students get to college level math, the math that the learned in k-12 will still be accurate, regardless of why they were required to learn it.

In some ways it reminds me of the concept of teaching creationism in schools. In order for the goal to be met, the subject matter (and the facts and information) needs to conform to the goal. It would be like saying 2+2=5 now (because there are good societal reasons for it to add up this way).

Hope my answer makes some sense...(and thanks for your comments!).

School Around Us's picture

We have found that teaching history through literature works well for most of our children. We accompany this with "real life" experiences - crafting hands on learning that mimics the history we are studying. For example, during our study of American Colonization, we set up a situation where the kids lost their rights to basic things - pencils, paper, classroom supplies etc. We told them that they were allotted a certain amount daily but then would have to pay for extras with tickets. We extended this to other things in the school (under the guise that the administration was trying to save money and we would be "charged" as a class for what we used in excess) such as leaving the lights on or doors open to the outside. We would give or take away tickets depending on how they followed the rules. As teachers, we purposely continued to push this and add more things that the kids would be charged for. After a few days, there were many kids completely up in arms! In fact, some of them made signs and even started a protest against the administration! Some of the students suspected that we were setting this up, but went along anyway because it was fun. We had students holding secret meetings about how to overcome this unfair practice and others who became loyal to us telling us what was happening behind the scenes. It really gave us a fantastic perspective on taxation without representation etc. Our students also love to make movies and we have shown our learning through this process several times. The kids write stories, make commercials and find ways to use their creativity for a group project. Here is a piece of the film we made about the Revolutionary War

Zipcoach's picture

"I would encourage kids to pursue their interests and forget about what they "should" know. That's what we should teach them." This is a very interesting point that you bring up. I am a Social Studies teacher that still sees a great value in SOME of the content that is being delivered to students. There are some classes at the middle school and high school levels that need to be done away with. There is no usefulness or practicality in students trying to learn this content. I think that the deeper issue is not of the content itself but the delivery of the content. History is boring using the same lecture, read text, do worksheet and take test methods. The flipped classroom and PBL has helped students become more active in the learning of history. Maybe by using more of these methods students will only forget 80% of what they just took a test on.

"We learn from history that we learn nothing from history." - George Bernard Shaw
"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." George Santayana

Which one of these quotes holds more value in today's society?

Michael McLaren's picture

Back in 1984, as a sophomore in high school, my history teacher told us our first test would be an essay exam. He wanted us to be able to explain the why of the subject matter we were learning, and couldn't care less if we got the dates, names or places right. "Why," my teacher Joe Oistead told us, "is the most important question to ask and learn about any historic subject -- because it connects more dots and paints a bigger picture of everything that surrounds the story." In Joe's view, 'why' got you to the understand the bigger picture you were looking at, how deep how broad how wide it was -- and that there was always more connected to it. He used the example of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, telling us that the when and where is less important than why it was written and what influenced the authors who penned it. "Understand that, and you understand why we have a Supreme Court that decides if a law is Constitutional or not," he told us. My fellow students were not buying this, because it flew in the face of memorization of historic trivia, which dominated what history education seemed to be all about; but to me, the light bulb went off. Understand the why and you gain context, and from context deft understanding. Learn why something happened, what the influencing behaviors behind that 'why' and you can dig deeper into what history really means for us today. You can make a meaningful connection to your own reality.

I now teach my own girls to ask, "why?" if they really want to understand history. Not the places, names, dates and trivia that passes for historical education, but the "why" we did what we did, and why people behave and make the decisions they have and continue to do. In this way, history becomes a relatable study in behavior, social science and current affairs, and once you start looking at it from that perspective, it's never boring nor difficult to make a connection to what's happening in the world around you. Teach it by forcing kids to memorize patriotic trivia may make them great at fact-based board games and contestants on "Jeopardy," but it won't make them thoughtful world citizens. Making history matter to students means finding ways to connect it to their lives now, teaching them the "why" of it and how human behavior shapes and affects it. Do that, and future generations have a better chance at avoiding repeating the errors of the past.

OHewitt's picture

Hi Dan. Caught the podcast over at Common Sense, but when you mentioned it, I wanted to come by and read what you wrote here.

I was a local history librarian in British Columbia, Canada, which is in a lot of ways still kind of a frontier town. I don't mean that in a perjorative sense mind, it was a wonderful place to live and had all the modern amenities - but the local history was very important for the town as well as the regional district. People were very involved in it on a personal level and I think this probably had something to do with the size of the town and its relative newness, being founded in the latter half of the 20th century.

My role at the library was unfortunately very dry simply as a matter of overhauling and re-organizing the existing collection as well as sorting and archiving a huge trove of photographs and primary docs, so I didn't get to work with students very much. My colleague at the local history museum is really the star of this story as she often carried out programming that had children recreate events, 'live a day in the life of x' activities, nature hikes that were tied into the local history of aboriginal groups and tons of guest speakers from the local community who were descended from the first settlers as well as the aboriginal communities. On the library's part, we did do a series of human library events where patrons could check out a local resident for an hour to talk about whatever they wanted as well as having high school age students conduct oral history recording projects with their grandparents or senior citizens so that their experiences could be recorded for posterity (and uploaded to the library website as MP3s).

The real secret, I guess you could say to the success we had in connecting local history to the children is that its completely bound up in their future, letting the children know how their future working careers in the area are limited to certain industries, unless they plan to start a new business, certainly gets them thinking about their place in their hometown and whether they should move to the larger cities. Secondly, as the Pacific Northwest was one of the last places settled in Canada, there are still a lot of outstanding land claim issues and treaty negotiations that are ongoing (as in a treaty with the crown was never signed in the first place, which most aboriginal groups have) - so a whole number of issues that are very important to indigenous groups such as land rights, resource use/sharing, legal rights and responsibilities, etc etc, are still very much in the forefront of people's minds (and of course the aboriginals in BC are extremely well read about other aboriginal groups in Canada have been historically treated and can name a number of precedents). Being such an important issue, a mindfulness of why the town was founded, how its interacted with its aboriginal neighbours and who the big families who ended up owning a lot of the land are have really rubbed off on the settler population. You could say that this is merely a contemporary political issue that is under debate, but I've found its much more than that. I've had adults and children ask me during my term in that community about similar issues across our country and throughout history in other societies. It did connect to junior and high school students who did end up asking questions like "Why is my family here? What is the story behind my community? Why is there so much disagreement about what's fair and what really happened?"

Basically, what we tried to achieve was to get students to try and historically place themselves where they were and ask why they ended up there and others didn't or why a boomtown goes bust and then booms again or whether any of those processes _have_ to repeat themselves. Not so they'd have sort of a lumpy, generic settler guilt, but more of a well-rounded appreciation for how their place in the present came about through a synthesis of the available opinions. I hold that finding your place in your national community starts in your local community and I believe we did give many of our younger students and patrons the skills necessary to do that.

andrewclow's picture

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breadandcircuses's picture

Hi Dan - I am with you mostly. At least when it comes to being able to break out of rigid adherence to curricula I limitedly agree. However, I also think it's important for students to be exposed to that broad story from their origin to the present. I think we can retain curricula and discard rigid adherence. For instance, I find that the units I have developed around the Holocaust and civil rights are truly transformative.No amount of project based learning or castigation of curriculum will ever convince me that the power of history to change people permanently is overstated. I think the real issue is that we hire coaches to teach history; where there are fantastic coaches who teach history, most are coaches first and teachers second.

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