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"If Students Fail History, Does it Matter?"

"If Students Fail History, Does it Matter?"

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"If students fail history, does it matter?"

I came across this question posed in one of the forums of the National Council for History Education. It has resulted in some lively discussion, to say the least. The post was based on a report by the same name that ran on CNN this summer (

In it, the correspondent states that "it is clear that students aren't learning history" and that the reasons why could include "apathetic students, how history is tested, and the No Child Left Behind Act squeezing history out of the classroom in favor of math and reading." (I'd love to hear your thoughts on the report after viewing). So what if students do not know their history? Is it really THAT important? I would argue emphatically, "YES IT IS," and for many reasons.

For far too long, history courses have suffered the reputation of being simply being "one 'darned' thing after another." If that is the way it is taught, as a timeline of trivial facts that have no connection or relevance to students, then perhaps there is no value. However, when students are guided to discovering those events that continue to shape our existence and can apply the lessons that are learned from such studies to their own lives, then the study of history becomes not only important, but essential.

In a well-taught history course, students are not assaulted with factoids but learn the processes involved to effectively study the past. This process require us to teach students important skills such as experienced-based decision-making, research, the ability to recognize (and appreciate) multiple points of view, civic engagement and responsibility, and numerous others that facilitate the development of responsible citizens. This "process" is more important than the vast array of "content" that is contained within grossly over-sized history textbooks.

Twenty-First Century learners have at their disposal more information than at any time in history. Teaching them how to effectively sort and interpret this information is more critical than ever. And isn't that what historiography really is?

No other course can be taught in such a way that it can reinforce all others, especially when using an interdisciplinary approach. Developments in mathematics, literature, science, government, and the arts, all take place within the context of history. And to truly understand and appreciate the impact that each of these disciplines has on our lives, one should learn the context within which they developed, the history of their origin.

John Hendrick Clark said it well: " a clock that people use to tell their political time of day. It is also a compass that people use to find themselves on the map of human geography. History tells a people where they have been and what they have been. It also tells a people where they are and what they are. Most importantly, history tells a people where they still must go and what they still must be." Take away the teaching of history, take away our "clock" and "map," and we as a people will surely lose our way.

So, if your principal, your superintendent, your school board, your local/state/national representatives ask you the question, "If students fail history, does it matter?" how will you respond?

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19Pencils's picture

I think this pretty much summarizes it:

Take away the teaching of history, take away our "clock" and "map," and we as a people will surely lose our way.

As students grow, who knows, they may even find they enjoy subjects such as history. Oh to go back and do it all over again. Many things wouldn't not be all that nice to do again, but history class? I'd take a "Do Over" in a heartbeat.

Jason Fabbri
Discover, Manage, and Share Content for Learning.

Darlene Pope's picture
Darlene Pope
8th Grade Social Studies teacher & Dept. Chair, AVID Coordinator

HIstorical thinking and writing are the breeding grounds of critical thought. Educators, administrators, and policy makers need to see that history is an underused vehicle for closing the literacy gap, not only in reading and writing, but in active citizenry as well.

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Editor

Hi All,

Here's an Edutopia blog post you might find interesting, How to Engage Young Students in Historical Thinking.

I find in my work with teachers, that often with younger children especially, history learning is too often done only at the "recall" level (i.e. low stage of Bloom's Taxonomy).

What are some specific strategies and approaches for engaging students as historical thinkers in the classroom? Please share. : )

Thank you,

Jessica's picture
Building Confidence in Students, One Child at a Time

I feel history as a subject is an important subject for every student in school life. History gives a background, knowledge about a particular region or a nation ,knowledge about a culture or heritage which shall be important for future use. Thus, history is a very useful subject and every student should pay attention on this subject.

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

I tell my scholars all the time if you don't know the answer to a multiple choice answer ... don't come ask me what the answer is ... just guess. If it's a question where you have to fill in the blank and you can't remember the answer just give it your best shot and maybe you might get one of the words right or maybe even a letter. Like I keep saying, if you don't try you never know.

Or something like that. I think I might try too hard to convince them that trying feels good.

Anyhow, today's the test on the Stealing Lincoln's Body documentary we watched. Fifty-seven questions pulled from all those fascinating facts. At the end of the documentary, we got to see his tomb as it looks today ... and up above the huge marble sarcophagus a message is inscribed on the wall ... the words spoken by Secretary of War Edward Stanton when he died ... Now he belongs to the ages. Powerful words.

In the tomb the passage is written in all capitals, like this: NOW HE BELONGS TO THE AGES. I like that better, because it is better looking. In the test the scholars were asked what was written on Lincoln's tomb wall above the sarcophagus. You had to be paying attention to the TV screen when we were watching the documentary this week. Of course, the answer was also on the study guide.

Anyway, they were asked on the test, What was written up there. They all responded. Most got it right. The ones who didn't get it right got it marked as incorrect--I find myself more and more chuckling under my breath as I grade tests--but they got extra affection points for laying these four on me ...

* A house divided in itself will not stand
* Once chance by another
* Here lies the man who changed times
* Whatever you are be a good one!

Well, they're all incorrect. I know it and they probably knew it, but they tried. They didn't leave the question blank. Funny, I really can't disgaree with any of the four wrong answers.

Mario Patiño's picture
Mario Patiño
NBCT, science educator

In a well-taught history course, students are not assaulted with factoids but learn the processes involved to effectively study the past. [/quote]

This result is key to any course, effective teachers create an environment where it is difficult not to learn. If we create the learning environment, the learning activities, assessments, and our responsive to the needs of our students-is it possible to fail?

Nancy's picture
9/10th grade US history teacher, CT

In my district, as in the whole state, History takes a big back seat to Math Reading/writing and even science... all for the state tests. About 3 years ago my department head chose to change what we teach in 7th grade from world geography to the first half of US history. This in an effort to raise the test scores in 2013 on the HS graduation test that would then include a separate history test section. "Finally" we all said.. we are not going to be the "red headed step children" any more. (the powers that be have since changed their minds about the test and are revamping it).
We left the text book behind and went to a system of Assured Experiences that were standard across the district ( an important thing in a large urban district where students move often). She got us all together to design these AE's for the whole 7th grade from Kennewick Man to Valley Forge. We created some from the ground up and took some frome great sources including the Document Based Questions used in NY through a program. that we got to experience in a development workshop. Each of the AE's developed Critical thinking skills, was interdisciplinary with at least 1 other subject besides the writing and reading of sources... We are working towards expanding this to all grade levels including the 5th and 6th grades...
I know that if we as SS educators can do more project based learning and Document based question activities that can utilize technonolgy and get the students involved we can prove our worth to the world. We long ago lost the "text book timeline" as a way to teach... I am not here to teach them facts... I am here to Facilitate the gathering and evaluation of the facts and the use of those facts to solve a problem or answer a question to ask Why?

My Pro's picture
My Pro
Founder, Prometheus Academy

Thanks for a great post! I have enjoyed reading the responses! It is obvious to adults, in various fields, the need to study the past to aid them in their present day endeavours. There are many professions where you may find yourself reading The Art of War, for instance, and with good reason. Not only is it important to know why we are the way we are, it is essential to teach students that the wisdom of the past has present day applications. One end result in a lesson plan, for us, is for the child to learn to relate the people and events of the past to their own life and experiences; the child will retain what they have learned. Boys who are bored with grammar and writing, suddenly find excitement in writing a "journal entry" of a soldier in the Roman Aux. However, this can only happen after being introduced to that soldier first. Bringing history to the child by using the first person approach is one way we teach. Every child has a counterpart in every era of history. By using not only literature but all types of media, any character from history can be revived for a child to find and connect with.
What follows is how our school is different:
We are a student-directed school. The learning rooms are larger and can be sectioned off. For the interest of the students, and with their help, we form a plan using perhaps some aspects of Language Arts, Technology, and History to cover three subjects at once. This allows for more devotion to each. A "holistic" approach, for lack of a better term, is essential in this era of "way too much information". Is it easy to monitor each child to observe their unique interests? Of course not. I find it is more difficult, however, to get teachers from different subjects to teach together as a team. Once they do, wonderful efficiency evolves. We write up a plan, which will be used over and over. (Once the formula is created, we offer choices or prompts. By offering the children prompts to learning, they choose the path best for them. We have found that relatively few formulas for a combination plan will work for many situations.) By adding many teachers into the mix, we are steady in several subjects at once, for a good part of the day until that lesson is done. (Students who wish to go further are given the opportunity to continue during the independent study portion of the week). We have also gotten the expertise from many good teachers. The teacher:student ratio does not decrease or increase, even though the class size will increase if the plan calls to combine the classes. It is radical, but it works for us. We find that if children choose how to learn, they will retain the information. We don't stop with a C grade, we find what that child needs to be stimulated to learn the subject.

James Kendra's picture
James Kendra
7th and 8th grade Social Studies teacher in Grand Rapids, MI

I feel social studies is the most important class students should take if it is taught the right way. this article says it very well - we shouldn't focus on the facts and dates in the curriculum, but the skills and critical thinking that needs to be done by students to be successful.
I really don't care if students don't remember much of what I teach them, but reach an understanding that we are what we are because of the people and events that came before us. Their decisions made a difference and the decisions being made today may be of equal importance.
I feel the only way to effectively teach SS is to incorporate current events into the class daily. I really haven't found any other way to get my students to care about economics, civics, and geography without connecting it to their lives. Also, I'm amazed how often the history lessons of any given day connect with the stories in the news that day.
Also, keeping up with current events each day keeps ME from getting bored with my class. It is fun to learn with the kids and they like to keep me up to date on stories we have talked about in class.
It doesn't matter if they forget some of the historical facts from their classes. It matters if students leave school thinking SS is boring and has no relevance for them. We want them to become active citizens when they are adults - don't turn them off when they are 15!

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

James wrote: "I really don't care if students don't remember much of what I teach them, but reach an understanding that we are what we are because of the people and events that came before us. Their decisions made a difference and the decisions being made today may be of equal importance."

I wanted to call this out, because it's such an important point. There are analogs in other subjects (problem solving in math, critical thinking in literature, etc.), but it's in history and social science where the future citizenry is nurtured.

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