Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A New Approach to Teaching History

The assumptions we make about the nature of history naturally lead to our beliefs in how history should be taught. If we think that history is nothing but dates, names, and places, then we will teach students to memorize facts and then locate them on a multiple-choice test. If we think history is much more than this, then integrity demands that we re-think the way we teach history in our schools. In other words - is history static and unchanging, or is it a more dynamic subject that demands the use of critical thinking skills?

Five Myths of Teaching History

The following are five "myths" that are perpetuated in our schools and communities. They often come in the form of reactionary complaints from educators, parents, and policy makers about how we should be teaching history in our classrooms. (Notice that I don't include students in that list. I've never heard students complain that they don't get enough multiple-choice tests, worksheets, or lectures!). 

The "truths" that debunk these myths are a composite of things I have learned about the teaching of history from my own personal teaching experience, from instructional methods based on educational research, as well as from my personal ideals and vision for the teaching of history in our schools.

Myth #1: History happened chronologically, therefore we need to teach it that way.

Truth: Yes, historical events happened chronologically, but that's not how history was created or written. History is not linear. We cannot truly place all human events onto one large timeline. Some events happen simultaneously whether related or not.  

There are two kinds of history: History 1 which is the actual event itself and History 2 which is our interpretation of an event. When we think of history, we usually think of History 1. History 2 is often called historiography or the study of history. We need to teach both kinds of history in our history classes. Otherwise, it would be like teaching a science class without teaching the scientific method. We can teach the periodic table and all the planets and the parts of a cell, but it does not mean as much to the students unless we also teach them how we know what we know. They need to understand that science (or any knowledge for that matter) is not given to us on a silver platter or in a petri dish. It was discovered by individuals - people like you and me - who were willing to ask questions, often really hard questions. Historiography is an integral part of any successful history class. 

The second part of this truth is that it is OK to teach history thematically instead of chronologically (more on this below). We don't need to adhere to a strict chronological sequence when teaching history. History may happen in chronological order, but it is not created in chronological order. History is created as individuals examine and interpret primary sources - newspapers, speeches, letters, laws, photographs and maps. Students must learn to do the same by learning to interpret primary and secondary sources.

Myth #2: But, like the physical sciences and math, history is not subject to interpretation. We can't change history because we can't change facts.

Truth: History is created in the context of contemporary events and as a result of current events, as well as the interpretation of both of these sets of events. In other words, we can return to a historical event and re-write it based on our understanding of current events and new information about past events. Events do not happen in a vacuum. There are other events that happen before, after, and during any one historical event that influence how people approach that event. Again, think of History 1 and History 2. For example, the history of the Vietnam War has been written and re-written based on new information about past events and in light of current events, such as the fall of the Soviet Union, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Arab Spring. Yet, the basic facts - dates, names, and places, have not changed. What has changed is the meaning these facts holds for us. 

Myth 3: We just need to teach kids "the answers" to history and have them memorize them. We shouldn't waste time talking about interpretations and opinions; kids just need to know the facts!

Truth: This myth first assumes that the facts are the "answers" to history. The "answers" in our history classes keep changing, because history keeps changing. Aside from dates, names, and places, there are no correct answers in history. It is not like math in which there may be several ways to get to the one right answer; history is more like English in this regard. Learning about history is learning about humanity - ourselves - and certain human values and principles. History should teach us how to act and how to think. This is the ultimate value of studying history - the untapped potential to teach valuable life lessons to our rising generation. 

Myth #4: History can't be "done" by children and teenagers. They just need to focus on learning it; they aren't yet at that cognitive level that they can use their higher order thinking skills to properly analyze and then write history. 

Truth: Teenagers never cease to surprise me. They use the principles of historiography on a daily basis - they just don't recognize it. They tell stories all the time. They are social creatures. They can recognize (and need to be able to recognize) that other people have different perspectives about the same event. We need to hone and refine those in-born skills that they already have and already use. We need our younger generations to be more involved in writing their own history, rather than having it handed to them in pre-packaged form. The making of history should not be left solely to university professors and academics, and especially not to politicians! 

Myth 5: We need to teach kids that there is a right and wrong side of history. We need to teach them to be on the 'right side' of history by promoting a progressive agenda and view the progress of society as inevitable.

Truth: There is no 'right' or 'wrong' side of history. Such assertions are not logically sound if one accepts a dynamic view of history. But there is a right and wrong side of morality – which can be defined as that which is helpful over that which is hurtful. Morality is not always subject to interpretation, but history is. What is moral is often incorrectly labeled as the "wrong side" and vice versa with the right side of history. Political correctness, as a rule, has no place in a history classroom. What may be politically correct today may not have been 100 years ago. Historians must be honest enough to recognize that fact without necessarily agreeing with it. 

I am not a revisionist. I'm not one of those people who take advantage of the broad nature of history in order to promote a political agenda or ideology by ignoring a specific set of facts. But, I do believe that each generation, each society, each individual must create their own history; in this sense, I am a devout revisionist. We all have the right to create our own history. We cannot change or ignore the facts, but we can choose how we view those facts and what they mean for us. In other words, we cannot change History 1, but we can change History 2. Our history is our identity, and surely we have the right to create our own identity and not to be given our identity by others.  

How Do We "Do" History?

So, if we do not subscribe to these myths of viewing history as static, then we must re-think the way we teach history in schools. We need to get our students to DO history, not just learn it. And if we feel we may be teaching history wrong, we should also take the time to ask, "Am I just teaching the wrong history?"

"You're not one of those teachers that gives worksheets, are you?"

Let's be honest; we've all had a teacher (or been that teacher) that gives worksheets. Worksheets are OK. They may be necessary now and then. But it is important to know how to use worksheets effectively. They must be used only if they work to achieve the class objectives. Rarely will a worksheet align with a teacher's objectives, because the teacher often does not create their own worksheets - someone else did. Students must understand and create their own history, not someone else's. 

I propose a new curriculum that is based on a dynamic view of history. This approach is standards-based, and uses global, course, unit, and daily objectives, and is built on essential questions, inquiry-based lessons, performance assessments, and primary sources. 

Elements of a Dynamic Approach to Teaching History

Standards – A dynamic approach uses specific standards and objectives that define what the students will be able to know and do at the end of each lesson, unit, and course. If something does not help students reach these objectives, teachers should seriously re-consider their use of it. 

Essential questions – Lessons are built around questions that provoke thought and encourage the application of the content to real-life scenarios and contexts. Good essential questions personalize historical principles and life lessons.

Inquiry-based models - History is a subject that is perfect for allowing students to create their own knowledge, rather than relying entirely on the teacher. Students ask the questions, examine primary and secondary sources, conduct research, and make conclusions based on supporting evidence. 

Performance Assessments – Students need a way to prove to the teacher that they know the content and that they can DO history, and not just be able to regurgitate facts on a test. It doesn't need to be multiple-choice questions. MC is often the worst way to assess a student’s knowledge and understanding of history. Essays, research projects, portfolios, book reports, and people reports are some of the many effective ways of assessing a student's knowledge of historical principles.

Reading and writing skills - These are the bread and butter of history and the humanities in general. History is best learned when it is read AND written, and then subsequently re-created or discussed openly. 

Primary documents/sources
The clincher: There is no textbook! Textbooks are easily outdated and often contain subtle biases that only confuse students. It can be expensive for a school to buy one for each student. Sharing them makes them wear faster and forces the teacher to keep the books in the classroom. Textbooks are not viewed as the objective and infallible source of historical knowledge. A dynamic approach uses a series of primary and secondary sources that are reliable, timeless, and re-producible (unlike textbooks). Primary sources can be collected into a set or book for each student and they can be available online. Primary documents do not need to be updated on a regular basis as do textbooks. They allow students to study history the way it was meant to be – unfiltered! New primary sources can be added as the curriculum evolves and new events occur. We don’t do history by looking through a book until we find the ‘right’ answers. The answers are inside of us and all around us. 

Examples of primary and secondary sources include letters, journals, newspapers, books, photos, maps, quantified data, speeches, artifacts, tours, museum visits, guest speakers, etc. 

Each unit of the course is connected to current events in the world, the nation, and the community. This allows students to connect historical principles to real life situations by creating tomorrow's history today. This is best done when using a thematic sequence instead of a chronological one. 

Thematic approach - This is one viable alternative to teaching chronological history. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages that need to be weighed. A thematic approach includes big, overarching themes (several weeks) and sub-themes (few days or a week) instead of units and chapters. It allows students to see the patterns and principles of history in more contained chunks, and then use those principles to make connections to current events and real-world scenarios. 

Claiming that history is better taught thematically does not mean that all subjects need to be taught this way. It is only a new way, the best way so far. Some students may still learn history better another way. These are only generalities in how to teach history. They are not hard do’s and don’ts. Teachers still have (and should have) a large degree of discretion in the classroom.

Copyright © 2013 Russell C. Duncan. All rights reserved.