Should we rethink how history is taught in schools?
It’s exam season. Are you as cool as a cucumber or busy pulling all-nighters? Source: Shutterstock

As the old saying goes, if we don’t learn from our past, we are doomed to repeat it.

There’s no denying the importance of learning history in school. The subject serves as an important lesson about students’ country or the world’s unique history, the struggles people have endured, the wars that were fought, mistakes that were made, and so forth.

Despite that, if you were to ask most kids, they would probably say history class is boring, no thanks to its passive instruction.

Passing or acing the subject typically requires students to regurgitate information through rote memorisation.

In The Conversation, Alan Sears, Professor of Education at University of New Brunswick in Canada, writes that several key factors which limit the implementation of effective history education include “a persistent focus on nation-building rather than developing critical skills, and assigning teachers with little or no history background to teach courses in the area”.

Meanwhile, according to a study by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, students in the US are weak on their knowledge of American history. The authors note that history teachers “have the appropriate credentials”, but blame a bad curriculum, which they deem ineffective.

“What our study indicates is that students are studying history and their teachers are prepared to teach it. The American history curriculum, now in flux, has historically stressed memorising names and dates, and Americans have always fared poorly on tests about names and dates,” it said.

“The problem is not that today’s Americans are ignorant or that the current generation is less equipped than its predecessors. The problem is not that the schools have abandoned American history, the teaching force is uneducated, or the American history curriculum has been ravaged.

“The problem is not new. It’s perennial. Memorising random facts doesn’t work.”

Make history great again

Passive instruction is clearly an ineffective method of making history interesting, but what can history teachers do to add more joy to learning the subject and adding rhythm to students’ learning?

Speaking to The Atlantic in 2014, renowned American historian and Pulitzer prize-winning author Eric Foner said teachers should know their history before attempting to teach the subject.

“That seems like an obvious point, but sometimes it’s ignored in schools. Even more than that, I think it’s important that people who are teaching history do have training in history,” he said.

“A lot of times people have education degrees, which have not actually provided them with a lot of training in the subject. They know a lot about methodology. [That’s] important, but as I say, the key thing is really to love the subject, to be able to convey that to your students, and if you can do that, I think you’ll be a great teacher.”

In a separate report from The Atlantic, history teacher Bruce Lesh notes in his book, Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12, that history isn’t merely about recalling facts, but rather “whether students can read critically, reference appropriate sources, and support an argument with evidence”.

“My job is to teach you how to make arguments. Arguments are based on the application of evidence, and evidence is gained through analysis of information. That’s what we do. We look at historical problems. We build arguments about the questions that we created. We teach you ways to use evidence to support your argument.”

History teacher and writer David Cutler said he tries to make obvious connections to today when teaching American history.

“For instance, before teaching about European conquistadores like Hernán Cortés, who in the early 1500s conquered Mexico and the Aztec Empire for riches and glory, I play my favorite scene from the 1987 film Wall Street, where Gordon Gekko, an inside trader played by Michael Douglas, delivers his iconic ‘greed is good’ monologue. I then assign students to investigate America’s recent financial troubles, and the role greed played in causing the recession. Next year, I plan to show scenes from The Wolf of Wall Street,” he writes.

“I treat the subject of history as a conduit to teach important modern competencies like writing, critical thinking, reasoning, and technology skills. This makes the content more relatable, useful, and engaging. I allow and encourage students to retake assessments. I don’t penalise failure or missed deadlines severely.

“The end goal is mastery, and I’m not nearly as concerned about when an individual masters a concept— just that it is in fact mastered. My students know that, and it encourages them to keep on trying to reach their fullest potential,” he said.

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