Recently on Twitter, I came across a tweet from @facinghistory that simply posed the following question to educators: “Why is it important to teach history?” This is a question I am asked often by other educators and friends. Most often the question is preceded by some comment of “history was my least favorite subject in school” or “how do you cover all of that material.” Needless to say, I consider myself well versed in my response to that question, but after reading this question on twitter, I began to really think about this question and its implications in modern education and society.
What is it about history that causes it to be a source of frustration and boredom among students and adults when it relates to education? Here are some of the complaints I hear often: It’s just too complicated. It’s boring. It can be overwhelming. It can be confusing. As a social studies educator, I agree with all of the above. In fact, I believe ALL subjects in school can fit into these categories. So, what it is about history that makes students dislike the courses, but enjoy other core subjects that can often encompass some of the same characteristics? The answers, I believe, are simple, yet incredibly telling.
It starts with the curriculum. In a nation of buzz words like common core, standardized testing, and graduation rates, we have made critical decisions regarding the curriculum our students are learning. I believe social studies has been hit hard by some of these decisions, as much of the curriculum has resulted in “cramming” or condensing as much material as you can into one school year in order for students to learn as much as they can by date of their standardized test. Because of this, social studies classes often become memorization and facts classes in which students are simply trying to keep up. They have to cover a certain amount of the material, and in many cases, I think schools feel the best way to do this is simply to teach facts, facts, and more facts, in hopes that students will be able to synthesize all of this at the end of the year. This hurts the social studies curriculum, and causes students to simply be bored. It takes the excitement out of the curriculum, and it hurts the creativity of the students and the teacher in their efforts to establish relevancy and deeper meaning with the curriculum.
How can we fix this issue: The Teacher. There are many ways to fix this issue, of course, but I believe the teachers of this subject can truly make a significant difference. Many of you teach in public schools where Common Core and standardized testing is supreme, while others of you teach in independent schools with flexibility over the curriculum. Regardless of where you are, there are ways to teach history and make it fun, relevant, and important for students. Approaching history thematically, and teaching it with project based learning at the front of your lesson plans will not only allow students to learn the curriculum, but it also fosters 21st century learning skills and allows students to get involved. They can be decision makers, collaborators, innovators, and thinkers solving real issues. Teaching history is exciting. It provides historical foundations for our modern world. It helps students connect past events with the very issues that affect them today. If you approach it thematically, and allow students to learn history by solving problems and empathizing with global themes, the subject has the opportunity to become one of their favorite subjects and less of a rote memorization class full of book work and worksheets. Instead of looking at a unit on the Civil War as all of the dates, terms, and people they need to know, look at it as a theme of Freedom and Human Struggle, and while teaching the curriculum, allow students to relate this them to modern examples of Freedom and Human Struggle in their lives. Allow them to see that learning history makes them globally minded citizens, and active citizens. Turn your classroom into a design/thinking lab. I have poster boards on my walls that students can write on when they think of ideas, or when they have opinions. Allow students to sit in thinking teams, to collaborate, and most importantly, to approach history in a new way. Encourage them to practice empathy with learning history, to learn history by analyzing its modern implications, to learn history by assessing ethical decision making, and to learn history by solving the world’s most complex problems (and they will learn these problems have been around for YEARS!) Make history come alive for your students! If you do this, it will renew your spirit, and it will renew a passion for learning in your students. Teaching history is important, and it is FUN! It can be fun for your students, but you have to make it fun for you first. Students will not enjoy your class if you don’t enjoy it.
So, to answer the infamous question “Why is it important to teach history?” or “Why teach history?,” I have a new outlook. I teach history because my subject is unique. I have the sole opportunity to help my students learn historical foundations full of recurring global themes and diversity, and help students establish relevancy to their modern world. To be globally minded citizens and active participants in this world, students need to understand the role of history in shaping the world, and they also need to fully grasp that despite our diversity, we are all interconnected in some form or fashion. My subject allows students to be solution seekers and global participants who can make a difference in this world. History has the power to repeat itself, and it has the power to begin anew. I teach a subject that changes lives, and this is why I teach it.