My PLN colleague Liz Becker (@Ellsbeth) kindly wrote yesterday on her excellent blog All Who Wonder are Not Lost: History is Dead, Long Live History about how my post about math education (“…Long Live Mathematics!“) could be applied to history. I’m grateful for her post, and I think we’re reading each others’ minds. I’ve been meaning to write about history education in the 21st century for awhile, but am holding off. Not because I don’t know what to say, but because I have SO MUCH to say. To be clear, I am nearly at the point where I think ALL of history education needs to be rethought. In light of the realities of the 21st century, I think history education needs a complete overhaul. I’ll write about this in detail in a future post, but for now, how ’bout this for a grenade: all history classes should be interdisciplinary courses about current events, taught backwards. As I said, I’ll explain in a future post.
As a history teacher, of course it makes sense for me to say that I frequently think about what a good education in history should be. But it’s been on my mind much more than usual lately. I’ve been in a deep inquiry about what students should leave high school knowing, given that they’ll live in a world where historical facts are always at their fingertips.
Liz states the inquiry quite well in her blog post: “…how much we should shift the approach to teaching history if, through technology, students have much easier access to the facts than in the past?”
As I’m sure Liz and most readers would agree, an excellent education in history should never have been construed as just memorizing facts. Yes, remembering names of historical figures and key events is important, but there’s much more to good history than that.
So what should a 21st century education in history be?
Let me start by explaining how my recent inquiry has been motivated by three things. First, I’ve noticed over the last couple years that I rarely pull a History Primary Source Reader off the shelf for my students. Instead, I find excellent sources online. I just can’t find a Reader that gives my students all the relevant primary sources the World Wide Web can. Second, my department is engaged in a curriculum review process this year that has taken us to some very fundamental questions, like: should we attempt to cover the whole history of all human time between 7th and 11th grade (when our required courses end)? should we be focused on “coverage” or on “meaning-making”? what should students know and be able to do upon graduation? is it more important they know a lot of historical facts or that they can think like historians?
And thirdly, a couple week ago I ran across this excellent TEDx talk by Diana Laufenberg. She is a Social Studies teacher at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA, where the curriculum is inquiry-driven, project-based, and focused on 21st-century learning. Though her talk is ostensibly about learning from mistakes, I think she’s making an important point about history education. She begins by stating the obvious, but what most history education standards don’t yet acknowledge – students don’t need to come to school to find historical information:
Laufenberg: “The main point is that if we continue to look at education as if it is about coming to school to get the information… we’re missing the mark.”
Like computers can do the computing for mathematical problems, the internet is a better source for historical facts than textbooks or teachers alone. Primary sources abound on the net, and a well-trained history teacher can help students acquire the skills necessary to determine which sources are accurate and relevant, and how to make their own historical narratives out of the abundant facts.
Yes, remembering names of historical figures and key events is important, but not as essential as learning to think like a historian. Students should engage with the truly essential facts of history frequently in the process of making their own historical narratives. I can envision students dealing with tricky historical inquiries about the origins of the Tea Party movement, and coming to grips with facts about southern and rural libertarianism, for example. Certainly, students in a well-designed 21st century history course would retain important facts of history.
Much more valuable than facts is the ability to do historical inquiry – to formulate questions in response to problematic facts, research, then analyze and evaluate conclusions in light of the facts, and create one’s own historical interpretation. Or, to tweak the process slightly, to evaluate historical claims using information literacy skills.
Of course, teaching students to think like historians is not a revolutionary notion. Even those conservative voices advocating old-style “coverage” pedagogy claim that too is their goal. They lecture about a topic, then require students to read much of the same information from a textbook at home, before finally providing the key thought-provoking essay prompt: “Assess the validity of the claim that Jacksonian Democracy was about empowering ‘the people’.” Yes, to respond to the prompt is to think like a historian, for a moment.
But the problem of doing history this way in an age of information-surplus is that students spend much of their time as passive audience members, ingesting information, rather than grappling with it to find their own voices. Let’s be clear – it is inconceivable that students won’t have access to lecture information in the future: Wikipedia has every fact that I’ll cover in my AP U.S. History course this year, and if students want to hear an expert lecture they can always find one on iTunes University from Berkeley or MIT. So instead of coverage-style lecturing we need to use the very valuable classroom time to engage in deep inquiry about historical and current problems. Teachers should create powerful essential questions that require students to master information literacy skills they’ll need in a digital age, and to master historical inquiry. From these questions, students will behave as historians, researching, analyzing, evaluating, and creating DAILY. Isn’t that more valuable critical thinking than the odd essay question every few weeks between lectures?
Liz Becker and Laufenberg and correct. The 20th century history classroom has to change. In a world of information surplus, we must recognize that good history education must transform students into power information critics, able to evaluate claims and build their own truths from myriad facts.