This Bizarro cartoon gives kids a good reason to learn history.
What was the USSR? That question came up during a family Christmas. As someone who did their Master’s in History, and who once had plans to teach history, this question was shocking.
It was made worse when it wasn’t just a high school student asking that, but a 20-something as well.
And it made me realize how much of a dis-service to students, and to society, is happening with the standard approach to teaching history. People don’t know their history, and generally aren’t interested in history.
I’m in the minority when I say history was my favourite course in school. Most people generally say they were bored by history class, or forget most of what they learned. And this is a problem. Beyond the old idea of “those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it” a knowledge of history is vital to understand so many conflicts and situations facing the world today.
I think the standard approach, starting from the beginning and trudging through years, and dates, and names, doesn’t quite work for most people. So is there a solution?
Reverse Chronological Order
Most history courses are taught, starting from one date, and moving forward in time. This makes a certain amount of sense. Time is a progression and events follow each other. That’s great. That’s how we think, that’s how most stories go, and that’s how history happens.
But is it the most interesting approach? I would think people are more interested in knowing about events that happened in their life-time, which we are still seeing the effects of, or for which their are still living witnesses. But with the standard approach, modern events are rarely touched.
I personally remember taking more than one Canadian history courses where we barely get to Confederation before we run out of time and a 20th Century history course where we barely got to the Second World War. I know it’s important to understand events that lead to the next event, but if the events are never connected to the student’s life, the lessons won’t stick.
So what if we start with modern history to get the students hooked, and then go backwards from there? It could either be a full backward course, or you could jump back and forth. Granted, this could be fairly confusing for people who like to keep things in order, but it could help provide more context for events. It could also make learning history more like unraveling a mystery. You know the outcome, so then you look at what caused it.
While this is sacrilege to people who like the “great man” type of history teaching, we could approach teaching based on the interests of students.
In university, there are already thematic history courses, but why not bring this down to high school? It doesn’t have to be a full course devoted to, say, urban history, but it could be a course on “The Revolutions that Shaped our Society”. This would show students the ties that bind history together. Or even local history courses, showing connections to the rest of the world.
Or, perhaps history could be worked in the other courses of the curriculum. Often, my major projects for my science classes ended up being papers on the history of that particular science. If someone isn’t interested in history, they might at least be interested in the history of their favourite topic. And this would give them a deeper appreciation of where what they are learning came from.
Current Events and Root Causes
My high school history teacher often asked us to bring in current events to discuss. This was great as it gave students a chance to talk about the history being made, as it was being made.
What if an entire history course was taught taking current events, and looking at discussions of the cause of those events, the motivations and inspiration for the players, and perhaps even connection to other historic events?
Granted, this type of teaching would be completely disjointed and confusing, and would take a lot of work to prepare. But it could be good for senior level high school students, letting them define where their learning develops.
Pop-History done right
Popular conceptions of history is a problem for teachers. Accepted myths, history taught by television and film and history as understood and conveyed by politicians inform how many people understand history. And this understanding is often shallow and mis-guided.
The fast-talking John Green and the Crash Course History team provide a great example of how pop-history can be done right. Through a series of 10-15 minute You Tube videos, Crash Course provides quick history courses, but they don’t shy away from providing deeper understandings of history, and they gladly challenge accepted beliefs and myths.
As a great example, take a look at their video on the American Revolution:
A combination perhaps?
Are any of these approaches better than the standard approach? Or is a combination called for?
In the end, I’m not a teacher so I will have little influence, but I’m interested to hear from current history teachers and professors, or people who are still on track to enter the profession. What do you find works best to get students engaged in learning history?