Saturday, July 5, 2014

How To Make History Less Boring

David Cutler, who teaches history at Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay, Florida, wants to make history more fun by making it more relevant.  He makes his case over at The Atlantic.  In the process he give a nice shoutout to Bruce Lesh's Why Don't You Just Tell Us the Answer: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12.  I recently received a review copy of this book from the publisher but have not had a chance to crack it yet. I will now.

Here is a taste of Cutler's post:

[Lesh] offers an array of lessons and case studies, like how to introduce historical thinking through Nat Turner’s Rebellion, chronological thinking and causality through the Railroad Strike of 1877, and historical empathy through the Truman-MacArthur Debate. Throughout, Lesh places a premium not on one’s ability to recall cold facts (which most will eventually forget, anyway), but on whether students can read critically, reference appropriate sources, and support an argument with evidence.

“I'm not preparing you to go work in the archives,” Lesh says, noting that in his 21 years in the classroom, he’s taught only one student who went on to earn a Ph.D. in history. “I’m preparing you to make a presentation to a client as to why your proposal to build their building is the best one. 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.”

More than most others’, Lesh’s work has urged me to reexamine how I teach history. In seven years on the job, most recently also as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools, I’ve often revisited how I approach three of my biggest concerns:
  • Teachers are foolish to expect students to remember anything for long that has little to no direct relevance in their daily lives.
  • Teachers need to do a much better job of connecting history to today, and placing a greater emphasis on how young people could learn from past mistakes.
  • Teachers should assess students on what they can do with what they know, rather than how much they know at any given time.