Getting Students to Like History Is Not Impossible

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Ms. Gorn is the executive director of National History Day and is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland.

The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics recently released the U.S. History National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), painfully pointing out that America is raising young people that, to an alarming degree, are historically illiterate. The report's findings (nearly unchanged from its last report in 1994), are neither new nor surprising, but they do reinforce what various reports over the last quarter century have lamented as the problem of students' lack of historical understanding and the devalued nature of history in our nation's schools.

Indeed, there is a crisis in learning in American schools. Too many students lack a basic understanding of American and world history and the skills to explore the past. That so many students are deficient in their knowledge of history testifies to the inadequacies of our nation's teacher preparation. According to a 1991 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, more than half of all social studies teachers did not major or minor in history. While new standards have placed pressure on some teachers to change their classroom practices and engage their students in analyzing multiple perspectives and primary sources and in developing research skills–these are skills that teachers themselves often lack. And standardized testing too often results in “teaching to the test” instead of allowing students to develop both the content knowledge and the critical thinking and research skills required for meaningful historical understanding.

Despite this stark evidence, history education gets little attention from reformers and policy makers. The Bush Administration and Congress have made education a top priority, but their focus is reading, math and science. Some school districts are decreasing history coursework to focus on math and reading proficiencies. Alabama, Michigan, and New Jersey have all delayed state social studies tests until revised academic standards that focus on math and reading skills are completed. As a result, while no child may be left behind in math, history remains even farther behind.

How can we ensure that students leave school historically literate? We must revise the way in which history is taught and thus learned in America's classrooms, so that teachers engage their students in a meaningful study of the past through the use of primary sources in classroom teaching. In fact, the NAEP report validates such teaching by pointing out that students"whose teachers reported using primary sources on a weekly basis had higher average scores...” But teachers’ lack of training in content and methods means that, to achieve this revision, we must reach our not only to students but to those who teach them.

National History Day (NHD) offers a model for solving this crisis. NHD is a highly regarded history education program which affects more than 700,000 students and 40,000 teachers each year. NHD provides training in using primary material for teachers through summer institutes, seminars and local workshops. These teachers then guide their students in choosing historical topics and conducting extensive research using primary and secondary sources, analyzing their material, and presenting conclusions in papers, exhibits, performances and documentaries. In the process, students hone important research, critical thinking, and presentation skills as well as learn historical content, and teachers enhance classroom practices to make history relevant and meaningful for their students. That is why effective educators like Chauncey Veatch, 2002 National Teacher of the Year, incorporate the program into their curriculum.

Although National History Day reaches thousands of young people and their teachers each year, there is still much to be done. Reform also must come from schools of education that are producing new teachers. College students training to become history teachers should be required to major in the subject matter so that they have a solid knowledge of historical content and methods.

Improving historical literacy and history teaching also will require much larger financial commitments from private and public resources. While the Teaching American History Grants program funded by Congress is a promising beginning, it is limited in scope, and funding for history teaching still lags far behind support for math and science.

Congress, policy makers, charitable foundations and corporations would be wise to invest in history education reform, lest our students charge us with educational felony – because by neglecting to provide quality instruction, we are robbing students of their past.

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mike xavier Gill - 8/10/2004

Dr. Tenuth,

I have just recently come across your article entitled "Object Oriented Teaching". As a public school teacher I have to take issue with your comments about the so-called "out-of-field teachers. You admit upfront that you were unaware "that so many teachers were unqualified" or that school boards thought so little that "they did not require better teachers". It's bad enough that those with a political bent try to make something of what has close to no significance to low achievement in schools, but for a historian to simply accept as truth what another individual has to say on a certain topic without doing any research himself seems like the breaking of some kind of cardinal rule. I was under the illusion that research was the backbone for someone in your line of work.

Mike Gill
Third Grade Teacher

Mark Van Over - 3/22/2003

I like the idea of making history fun, but what do students come away with when participating in an exercise that recreates historical periods. I read with interest the idea of turning out the classroom lights and such from one colleague. However, what does that teach the students? While experiential exercise can be powerful, does this equip students with critical thinking skills or help them learn the lessons that can be gleaned from any one period? I remember in high school, while studying the Civil War, we had a debate about slavery. Our teacher made us divide into two teams--one that supported slavery and one that did not. It was then that I learned WHY the southerners so hated the idea of abolition. Another teacher had their students make hard tack. Great. They knew what Civil War soldiers had to eat in their camps. What did that teach them?

Exercises and games have their place, but only when fit into a framework of learning the lessons that history has to offer. A good teacher can be "academic" with their course while still making the subject enjoyable.

Veselin Rieches - 3/1/2003

My opinion is that if you go back in time with the students in the classroom they will learn more& actually have fun!.
For example, instead of wrtiing notes on the American Revolution, go back in time in the classroom. Back then they had no electricity back then, right?
1.)turn your lights on,
2.) don't use the computer
3.) write notes on the on the overhead.
1.) Open the cutrins, to let natural sunlight to come in
2.) Write notes on the chalkboard
3.) Use candles in the room of little flashlights
If you make like paper money and make a villiage that the colonists would have had and make the students trade anything buy stuff, and care for their families. If you choose to do this, put the students in to groups of 4. You need 1 boy, which would be the the father, breadwinner, 1 girl, which would be the mother, caregiver, etc. Then 2 other students be the kids, etc. Then have them act like a regular conlonist family would do for the next few weeks.
For the paper money, you can get like some of those plastic coins, and fake money at a General Store, such as Dollar General, Dollar Tree, etc. On Fridays have the students (colonists of the village had a village meeting.) Let them talk about anything they want to protaining to the time period.)

unknown - 1/5/2003

I agree strongly and also bring up the fact that we need to vot e for democratic candidates who actually give a damn about the education in America today(not just history education), and right now. This should be the main goal for 2003 and on, considering our children are the backbone of our economy, our politics, our future wars, our life even. Let's show them that we care, and then maybe in the future, they might care.
high school senior

Jeff Tenuth - 6/20/2002

Several recent postings have noted the poor performance of students in history classes. This is not a new problem; it has been with us for decades. Experts have been seeking solutions for just as long. As much as experts decry the trend, it is society itself that contributes to the problem by de-emphasizing the importance of history in favor of more technical learning and by allowing mass media entertainment to be the dominant force in student's lives. As noted by Jane Hall, our "commercial culture...does not lend itself to historical reflection." It is society itself that must re-prioritize if history is to become a viable component of school curricula. And there are ways that we, as historians, can help. But I don't believe that Hall's recommendation that students be required to know more dates is a solution because the problem is essentially one of relevance. Students don't think dates and other historical facts are relevant to their lives; especially if they are presented in isolation. For the most part, dates are not relevant unless the proper context is established. That is our task as historians-to establish the context and make historial facts relevant. I agree with Dianne Ravitch's assessment that text books must change and that out-of-field teachers must be better qualified. I was unaware that so many teachers were unqualified or that school boards thought so little about the relevance of history that they did not require better qualified teachers. Closer to my thinking was Sam Wineburg's proposal to place greater emphasis on historically accurate films as well as replacing generalized textbooks with more focused texts. The only problem with that is, who decides the topics that would get more focus? If it's the same people who decide which textbooks are currently used, then I doubt if any progress will be made. And finally, Cathy Gorn's notions about inadequate teacher preparation are correct; but greater responsibility must be shared by parents and students themselves. And while I agree with her view about the possible benefits of National History Day, my ten years experience as a state finals judge in senior level papers was, in the end, disappointing because the I saw a very definite decline in student interest in pursuing the correct methodology of history. Increasingly students thought that a primary source was nothing more than the main source used, particularly an on-line encyclopedia. It was then that I realized something was fundamentally wrong at home or in the class room, or both. One way to attract student interest and at the same time take Sam Wineburg's ideas even further is what I call object oriented teaching in which museum artifacts are used to establish a sense of authenticity and relevance. I have been a museum historian for nearly twenty years now, but I have never been a teacher in the conventional sense. During those years I have learned that if we capture the visual interest of a student, we are much more likely to spark his/her general interest in the past. In dozens of presentations over the years, I have seen how students become interested when they see the actual objects of the past. It's more diffcult for a student to believe what he/she reads if there is no visual verification. That's one of the main benefits of museum objects-they prove the past existed. They verify what quality textbooks say. As part of this method, I do not stress dates beyond general dating because too many dates break the continuity of the past with the present. Dates are useful guideposts, but they are only a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Instead, I stress the "what," "why," and "how" of history; rather than dates and places (which is not to deny the importance of geography in history). Another component of this method is to use current events when discussing the past. Students are more aware of the world around them than we think and if we link the present with the past, we can help them establish the relevance of history in their lives. For those who suggest that object oriented teaching is impractical or unsafe for artifacts, the latest advances in long distance learning compensate for any safety concerns because the objects never leave the museum. In more than three dozen presentations made last year to all grade levels throughout Indiana, I never witnessed any problems with artifacts but I did witness considerable student interest. And while my methods will not completely solve the problems of poor student performance, they do provide one possible solution. Musuems that have the ability to use their collections to teach history (as well as science and other subjects) should do so. This method not only helps students learn history, it helps museums use their collections for the benefit of society in general. Jeff Tenuth Historian and Chief Cataloger Indiana State Museum Indianapolis, Indiana

Pierre S. Troublion - 6/17/2002

More funding more wisely spent, more teachers better trained, more history courses better organized and presented: this is all fine, but ancillary to the main challenge. History instruction has been watered down, dumbed down, and cut back. No matter how many catchy gimmicks and well-polished presentations we instill, the bottom line remains: At some point the student has to crack open a history book (once in a while even a history TEXTbook) and actually read the thing !

To prevent "garbage in garbage out", of course students need better-written texts and better-trained teachers to help coach them on how to read for retention and critical understanding. They also need to devote MORE TIME to reading history. That means LESS time on something else. How about violent TV ? I do not advocate censoring the mindless junk which fouls our airwaves, but why not have something like a Recommended Weekly Allowance ? A maximum of 10 gratuitous acts of violence per week, say, and then, for healthy, balanced mind go read a book.

Clayton E. Cramer - 6/17/2002

Under the best of conditions, the teaching of American history involves some unpleasant, sometimes very embarrassing truths. Dealing with slavery, and with how the Indians were deprived of their land (my, isn't that an antiseptic phrase) -- neither of these are going to go over well with most Americans, or with their representatives in Congress or the state legislatures.

These unpleasant truths, however, are tolerable to the masses--as long as historians play the game straight. Historians need to do a better job of dealing with politically motivated fraud. They also need to get past the PC-driven garbage exposed on the underside of the rock labeled "Bellesiles scandal." I see an increasing number of books (not Bellesiles's _Arming America_) that claim that hunting was rare in early America! This is demonstrably false, from almost any travel account of the time.

Black slave owners: I understand that at least one university told a professor not to mention that there were black slave owners in the lower division classes for fear of "confusing the students." This smells more like an attempt to turn American history into a bashing class, rather than conveying the complexity of the divisions along race and class lines.

Ronald Karr - 6/13/2002

"Improving historical literacy and history teaching also will require much larger financial commitments from private and public resources."

Dream on!