Teaching History

Wonderful article about the art and philosophy of teaching history from The Atlantic,You Have to Know History to Actually Teach It” is an interview with Eric Foner by David Cutler.

I taught history many years ago – before the internet, before Wikipedia, before this testing craze. Even then, I told my students it wasn’t the goal to memorize a bunch of dates and facts. The goal was to know how to find the information (remember, pre-internet) and analyze. In my current work, we promote the analysis and critical thinking about historical resources — not the memorizing of dates/facts to spit back on a test.

So you can imagine my glee in reading this interview with Foner.

I’m strongly in favor of students knowing the facts of history, not just memorizing or having it drilled into their heads. I’m certainly against this testing mania that’s going on now where you can judge whether someone really understands history by their performance on a multiple-choice test.

My daughter’s history classes have pretty much been multiple choice tests. That’s about it. Her AP history last year? Read 10+ pages of dry text, take notes and take a huge test. She (wisely) chose to not to AP U.S. History this year to avoid more of that slog. Her “regular” U.S. History course is still filled with multiple choice tests (although not as bad) but is so stuffed with content and the need to cover all the standards that there is no room for analysis and thinking.

Yet, my daughter chooses to watch historical documentaries on her own. After watching one on the Dustbowl (such an uplifting topic), she’s been finding connections all over the place. It’s stuck with her.

Foner encourages the teaching of history to teach students the skills they need to be citizens. Funny how the skills he identifies are the skills we promote in the concept of 21st Century Skills.

We try to teach people the skills that come along with studying history. The skills of evaluating evidence, of posing questions and answering them, of writing, of mobilizing information in order to make an argument. I think all of that is important in a democratic society if people are actually going to be active citizens. Teaching to the test does not really encourage emphasis on those aspects of the study of history.

 

I also really appreciate his sense that it’s the teacher that matters — the ability of the teacher to convey their passion for history:

the training of the teacher, the ability of the teacher, the knowledge of the teacher, and the teacher’s ability to inspire students by conveying his or her own enthusiasm for the subject.

 

How can tech integration help with this? It has tremendous potential. The ability to find information and sources. The opportunity to create projects that allow students to think critically (analyze) sources and information. Moving towards the use of visual sources, not just text. The opportunities are endless! Is it as easy to assess as putting a Scantron test through the machine? Nope, but it’s far better.

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