The History of History Teaching

In the recent past and into today, many history educators have struggled against outside expectations and constrains that have hampered their ability to teach and their students’ ability to learn. Things like standardized testing, Learning Standards, the rise of “Google-like” information retrieval, and scarcity of classroom resources and primary sources have all impacted the teaching and learning done in a history classroom. While some of these constrains are becoming embedded into the American education system, other ones of these issues are being resolved through the use of technology and the Internet.

One of the constrains that has shaped education in schools across America is the establishment of state and nation-wide learning standards and increased use of standardized testing to ensure that these standards of learning are being met. Many of these Standards of Learning center around content-based knowledge; they dictate what facts a student should know. This is nothing new in the history field. As Sam Wineburg writes in his article “Crazy for History,” ever since 1915, teachers and researches have been testing students on their factual knowledge of history. And every decade, tests have consistently shown that students lack basic factual knowledge about US history — with students in each generation only answering 40-50% of questions correctly. Wineburg blames this failure not on students or teachers but on the test itself, which is written with a “discrimination index” so that all test questions fit nicely into a bell curve.

This type of educational environment, where textbooks and fact based exams dominate and Standards of Learning are written to satisfy special interest groups, is in many cases detrimental to real learning. Because teachers are expected to prepare their students for these standardized tests, they devote most of their time in the classroom to trying to cover as much material as possible in order to give their students the opportunity to score as high as they can. It is also important for teachers that their students score highly because their students’ score has increasingly become a direct reflection on their own teaching ability (and in some states, their salary even depends on their students’ scores). Because of this, history teachers feel that they have to provide coverage and teach for the test, leaving them little time to give their students hands-on experience with what historians actually do, let alone allowing them to participate in creative leaning activity.

Growing up in an educational environment that is immersed in standardized testing has also affected how students learn. As Mills Kelly observes in his article “Teaching History in the Digital Age,” because of standardized testing, students are good at answering questions but not necessarily the ones that historians deem important. They might be able to answer factual-based questions but cannot tell why the person or term is important or what affect it had on a larger event. Students know that there is specific information on the test and only want to learn what is necessary in order to score well on the test; therefore they are always asking: “Will that be on the test?”. At the same time, these students are affected by the “Google” mentality they have grown up with. If they have a question to answer, they simply have to type it into Goggle and mere seconds later, they have thousands of search results (although they normally only look at the top one or two). Because of this, many students believe that classroom learning should be the same. They want to find the answer fast instead of investing time in really trying to understand the information in context. This is why many students seem overwhelmed or confused when asked to think deeply, analyze primary sources and form connections. This type of learning requires more effort than just finding the answer to multiple choice question.

While many teachers are quick to blame technology for ruining their students’ minds and work ethic, technology also offers many solutions to teachers’ sometimes limited resources and points to techniques for better student engagement. Another issue that has long affected history teachers in the classroom is what John McClymer describes as an era of scarcity. Before the Internet, teachers relied solely on textbooks which only have a certain amount of space to present information. Just as many teachers today feel rushed as they provide the most coverage of the material they can, textbooks also worked to cover as much material as they could in the space provided. But in doing so, many textbooks end up doing a poor job because they could not afford to add much detail. Now, in the Internet age, McClymer believes we are living in an age of abundance. Instead of relying solely on textbooks, the Internet now provides websites with unlimited pages and amounts of information in as great detail as teachers and students want. Many textbooks provide few charts, graphs and illustrations because they are expensive to print. For example, previously, a student might get a picture of one renaissance sculpture in his or her textbook and for them, that one example embodied the entire renaissance. But now the Internet has provided an abundance of resources. Instead of one example, a teacher can provide links to multiple examples. If a teacher is unsatisfied with resource they currently have, they can easily find another one on the internet. Online databases like the Library of Congress and JSTOR provide access to hundreds of primary sources and journal articles that can be accessed from anywhere at any hour of the day. Because of the internet, teachers are no longer constrained by the information in the textbook their students have or the maps and documents their school owns. Instead, a whole world of resources are now available to them.

Some historians also claim that technology can also play a crucial role in capturing students’ attention, getting them to engage in the actual work of historians, and giving them context for the factual knowledge they do know. For example, Mills Kelly writes on his blog about four ways of using technology to do just that. He calls them making, mining, marking and mashing. These are really tools to allow students to be creative and to interact with sources in their own unique way. For example, students might make their own video continuing film clips, audio, images and text from serval different events in order to make one historical argument. When students are allowed to choose their own material and let their creativity shine, they often become more involved and interested in what is being done. Finally, John McClymer also sees the Internet as place for students to gain the context they need to understand the factorial knowledge they do have. He gives the example of Thomas Jefferson, who had a special desk that would allow him to reference several other works that the book he was reading was referring to. McClymer sees the Internet as providing “Jefferson’s desk” to history students.

In conclusion, some of the external constrains put on history teachers (like Standards of Learning and testing) are seemingly here to stay. But other restrictions, like the scarcity of resources is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Instead of regarding technology as a destroyer of minds, teachers need to learn to embrace technology and the Internet as tools that can be utilized to make history education more individualized and engaging.

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