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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Teach history, not ‘social studies’ units

Periodically, my eighth-grade teacher would fill the blackboard with everything we should “know” for the test. I remember “1777” (battle of Saratoga, turning point of the Revolutionary War). I also remember that he was annoyed when I told him he’d misspelled “Pocahontas,” and tried to bully me into backing down.

The Battle of Saratoga in 1777 was the turning point of the Revolutionary War.

Even then — 1965-66 — teaching history as a memory challenge was out of date.

Only 36 percent of Americans could pass the citizenship exam taken by immigrants, reported the Woodrow Wilson Foundation recently. (Immigrants study for the test, of course.) Those over 65 did much better than those under 45.

The foundation blamed history teaching that focuses on “memorization, dates, names, and events.” That’s one of the “myths” about learning history, writes Natalie Wexler in Forbes. Americans don’t learn too many facts, she argues. They know too little.

The first myth, that history is “boring, dry and useless,” motivated education “experts” to develop social studies, she writes. Social studies teachers often present “decontextualized bits and pieces” of history “as part of larger ‘themes’ like ‘cultures around the world’ or ‘American symbols’.”

History can be boring and dry, but it can also be presented as a series of stories. The theory that students will be more interested in learning disconnected historical facts than narratives—being told that the flag stands for “independence,” for example, rather than hearing tales about the Revolutionary War—has it backwards. The human brain is hard-wired to understand and remember stories more easily than other kinds of texts.

That’s what I love about history. It’s stories about people.

“Most American teachers have been trained to see requiring students to memorize dates as tantamount to educational malpractice,” writes Wexler.

But when dates are invested with meaning—when students not only memorize 1776, 1783, and 1787 but also know what significant events occurred in those years and how they’re connected—they can be crucial for gaining the kind of understanding that boosts analytical thinking.

Elementary primers once used stories drawn from history to teach children to read, but that went out of fashion in the 1930s, writes Wexler. Instead, “experts” decided K-3 students should learn “about themselves, their families, and the local community.”

That really is boring.

By the 1980s, history was considered “developmentally inappropriate” for young children, she writes. Psychologists no longer believe the theory of developmental stages, she writes, but “it’s still taught as gospel” in education schools.

Visiting some of the few American classrooms that have embraced history, I’ve seen first-graders entranced by learning about mummies, and second-graders on the edge of their seats, worried about whether the Americans will win the War of 1812. They were a lot more engaged than students subjected to the steady diet of comprehension “skills” that most elementary teachers spend many hours on every week.

“The systematic teaching of history . . . all but ended in elementary schools,” replaced by math and reading skills, historians complained in a 2012 article. Elementary teachers spend a few days each year on the “holiday curriculum,” which “focuses on venerating national leaders and icons (such as George Washington or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance).”

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