One of the most difficult challenges that many public school teachers face is trying to make the subject matter of their courses relevant to their students. This is especially true in history and social studies courses where students often believe that past historical figures and events have no relation or influence on their daily lives. Likewise, these students often become disengaged in class and do not learn about the past. I write from personal experience when I note that this becomes an endless cause and effect process in which uninterested students have no empathy for the past and thus feel no need to learn about it. The fact that many history and social studies teachers all but force students to memorize historical dates and names does not help spark an appreciation for history either. However, it does not have to be this way. If we allow our students to “think like historians,” just as in science classes in which students get to briefly act like scientists during lab experiments, we will revitalize the past to our students.
History and social studies teachers have many techniques that they can use in their courses to spark interest in their students and to make the material relevant to their lives. Some methods to do so include, but are not limited to, using and analyzing primary source materials, highlighting historical issues such as diversity that resonate with today’s youth, and taking history lessons “outside of the classroom,” both literally and conceptually. All of these methods contribute to teaching students how to truly think like historians. Other approaches that could supplement these initial efforts would be to regularly integrate technological resources into the class setting and maintaining an enthusiastic relationship between the teacher and the students among other educational techniques.
The use of primary sources is absolutely essential in a social studies course if the teacher intends for his or her students to start thinking like historians. Historians Flannery Burke and Thomas Andrews (2008) have bluntly argued that the trouble with social studies courses today in the United States “is not that students cannot recall facts and interpretations. It is that too few ever learn how to think historically” (p. 155). Historians do not simply memorize historical dates and names so that they can recite them on command, but that is all that is expected of students in many social studies courses. Our students hardly ever have the opportunity to work with primary source documents or images, which are necessary for historical research projects that are new in interpretation, but still factual. As professional educators Karen M. Dutt-Doner, Catherine Cook-Cottone and Susan Allen (2007) have shown, “primary source analysis appears to promote a higher level of critical thinking and improved comprehension” (p. 2). This is because, in a secondary source textbook, such as the ones that the vast majority of US public school students are familiar with, the author of the textbook has already done all of the historical interpretation for the students. Thus, students are never required to think critically about historical events; they merely have to memorize the presented and simplified interpretation of history from one single secondary source.
Not only would the use of primary sources allow students to better understand what exactly professional historians do, it would also make social studies more relatable to their own lives. Dutt-Doner, Cook-Cottone, and Allen (2007) further argued that by using primary sources “the student becomes the historian, the person who seeks out and discovers the truth. Now, for the student, it becomes a journey of personal discovery as opposed to the story of someone else’s journey of discovery. Therefore, learning becomes moving and alive” (p. 2). Unfortunately, some social studies teachers are hesitant to heavily rely on primary source materials because when we try to have deep conversations with students concerning the texts, we often just get blank stares. All too often, we try to expose students to illuminating primary sources and the students are unable to read and/or comprehend the sources due to archaic language. If nothing else, the students often have little to no background knowledge on the historical subject, which makes many teachers feel that it is necessary to depend solely on simplified secondary sources. The end result is that many students mistakenly believe that history is just memorizing a list of names and dates, failing to understand that much of history is up to interpretation. Students do not get to see that secondary sources do not record history exactly as it happened, but rather give an opinionated account of what happened in the past. In the words of educators Daisy Martin and Chauncey Monte-Sano (2008), “In summing up so much of history, [secondary sources] necessarily oversimplify the past and create a neat picture devoid of historical evidence” (p. 174). Likewise, these secondary sources are largely opinionated and often make many unsubstantiated assertions.
Even still, while these frustrations and difficulties are a reality, teachers should not let these initial setbacks permanently discourage them. By relying only on, often biased, secondary sources instead of encouraging students to develop their critical thinking skills, the teacher has essentially found a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Moreover, this “solution” is more destructive than helpful in the long run. This is why many professional educators realize that as Jon Saphier, Mary Ann Haley-Speca, and Robert Gower (1997) have articulated “that what you expect [from students] is what you get—not right away, of course, but eventually” (p. 116). Will students initially be challenged and perplexed with primary source use? Most likely, yes. Can students still achieve great things with these primary sources through their own intellectual abilities and with the support of a dedicated teacher? Again, most likely, yes. Primary sources are the very fabric of history, without which there could not be any historical studies. Dutt-Doner, Cook-Cottone and Allen (2007) show that “background knowledge, document analysis skills for both written and images, the ability to integrate background knowledge, and historical thinking all contribute to the successful use of documents” and be can achieved with the aid of a dedicated teacher (p. 13). It can be a challenging and uphill battle, but one that, I believe, social studies and history teachers have an obligation to face if we are to effectively teach our students about the past and its implications for the present and future.
Students can also find meaning in historical lessons if the teacher regularly and effectively relates the ordinary lessons to issues that the students recognize and possibly even face in their day-to-day lives. One of the most prominent of such issues is diversity, especially in the United States. Highlighting the importance of diversity of both physical appearance and intellectual values should be a key goal of history and social studies teachers. As educators Kevin J. Miller and Milagros M. Sessions (2005) note, for teachers, due to their occupation, “Breaking down the stereotyping of a given culture, disability, race, gender, religion, age, medical conditions, or sexual orientation should be at the foundation of tolerance and diversity education” (p. 3). Teachers have an amazing opportunity to play a great role in this under-emphasized process. Miller and Sessions (2005) go on to argue that “It is our view that educators are ethically and morally bound to teach as well as demonstrate tolerance and respect for all individuals” (p. 4). If a teacher does not show respect for all groups, then his or her students may internalize not only the individual bias that the teacher showcases, but also the overall mentality that having a bias in general is permissible. This cannot permanently stand in a society that prides itself on its democratic ideals. Furthermore, the implications of such a scenario are both troubling and relevant to social studies and history courses.
Respectfully emphasizing diversity in social studies and history classes not only raises the consciousness of students, but it brings up another point that defines how historians conduct their craft. Historians, by the nature of their studies, are compelled to look at events, individuals, and historical trends with a relativist approach that requires them to understand and appreciate all sides of historical questions. Highlighting the diversity of differing people and values are central to such efforts. Likewise, social studies teachers must be self-critical and recognize their own biases, whether they are based on ethnicity, politics, sexuality, etc. Even still, social studies and history teachers can use their experiences with bias as a learning tool with their students. This is why Miller and Sessions (2005) note that teachers can “Bring the talks alive and [make their lectures] personal by giving instances where you, a family member, or individual in the community or history might have experienced a situation of favoritism, discrimination, or intolerance” (p. 11). Teachers must show students that they, the teacher, have both a historical and personal understanding of diversity and the implications of possessing such knowledge in the classroom and in the “real world.”
Fortunately for history and social studies teachers, the implications, both positive and negative, of living in a diverse society can often be seen in many current events within the United States. Not only can these current events be compared to the past to show historical continuity, but as Miller and Sessions (2005) further pointed out, “Relating historical events to current events and classroom activities energized even the most reluctant student” (p. 8). Many students naturally crave to understand the world around them. By relating issues of diversity through time and juxtaposing the past to current events that focus on such topics, teachers are often able to form a connection with the past that the students may not have recognized on their own. Something as simple as teaching about African-American slavery prior to the US Civil War and doing so during Black History Month can inspire impassioned debates and talks within the classroom. Obviously, as educators we must make sure these talks remain respectful and do not leave any student feeling uncomfortable. Moreover, we should also avoid the trap of talking about African American history only during Black History month, because doing so would actually reinforce the cultural dominance of white Americans. Even still, challenging our students to address these issues in class could be the first step towards solving such points of contention as a larger society.
Social studies and history teachers can also give their students a personal connection with the past by occasionally taking lessons outside of the classroom. If this cannot be done physically, then it can at least be achieved conceptually by, for example, emphasizing local history in the classroom. As a Turkish educator, Tuba Cengelci, (2013) has argued, “If the social studies course does not reflect real life, students cannot comprehend the importance of the course, and associate it with their lives” (p. 1839). Likewise, outside learning activities can invigorate students intellectually, but they can also serve as an opportunity for the teacher to highlight how larger historical trends can be seen through “local history.” The aforementioned Burke and Andrews (2008) further argued that “By discovering their own family’s past, students often see how individuals can make a difference and how personal history changes over time along with major events” (p. 157).
Unfortunately, Cengelci’s studies also noted that students in schools that serve low-income families tend to enjoy outside learning experiences far less than their more privileged counterparts. Cengelci (2013) showed this to be mostly because of bureaucratic obstacles and a general lack of support from parents (p. 1840). However, this is exactly why these underprivileged students need to get out of the classroom and “into the field.” Doing so is essential for these students. More privileged students can take such opportunities for granted because their educators understand the value of taking students out of the classroom and have the resources to do so. Meanwhile, in underprivileged areas, the corresponding students who especially need the opportunities to see how their academics connect with the outside world do not have the opportunity to do this. These unfortunate students do not have the chance appreciate and better understand the world of academia especially in fields such as history and social studies.
The inability to frequently take underprivileged students outside of the classroom is representative of a larger problem in which only the privileged students have the chance to think like historians. When writing about “thinking like historians” more broadly, the aforementioned Martin and Monte-Sano (2008) argued, “this kind of teaching and learning should be available to all of our young people. Too often it is reserved for those who take Advanced Placement history courses in high school or pursue historical study in college” (p. 169). The honor of true historical studies and pursuits should not be reserved for only privileged students, but instead rightfully belongs within the educational domain of all students. Perhaps social studies teachers can strive to make this ideal a reality, by taking their lessons out of the classroom and also by using their surrounding resources to their fullest potential, though such resources will obviously differ from school to school in terms of both quantity and quality.
It is another unfortunate reality that more privileged schools have better and more frequent access to technological resources. Obviously, more privileged schools will likely have better technology resources, technology literacy skills and the time to engage with these learning tools, but social studies teachers from underprivileged areas can still stride to better their situation. This is because the use of technology can also aid students in helping them relate their historical studies to their personal lives. Such tools can be used to help students think like historians, who, after all, may study the past, but that does not mean that they reject the conveniences of modern technology. To a certain degree, technology is naturally utilized in most classrooms whether the teacher is consciously thinking about doing so or not. Watching films, hearing audio clips and using computers to compose essays are all examples of using technology that many teachers take for granted.
As an education professor, Christy G. Keeler, (2008) also noted, “There is an expectation that teachers prepare students for success in the 21st century by ensuring they are competent in the use of 21st century content, skills, and tools” (p. 23). Likewise, teachers in history courses should integrate the use of technology into their classrooms. Modern technology, when used as a tool to teach about the past, will make former eras seem less foreign and opaque to students. Doing so will also contribute to social studies and history students’ development as 21st century citizens. Additionally, by relying more on digital copies of assignments as opposed to printed copies, teachers will also be supporting ecological-mindedness with their students. Obviously, this is not possible in all circumstances because many schools lack the resources to provide all of their students with access to relevant technology. Furthermore, as Cengelci (2013) noted, the teachers who do have this access to modern technology should not take the use of it too far because not all students will appreciate a tech-heavy curriculum since such a program will not play to their strengths (p. 1839). History teachers should acknowledge and respect this, but still emphasize the importance of technology use when teaching history and in the larger world beyond the classroom.
History teachers should also recognize that their conduct and attitude towards their studies will directly affect how their students approach the subject. These educators are bound to enjoy teaching certain historical units more than others. As a result, the units that the teacher enjoys tend to be overemphasized and the units that teacher dislikes tend to be overlooked for the most part. This gives students a rather biased and skewed understanding of history. Social studies teachers need to realize that even if they believe they are approaching a historical topic with a completely objective mindset, the selection of particular subtopics within a history course shows bias on the part of the teacher. By merely choosing certain subtopics, the teacher is unconsciously arguing that they are important. Likewise, they inherently have more weight than subtopics that have been ignored. The educator may be able to teach the content of the units impartially, but the selection of the various units represents a larger bias. This is why history teachers should stride to recognize and mitigate their own biases in class and teach all of their units and courses with an open mind and with equal amounts of enthusiasm.
History and social studies teachers, however, are often never quite sure how enthusiastic they should be when they present their course material in general. If teachers are under-enthusiastic the students will likely become apathetic from the start of the academic year, but if teachers are overly enthusiastic, then the students might consider the teacher to be somewhat eccentric and not take the content of the course seriously. Fortunately, as McKinney (1983) noted in a somewhat dated, but still applicable article, legitimate teacher enthusiasm tends to have positive effects for middle and high schools students, but “whether teacher enthusiasm has the same effect on achievement of elementary grade children, however, is in doubt” (p. 249). This is due to the fact that younger students are easily distracted and having an overly enthusiastic teacher could cause them to be unfocused and disruptive. Therefore, social studies teachers should base their level of intensity and enthusiasm partially on the age of their students. McKinney further argued that if the teacher completely lacks enthusiasm then younger students will become apathetic and bored (p. 252). A total lack of enthusiasm will likely make secondary students bored as well, though to a lesser degree. Either way, the level of teacher enthusiasm is but one more example of how history and social studies teachers should alter their attitude and conduct according to the maturity and needs of the overall class. It is also yet another balancing act that these teachers have to perform if they are to be effective educators and want to make a meaningful connection with their students.
On another note, like any educator, social studies teachers have to acknowledge that that are many different types of “intelligences.” By acknowledging these differing forms of academic strengths, social studies and history teachers will likely be better able to connect with their students. As educator Peter H. Martorella (1996) noted, these different intelligences include but are not limited to linguistic, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, logical/mathematical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal strengths (p. 375). Certain types of intelligences are traditionally emphasized in social studies courses such writing abilities and skills in memorization. The students whose academic strengths naturally play towards talents emphasized in more traditional social studies classrooms will inherently be more motivated to learn about history. Unfortunately, other students will realize that their strengths, such as musical skills or bodily-kinesthetic talents, are not as highly valued in a social studies setting. This is why teachers in these fields should deliberately alter their lesson plans in order to accommodate different types of learners. For instance, many songs from the past can be used as primary sources that, when analyzed, could reveal deeper truths about the corresponding era’s culture. Likewise, studying past songs may positively enable more musically inclined students in the classroom. Social studies teachers can also set up historical reenactment activities for the students who naturally need to move around more and do not function well after sitting in a desk all day. For instance, as Martorella (1996) argued, role-playing exercise can create memorable lessons for students (p. 153). The many choices for history teachers in regard to differing intelligences is virtually endless, many of which would be beneficial to students with unique academic strengths that sometimes go unrecognized or underappreciated in traditional classrooms.
History and social studies teachers could also make their classes lively by showing the students that they, the teacher, are willing to be flexible and open-minded as to how the content of the lessons will be taught and assessed. Martorella (1996) noted that teachers can even make “Learning Contracts” to be cosigned with their students in order to emphasize that the student should be open-minded concerning the content of the lessons and the teacher should be opened-minded as to how to present the content, thus best facilitating learning with the students (p. 366). In addition, over time, learning contracts can indicate to the teacher how to alter content presentations from lesson to lesson in order to empower students with varying learning strengths. Doing so would be especially helpful to students with learning differences or for students who are learning in a language that is not their native tongue. The options are practically endless and it is entirely possible to have a classroom in which every single student will feel appreciated and recognized at least some of the time. More generally, by relating social studies to unusual activities, it could greatly motivate students to learn more about history, even when they might have felt alienated by the subject in their past experiences.
History and social studies teachers should also convey to their students that historians do not just work with other historians. They often work with archeologists, genealogists, and many other individuals in a wide range of fields. Likewise, some history and social studies teachers may assume that it would help their students to think like historians by giving their students the opportunity to work in areas beyond history when the students receive larger projects and assignments. However, there are limits to how much one should relate history and social studies lessons to other fields because even though we may have high hopes for our students, we have to take into account that we are still working with adolescents who can become easily distracted. An article by an in-field high school educator, Timothy E. Cate, (2000) ultimately revealed that history and social studies teachers should approach, as he called them, multi-genre historical study assignments, with caution. Cate supported the belief that “the multi[-]genre approach [to historical studies] would induce more students to explore their self-selected topics more thoroughly and present their research creatively” (p. 137). On the surface, this sounds helpful and productive.
Unfortunately, while this multi-genre approach can be exciting for students, it is an inconvenient reality that many students will get distracted by this task and completely miss the point as Cate admits in his article (p. 138). The content and original intention of the history lesson can easily be overlooked and forgotten. To be clear, as educators I believe we should stride to relate our courses to the students’ overall curriculum and to the outside world, but we must not do so at the expense of the original topic: historical studies. It is a balancing act that all teachers must deal with if they are to be effective educators and ensure that our students are engaged in class and truly thinking like historians.
Another method educators can regularly incorporate into their teaching is explaining history through individual historical stories and experiences. Burke and Andrews (2008) argued that social studies teachers must tell stories in order to keep students interested and engaged (p. 158). Doing so is a common trait amongst positive social studies and history teachers, for it is often through personal stories that students begin to empathize with humans from the past. Moreover, by telling the stories of individuals who stood up for their beliefs and followed their consciences, students will not only learn historical content, but they may also begin to form their own stories and moral narratives. If these students can see something of themselves in people from the past and understand how these people made positive change, then perhaps our students can visualize themselves leading their communities in positive social change, thus making their story one that will someday inspire others.
In conclusion, students must be made aware that because the past is up to interpretation, it implies that nothing in the past was ever set in stone. For instance, the Thirteen Colonies were not inherently destined to win the Revolutionary War, which is an idea that is horrifying to most modern Americans. On the other hand, John F. Kennedy did not have to be assassinated, which is a concept that would be accepted by most Americans with open arms. Whether we perceive past events as positive or negative, nothing says that things were definitely bound to be the way they are today. Once students realize this, they can become more hopeful for their own futures. As Burke and Andrews (2008) argued, “To assert that the past is contingent is to impress upon students the notion that the future is up for grabs, and that they bear some responsibility for making the world they would like to inhabit” (p. 160). Instead of feeding our students preconceived answers, we can present them with questions, let them form their own answers, and leave them with further personal questions that they will yearn to explore both inside and outside of the classroom. Just as we cannot take human progress for granted, we do not have to be satisfied with societal shortcomings. We can and must strive to make societal progress and achieve social justice because that is what visionaries before us have always done. Once our students realize that past events were not destined to happen, many of them will strive to make the present world, and the future world, a better place.
As a final thought, we should also note that the way in which the past is presented and remembered is often determined by the privileged members of society. Likewise, the presentation of the past is often to the benefit of the current privileged class, as opposed to the underprivileged masses. If we can make the study and interpretation of the past more universal and open, we will enable underprivileged students to begin to understand how they can have real and positive control over their lives and the future of the world. I cannot imagine a more inspiring prospect, nor can I think of anything else that could be more engaging for our young, public school historians.
Burke, F., Andrews, T. (2008). The Five Cs of History: Putting the Elements of Historical Thinking into Practice in Teacher Education. In W. J. Warren, & D. A. Cantu (Eds.), History Education 101: The Past Present, and Future of Teacher Preparation (pp. 151- 166). Charlotte, NC: Information Ag Publishing, Inc.
Cate, T. (2000). "This is Cool!" Mulitgenre Research Reports. Social Studies. (3) 137-140.
Cengelci, T. (2013). Social Studies Teachers & apos; Views on Learning Outside the Classroom. Educational Sciences: Theory and Practice, 13(3), 1836-1841.
Dutt-Doner, K. M., Cook-Cottone, C., & Allen, S. (2007). Improving Classroom Instruction: Understanding the Developmental Nature of Analyzing Primary Sources. RMLE Online: Research In Middle Level Education, 30(6), 1-20.
Keeler, C. G. (2008). When Curriculum and Technology Meet: Technology Integration in Methods Courses. Journal Of Computing In Teacher Education, 25(1), 23-30.
Martin, D., Monte-Sano, C. (2008). Inquiry, Controversy, and Ambiguous Texts: Learning to Teach for Historical Understanding. In W. J. Warren, & D. A. Cantu (Eds.), History Education 101: The Past Present, and Future of Teacher Preparation (pp. 167-186). Charlotte, NC: Information Ag Publishing, Inc.
Martorella, P. H. (1996) Teaching Social Studies in Middle and Secondary Schools. 2nd ed. New York City, NY: Macmillan.
McKinney, C. W., Larkins, A. G. (1983). Some Effects of Teacher Enthusiasm on Student Achievement in Fourth Grade Social Studies. Journal Of Educational Research 76(4), 249-253.
Miller, K. J., & Sessions, M. M. (2005). Infusing Tolerance, Diversity, and Social Personal Curriculum into Inclusive Social Studies Classes Using Family Portraits and Contextual Teaching and Learning. TEACHING Exceptional Children Plus, 1(3).
Saphier, J., Gower, R.R., & Haley-Speca, M.A. (1997) The Skillful Teacher: Building Your Teaching Skills. 6th ed. Acton, MA: Research for Better Teaching.