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Academic discomfort and the problem with history classes

you are historian

More than several years ago, I asked my daughter, a fourth grader at the time, to work her way through the very cool Plimoth Plantation’s You Are the Historian simulation. It’s a wonderful online tool that asks kids to answer a very simple question – what really happened at the first Thanksgiving. Using evidence and video clips from experts, elementary students develop a thesis and create a final product that addresses the problem.

And I wanted a product review from a true end user. Used to these sort of requests from her history nerd father, Erin plunged in. During the in-depth debriefing over milk and cookies, I asked her a variety of questions about her experience. Much of the conversation is now forgotten but I still remember what she said when I asked her to tell me one thing that she would share with her teacher the next day.

The past is what really happened. And history is what we say happened.

I couldn’t have been prouder.

Of course, we still made her wade through the rest of her K-12 experience but doesn’t that pretty much sum up the whole point of teaching social studies? Yes, there’s a whole ton of foundational knowledge that she continues to gather. There are specific sorts of skills she continues to perfect. But the core of what we want students like Erin to walk away with is embedded in the simple idea that history is about interpretation and analysis.

About balancing evidence and bias and perspective, about collective and individual memory, about investigation and rethinking and keeping an open mind.

A recent Atlantic article titled The Problem with History Classes reminded me of the importance of this idea. Written by Michael Conway, the article suggests that traditional social studies and history instruction that focuses on helping kids find the “correct answers” is not just poor instruction. It also denies students the opportunity to learn the valuable skills of balancing multiple perspectives and accepting the absence of a single “history” and the co-existence of multiple “histories.”

It’s an interesting position. And one more classroom teachers need to adopt. We too often get caught up in the attempt to “cover” the content. To get to the end of the chapter. To the end of the textbook. And in doing so, we end up pushing process and thinking skills offstage rather than allowing them to share the spotlight with content.

Conway talks about “descending into the bog of conflict and learning the many ‘histories’ that compose the American national story.”

Although there may be an inclination to seek to establish order where there is chaos, that urge must be resisted in teaching history.

In a recent analysis for The Atlantic about the controversies surrounding the AP framework and other history curricula, Jacoba Urist points out that history is “about explaining and interpreting past events analytically.” If students are really to learn and master these analytical tools, then it is absolutely essential that they read a diverse set of historians and learn how brilliant men and women who are scrutinizing the same topic can reach different conclusions. Rather than constructing a curriculum based on the muddled consensus of boards, legislatures, and think tanks, schools should teach students history through historiography.

I got to know a high school teacher several years ago that had this figured out. She told me that her job was actually very simple. My job, she said,

is to create a sense of academic discomfort in the minds of my students.

Conway would agree:

History is not indoctrination. It is a wrestling match. For too long, the emphasis has been on pinning the opponent. It is time to shift the focus to the struggle itself.

The article makes for a great PLC conversation starter. What does the “struggle” look like at different grade levels? With limited amounts of time, which “memories” get center stage? How much “discomfort” is too much?

Spoiler alert.

Sometime this week, we’ll look at the 150th anniversary of the Civil War though Conway’s lens. How can we help our students view that event by reading the work of a “diverse set of historians?”

Stay tuned.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Steven Young #

    Thanks for the reminder on this topic. I want to keep my integrity when I say I teach history instead of having to admit I teach the past.

    April 7, 2015
  2. Jeremy Greene #

    A good reminder.

    Fwiw, Plimoth (sp.) Plantation in Plymouth, MA – confusing I know:

    April 8, 2015
    • glennw #

      Thnaks! I’m knot always the bestes with the speling things.


      April 8, 2015
  3. Anna K. #

    I appreciate this post. It’s the way I view teaching social studies. However, one of the hardest tasks is to tackle analytical skills to lower skilled students. It requires a lot of scaffolding and time, which many teachers don’t have because they must focus on test prep. But learning to be a good teacher deals with overcoming that challenge.

    April 9, 2015
    • glennw #


      Agree 100%. Working like this can take a ton of time – I hope that most teachers see the long-term benefit of doing social studies like this. Good luck! Thanks for the comment.


      April 9, 2015
  4. As usual, using your material to share. What a great insight by your daughter!

    April 21, 2015
    • glennw #

      She takes after her mother.


      April 22, 2015

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  1. Tip of the Week: The problem with history classes, the Civil War, and hexagons | History Tech

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