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A Better Way to Teach History

If you’re looking for some personal professional development, need an article for a department meeting, or just looking to generate some brisk social media conversation, look no further than a recent article in The Atlantic. Written by Christine Gross-Loh,  A Better Way to Teach History does a great job of explaining how history instruction is changing as well providing specific examples of what that can look like.

The focus is on using the case study idea to teach history at the college level but there is a ton of transfer between higher ed and K-12. If nothing else, the article is great for highlighting what works and what doesn’t work in social studies instruction. The article addresses a basic question that social studies folks have been dealing with for the last few years:

Should history classes be about acquiring facts and information or should they emphasize historical thinking abilities and processes?

Bob Bain, Big History Project lead at the University of Michigan, makes it clear that it’s not either/or. It’s both/and.

You can’t do historical thinking without facts, and you can’t acquire stuff without some sort of historical thinking.

Gross-Loh highlights the importance of using narrative, suggesting even if the narrative it’s “wrong” or one that students disagree with. Competing narratives provide context and emotion, creating a powerful way to learn and remember. This is the part that most textbooks ignore and many times intentionally omit. The text is boring, uninspiring, and contains facts without emotion.

Harvard professor David Moss is sold:

Stories stick in the mind, and when we learn history with a focus on particular stories it’s much easier to remember the pieces around them.

And using the case study approach outlined in the article incorporates both the narrative and emotion while providing a great way for kids to connect past with present.

The case method idea puts students in the role of people who were faced with difficult decisions at sometime in the past. In contrast to many other teaching methods, this strategy requires that teachers refrain from providing their own opinions about the decisions in question. The main role of a teacher is asking students to devise and defend solutions to the problems at the heart of each case.

Moss compares using case studies to batting practice that “helps train judgement.” The idea is to help students develop an instinct for how to respond to problems that feel unprecedented or that students have experienced before.

Curious about the case study idea? This might help. And while the Stanford History Education Group lessons are not true case studies, their stuff and others like it force kids to solve historical and authentic problems using evidence.

Not that curious? Read the article anyway. It clearly articulates what social studies instruction should look like in 2016. And that’s always a good thing.

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