Teaching History

Future-Focused History Teaching

The study of history often takes a back seat to the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. Promoting STEM is necessary and worthwhile, and I have stated in a previous blog how we are not misguided in telling a student to “be a scientist and save the world.” I will, however, always be a cheerleader for the importance of students learning history. I will always do what I can to help teachers identify a good reason for teaching history and teaching it well.

Mike Maxwell has addressed the same mission in his informative and thought-provoking book,
Future-Focused History Teaching: Restoring the Power of Historical Learning. History teachers searching for a higher purpose for all their hard work should take a look at Maxwell’s book. As someone who has spent over forty years teaching history and training history teachers, I have read much on the topic of history education, and Maxwell’s book is one of the best.

The book is well-researched and chock-full of information about what is currently happening in history education and what we can do to improve what we teach about the past. Maxwell addresses the ubiquitous presence of textbooks in history classrooms and the general inadequacies of those textbooks. He is particularly disturbed by the history classes that focus too much on the memorization of trivia.

In general, Maxwell wants to identify what makes history a useful subject and discuss the urgent need to teach it well. He asks an essential question and then answers it with common sense:

“Is our society better off holding a realistic view of the United States and its role in the world, or is society better off choosing to see only what it wants to see? Democracy is based on the assumption that the people as a whole will exercise better judgment than will a small group of elites. But this assumption is based on the premise that the people have access to a realistic rendering of reality which is primarily dependent on two institutions of democracy that don’t flinch from portraying reality: a free and honest press and a free and honest education.” (142)

In short, we must assume, as
George Washington believed, that most people want to do the right thing and will do the right thing if they have good information. Maxwell proposes we provide good historical information by moving away from history curricula based primarily on “knowing” and “remembering." We should not be requiring the memorization of massive amounts of historical information easily found on a smart phone when needed.

Maxwell also does not find the solution in creating history classes designed primarily to help students develop historical thinking skills. In a wise and nuanced explanation of the inadequacies of focusing on teaching historical thinking, Maxwell believes history classes are not really helping students develop any skills that are not already being taught across the curriculum. An emphasis on developing thinking skills does not distinguish the importance of studying history from studying other subjects. Maxwell wants to know what makes history different and why it is so important that students learn history.

In short, Maxwell wants history to be future-focused. He wants students identifying recurring patterns or "principles" of history that might help them in the future when confronted with situations similar to what people confronted in the past. Maxwell cautions history teachers against looking for “rules” or “laws” of history. He wants them looking at patterns that occur over time.

A history teacher might, for example, create lessons around the following principle: “Humans exhibit an instinct to resist external control.” This principle could then be illustrated by examining the Greeks in the fifth century BCE, Joan of Arc in 1428, American colonists in 1776, Toussaint Louveture in 1791, Native Americans at the Little Big Horn River in 1876, Zulus in Natal in 1906, Mahatma Gandhi in the first half of the twentieth century, and the Vietnamese people for the past thousand years.

Maybe, just maybe, students who have examined that principle of history will find the knowledge useful when they became voters debating world affairs. In other words, the history they learned was future-focused. They learned a history designed to help them understand the world better and make more informed decisions about how to shape the world. The history they learned was not composed of memorized facts forgotten soon after serving their purpose on an exam. The history they learned came from a set of well-examined principles identifying patterns in history that will help them throughout their lives.

The College Board currently identifies learning objectives for its history classes that state expectations for student performance. The AP US history curriculum, for example, asks students to “Explain how ideas about democracy, freedom, and individualism found expression in the development of cultural values, political institutions, and American identity.” All told, the objective asks students to
know information they can explain. But to what end? Why is it important to know it and explain it? Is it simply an academic exercise, a mind game?

Maxwell’s book gets to the heart of what makes history worthwhile and asks history teachers to reexamine curricula that asks them to teach one thing after another with no eye on the bigger picture, no eye on whether students learn something useful to them in the future.

I suspect most history teachers today are asked to work within a formal curriculum requiring students to know or explain historical information. The curriculum most likely also focuses on developing historical thinking skills. All of these are noble endeavors, but in the end, students need more.

STEM teachers generally have no problem explaining how science, technology, engineering, and math are “future-focused,” how those subjects will be useful in the future. The same is not true for the many teachers who struggle to make history a practical subject for students. For those teachers, I give Maxwell’s book the highest recommendation. He has made a terrific case for creating future-focused history classes. If our educational system adopted his general philosophy, we would have much work to do reaching a consensus about the principles of history we should teach our children. In the end, however, our efforts might not be as difficult as we think and would certainly create a much better answer to the perennial question that plagues history teachers: “Why are we studying this stuff?”

Five Lessons from History

What American history buff does not know about David McCullough? He has hosted American Experience on PBS and narrated numerous PBS documentaries. Every time he writes a new book it hits the bestseller list. He has won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In September 2011 McCullough attended the National Book Festival and was asked this question: “What are five lessons from history that our students need to know before they graduate from high school?”

A summary of his answer is provided below and then followed by the embedded video of McCullough's complete answer to the question.

David McCullough’s Five Lessons from History (with a Coda)
  1. What matters in history is knowing what happened and why, not memorizing dates and quotes.
  2. American history did not begin with the Declaration of Independence. Americans had hundreds of years of history before the Declaration. Students should, in particular, examine the history of Native Americans.
  3. Students should learn history through means other than books and teachers. Music, plays, art, and architecture can teach students much about history.
  4. Students should learn history through the “lab” technique. History should be a “hands on” experience, in which students reach conclusions on their own. When students figure it out for themselves, they will never forget it.
  5. Students should have an opportunity to work with original documents and travel to the places where history happened. Students should be given an opportunity to experience a connection with people from the past.
  6. Coda: Attitudes about history are “caught not taught.” If a teacher is excited about the subject, students are more likely to be excited.

Analyzing Works of Art in a History Class

Whether you teach European history, United States history, or some other historical topic, works of art are a great tool for helping students gain a more sophisticated understanding of history. The purpose of this blog is to suggest one approach for helping history students analyze works of art. Although the approach might seem simple, it is nevertheless quite effective at helping students learn to reach historical conclusions on their own.

Once you have selected a work of art, ask students to analyze that work and then use their analysis to reach conclusions about the topic they are studying. You might, for example, choose Pablo Picasso's
Guernica to help students better understand the rise of European fascism during the 1930s. Follow my two recommendations below and you should be able to create lessons that not only engage students but also help them become independent thinkers.


First, students should be provided with enough background information that they can place the work of art in historical context.

To help students reach conclusions about a work of art on their own, I recommend keeping the background information to a minimum,

In the case of Picasso’s
Guernica, I might, for example, provide students with a little information about the Spanish Civil War. I would probably also talk about the newly-established German Air Force and how it bombed the Spanish city of Guernica in April 1937. In supporting Francisco Franco, the fascist leader of Spain, Germany used Guernica to practice the techniques of air warfare that they would later use in the blitzkrieg of World War II. In attacking Guernica, a city of 7000, the Germans injured 900 Spaniards and killed 1700.

If students know that minimal amount of information, they should be able to glean much meaning from the painting

Next, show students the work of art and ask them to answer three questions.

  1. What details in the painting catch your attention?
  2. What questions of curiosity are sparked by the painting?
  3. What conclusions can you make that are based on information in the painting?
Take note that these questions are designed to encourage students to examine the painting closely and come to their own conclusions about the rise of fascism. As always, history teachers should avoid teaching students what to think and instead teach them how to think.

If students need more time for research, provide that time
after they have examined the painting closely (required by question #1), created a list of questions they want answered (required by question #2), and come to a few conclusions independently (required by question #3). In my experience, student research will be much more focused after they have already completed their analysis of a work based on the three questions.

Guernica, Picasso supplied several images of what happened to the one town after the bombing. From the image of the woman holding a dead child and screaming into the air to the single light shining upon the atrocities, Picasso created a touching portrait of human suffering that will most likely engage the hearts and minds of anyone who examines the images closely. Picasso also used the bombing of Guernica to create a painting that was anti-fascist and anti-war, a painting that portrays the cruelty that human beings can inflict on each other.

As a teacher, I have never had to explain all that to students. Most students are able to figure it out by answering the three simple questions listed above. Additionally, students usually extract meanings from the painting that I have overlooked.

The approach that I have outlined can also be used to ask students to synthesize historical information and make a comparison between
Guernica and other works of art from other historical eras. In the case of Guernica, for example, I might ask students to compare and contrast Picasso’s painting with Francisco Goya's The Third of May, 1808 (1814). Although the two paintings were created almost 125 years apart, they were both painted by Spaniards, and they both offered similar themes and images inspired by similar events.

I must admit that writing about all this makes me miss my work with high school students. I can’t help but think about how much fun I had listening to students talk about
Guernica and The Third of May. What my students taught me was always far more than I ever taught them.


As a postscript, I have an assignment for the readers of this blog. I ask that you watch the 3-D animation of Guernica embedded below and answer the three questions as you watch the video. If all goes as I expect, you should be inspired to learn much more about the events and themes surrounding Picasso's masterwork.

Handling Controversial Issues in a History Class

Although no single approach can help history teachers deal with every controversial issue or situation they might face, here are my guidelines for dealing with controversial subjects.
  • Be fair.
  • Use good judgement.
  • Be able to justify what you do in the classroom.
To elaborate on these three points, here are five web pages that provide information about dealing with controversial issues.

Academic Freedom and the Social Studies Teacher
(from socialstudies.org)

Dealing with Controversial Issues
(from learner.org)
Discussing Controversial Issues
(from pbs.org)

10 Tips for Facilitating Classroom Discussions on Sensitive Topics
(from pbs.org)

Religion in History and Social Studies
(from the American Historical Association)

Strategies for Teaching History

Strategies for teaching history are ubiquitous and unlimited. Even so, I've provided a few links below that should serve as a sampling of what history teachers can do in the classroom.

APPARTS (Author / Place & Time / Prior Knowledge / Audience / Reason / The Main Idea / Significance)



Case Study

Concept Formation

Cooperative Learning

Cornell Notes


Dialectical Notes

Document Analysis

Double Exposure

Dueling Documents

Field Trip


Five C’s (Change Over Time / Context / Causality / Contingency / Complexity)

Gallery Walk

Graffiti Groups

Graphic Organizers

Guest Speaker


Interactive Notebook

Internet Assignment



KWL (Know / What / Learned)

Learning Center


Levels of Questioning (use as a guide to creating student assignments)

Mock Trial

Moot Court

PERSIA (Politics / Economics / Religion / Social / Intellectual / Artistic)

Political Cartoons

Post It Poll

Power Point Presentation

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)


Research Paper

Role Playing


SOAPSTone (Speaker / Occasion / Audience / Purpose / Subject / Tone)

Socratic Seminar

SPRITE (Social / Political / Religious / Intellectual / Technological / Economic)

Stay or Stray

Student-Created Video, PowerPoint, Sound Recording, Website, Poster, Oral Presentation, Panel Discussion, or Historical Model

Synectics (Understanding Together)

Take a Stand


Think Pair Shares

Timelines / Change Over Time

Textbook Reading

Venn Diagrams

53 Ways to Check Understanding


Teaching Students to Think Historically

Teachers who incorporate the following eight strategies into their curriculum will be helping students develop historical thinking skills, however those skills are defined.

1. Examine primary sources.

2. Examine secondary sources (discuss historiography).

3. Analyze cause and effect in history.

4. Identify patterns, themes, and recurring issues in history.

5. Categorize and compartmentalize historical information.

6. Compare and contrast two or more historical topics.

7. Place information in historical context.

8. Develop academic arguments in writing.

What is Historical Thinking?

History teachers should not only provide students with historical knowledge, they should also help students develop basic academic skills that include reading, writing, and the ability to think. Although history teachers should not be teaching students what to think, they should be teaching them how to think. For history teachers, that means teaching students to think historically.

And what is historical thinking? I can find no clear consensus for the definition, and the terminology varies from one organization to another and one scholar to another. I can, however, make two recommendations for developing a working definition of what it means to think historically:
  • Sam Wineburg's Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts is a classic in the genre of books about historical thinking. (See #13 below.)
  • The College Board provides a clear definition of the various skills involved in historical thinking and good strategies for developing those skills. (See #2 below.)
Although it's difficult to identify one definition of historical thinking, I believe we can identify four significant skills that should serve all history teachers well.
  • Chronology – Teaching students to identify and understand historical time periods, change over time, and cause and effect in history.
  • Context – Teaching students to place historical information in context.
  • Connection – Teaching students to connect time periods, as well as to synthesize historical information by connecting such topics as political and economic history to social and cultural history.
  • Questioning – Teaching students that all history begins with a question. Learning to think historically requires intellectual curiosity and the ability to ask questions.
To help history teachers create a practical definition of historical thinking that will help them create good history lessons, here's a list of websites that attempt to describe the process of thinking like a historian.

American Historical Association (“What Does it Mean to Think Historically?”)

College Board (See “Course Descriptions” for U.S. History, European History, and World History)

Common Core

The Historical Thinking Project (“Historical Thinking Concepts”)

HistoricalThinkingMatters.org (“Why Historical Thinking Matters”)

The Juvenile Instructor (“Thinking Historically and Why It Matters”)

National Center for History in the School – UCLA (“Historical Thinking Standards”)

8. StudentsFriend.com (“What to Teach: Thinking Strategies”)

9. TeachHistory.org (“What is Historical Thinking?”)

TeachHistory.org via YouTube (“What is Historical Thinking?“ – video)

Thinking Through History (“The Nine C’s of Thinking Historically”)

Wikipedia (“Historical Thinking”)

Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (A classic book!)

Teaching History in Bits and Pieces

History is an “Aha!” subject that takes much patience to teach. I’m not referring to the type of patience necessary for teaching students who are unruly or slow to learn — although that certainly takes patience. I’m referring to the patience it takes to deliver the subject matter. When I am teaching a topic I understand that students might not begin to understand that topic for weeks, months, or even years after I have finished my presentation. The moment of understanding — or the "Aha!" moment — is often slow in coming.

Students might not understand some provisions of the Constitution taught early in a U.S. history course until those provisions are applied weeks later to a significant event, such as the impeachment of Andrew Johnson or the failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. They might not even understand some provisions of the Constitution until long after they have left school.

History is learned in bits and pieces, and it often takes much time for information to come together and begin to make sense. Unlike science or math teachers, whose students might need to master Chapters 1 and 2 before moving to Chapter 3, history teachers can ask students to open almost any page in the textbook to begin their study of history.

History students can jump around the textbook from one section to another, learning the subject in bits and pieces, examining a mosaic of information that will eventually begin to make sense. Over time, the more they learn, the more insight they should gain about the patterns of history.

History teachers should therefore feel free to experiment with their presentation of history. They should even try employing tools from drama and literature in their presentation of history.

They might, for example, introduce a topic with a foreshadowing event. A history teacher can begin the Civil War with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and then jump immediately to the 1850s and 1860s to help students discover how ideas introduced in those resolutions contributed to the deaths of over 700,000 people.

A history teacher might employ flashbacks, beginning the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s with the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. A teacher might also begin a study of the Civil War with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment that came at the end of the war. History can be taught like a good movie in which the ending is revealed in the first scene.

History teachers should feel the freedom to abandon the traditional chronological approach to teaching history. Rather than unraveling a year-by-year string of historical events, they can take a significant topic in history and present it as a single unit of study. In a U.S. history class, for example, a teacher can present political history as one topic, covering political developments from colonial times through the present. The teacher might then teach American foreign policy or American economic history from colonial times through the present. They might even try
teaching history backwards.

Whatever approach teachers take, whatever dramatic or literary device they might use, they should make sure they are always giving students a history worth learning. They should make sure that in the process of learning history, students are provided guidance in developing basic reading and writing skills. Teachers should also help history students develop their analytical thinking skills, skills that ask students to reach conclusions (not necessarily opinions) based on the historical evidence available to them.

History should be a stimulating subject for students, a subject they are still talking about when the school day has ended. History should engage students, inspiring them to learn more on their own, helping them become more knowledgeable about their world and their place in it.

If taught in bits and pieces, rather than as a laundry list of information presented chronologically, history can help students learn the patience it takes to gain insight into the human condition. Just because students have studied a significant topic in a history class does not mean their study of that topic is complete. The "Aha!" moments take time.

Covering Historical Content in the Time Available

Question: How can history teachers possibly cover everything required by the curriculum?
Answer: They can’t.

Let that answer be liberating!

Teachers who try to cover everything will likely fail, leaving little time to help students understand the complexities of history and develop academic skills at the highest levels. Teachers must also keep in mind that the amount of material covered does not necessarily equal the amount of material students learn.

The question that began this article should be revised: How can teachers cover enough information and still leave time for students to explore significant topics in depth?

The answer to
that question can be found in my six suggestions for balancing depth and breadth in a history classroom.

Suggestion #1

Rather than trying to cover everything in the textbook (the ball-of-string approach), focus on helping students develop their academic skills while exploring a few well-selected historical topics in depth.
  • Think of the history curriculum as a series of topics that can be explored in depth and then use those topics to help students develop reading, writing, and thinking skills.
  • Provide students with historical documents and reading assignments that prompt students to ask questions and make inferences on their own. Help students learn to be independent thinkers and learners.
  • Require students to write often. Writing assignments should require students to make assertions and then defend those assertions with specific, accurate, and relevant historical information.
Suggestion #2
Use “essential” or "big picture" questions to focus attention on significant issues and topics in history.
  • Begin each unit with a question or statement that address an essential issue for the unit. The answer to an essential question should be open to interpretation, and the question should help students focus their attention on what most matters in the unit. Throughout the unit, encourage students to link historical information to the essential question.
  • Note: Essential concepts or themes can often be taken from state or local standards and benchmarks.
Suggestion #3
Before the semester begins decide what percentage of instruction time will be devoted to specific historical time periods. Take an uncompromising approach to sticking with the plan. (Say to yourself, “By September 15, come hell or high water, I will begin my unit on the Washington Administration.")

Suggestion #4

Begin each unit with a quick overview of important people events, terms, and dates that are essential to understanding the unit.
  • Begin each unit by providing students with a study guide containing a list of essential information for the unit. The study guide should narrow the unit down to the basic information that every history student should know. Students should then complete the study guide with information gleaned from textbooks, lectures, research, and classroom activities.
  • Cover essential information at the beginning of each unit as quickly as possible. Leave enough time during the unit to explore some topics in depth with supplemental readings and original source documents.
Suggestion #5
Avoid being overly dependent on the textbook.
  • Work toward creating a history class that uses the textbook primarily as a reference book.
  • Select readings from the textbook that prompt an in-depth study of a historical topic that will help students develop analytical thinking skills.
  • Select pictures, graphs, and original source documents from the textbook that will help students develop their analytical thinking skills.
  • Note: The suggestion to avoid being overly dependent on the textbook is much easier to achieve for experienced history teachers. New teachers are advised to use a good textbook as a guide to essential historical content.
Putting It All Together: How to Balance Depth and Breadth in a History Classroom
  • Reduce the breadth of content covered.
  • Reduce the emphasis on memorization of historical information.
  • Require a greater depth of study within a smaller number of topics.

The Posthole Approach to Teaching History

Teachers generally have two options for teaching history: they can take the "ball-of-string" approach or the "posthole" approach.

Teachers who take the
ball-of-string approach make presentations that primarily unravel a string of historical information. A U.S. history teacher might, for example, begin at 1492 by providing a historical narrative of names, terms, and dates about the European exploration of the Americas and the establishment of overseas colonies. When finished with that unit of study the teacher then unravels a string of information about the thirteen British colonies and the events that led to the American Revolution. The teacher then follows that unit with information about the United States under the Articles of Confederation and the writing of the U.S. Constitution. And so on …

By the end of the course students will have been exposed to a considerable amount of historical information and will have memorized what they can from the textbook and teacher presentations.

A second way of teaching history is to take the
posthole approach and present history as a series of topics or key concepts that are explored in depth. Rather than presenting the George Washington administration as a list of names, terms, and dates that need to be defined and memorized, a teacher taking the posthole approach focuses on a selected topic, such as the formation of political parties during Washington's presidency, and then explores that topic in depth.

A teacher might, for example, dig a “posthole” by asking students to explore the intellectual debate between two of the people in Washington's cabinet — Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. The teacher will ask students to examine primary and secondary source readings that explain the philosophical differences between Hamilton and Jefferson, as well as how those differences shaped historical events during the 1790s. Teachers will then ask students to generate questions about what they have read and use those questions to guide additional research. The teacher will also ask students to reach historical conclusions based upon what they have studied and defend those conclusions in writing by citing specific, accurate, and relevant information.

In the end, the posthole approach should lead to a more sophisticated understanding of the formation of political parties in the 1790s, as well as an understanding of the significance of political parties throughout the entirety of U.S. history. Rather than leaving class having simply memorized a string of information, students will have spent time using that information to develop analytical and historical thinking skills. Students will have been given an opportunity to sharpen those skills through the examination of primary and secondary source documents. Students will have also developed their writing skills by providing a written defense of the analytical conclusions they reached after a rigorous examination of the documents they examined.

The posthole approach takes time, but so does the ball-of-string approach. The difference can be found in looking at what each approach provides students. Students leave the ball-of-string approach knowing much historical information that might easily be forgotten after they leave the course.

Students should leave lessons based on the posthole approach, however, having spent enough time developing thinking and writing skills that those skills will stay with them forever. They should learn enough information about the key concepts of history that they are able to understand the bigger picture of the course of human events rather simply knowing a list of minutiae. In my experiences, students are less likely to forget those concepts because they have explored them in depth.

If taking the posthole approach and asking students to examine Hamilton, Jefferson, and the formation of political parties in depth requires so much class time that the teacher is forced to skip some information in the textbook, so be it. If the teacher does not have enough time to cover the
Residence Act of 1790, students will be okay not knowing that information. A lot of smart, well-educated, successful people have gone far in their academic studies and then led perfectly happy, fulfilled lives knowing nothing about the Residence Act of 1790. Teachers will not be sacrificing their students' future if they don't teach it. On the other hand, students will probably not go far in their academic studies without the ability to read, write, and think at the highest levels, and those skills can best be developed by adopting the posthole approach to teaching history.

I once told a man at a pub near Peterborough, England, that I taught United States history. Without skipping a beat, he dismissively asked, “What bloody history?” I can understand an Englishman asking such a question. After all, a 1000-year-old Anglican cathedral stood only a few miles away from the pub where we sat. Compared to many other parts of the world, the United States is a low mileage nation regarding the years it has racked up.

I will say, however, that the historical topic does not matter as much as the need to teach students to thinking historically. It should make little difference whether students are studying American, European, Middle Eastern, or Asian history, or whether they are studying information from 25 years ago or 2500 years ago. No matter what historical information the curriculum requires, students should be given an opportunity to develop their thinking and writing skills at the highest levels, to develop the skills that will help them in any field of academics. The posthole approach is the best way to help students achieve that goal.

Building a History Curriculum

In the spirit of helping history teachers become more self-aware I present these questions for building a history curriculum. They are questions that every history teacher must eventually confront, questions that help history teachers evaluate themselves and create better lessons for students.

1. Why are students taking your class?
Is it a required class? Is it an elective? Are students taking the class because they are interested in the subject? Are they taking the class because they have heard you are a good teacher?

2. What are your curriculum priorities?
Are you primarily concerned with following administrative standards and covering the content? Are you primarily concerned with providing historical knowledge or helping students develop academic skills? Are you hoping that students simply “enjoy” the class and learn to love history?

3. How will you decide what information to cover?
Will the textbook dictate content? Will state or district mandates decide what you teach? Will you be following an academic consensus about what students should learn in a history class?

4. What approach will you take in covering historical information?
Will you take a traditional chronological approach? Will you take a topical or thematic approach? Have you thought about teaching history backwards and following historical strands that begin with the present?

5. Which historical theme(s) will your curriculum emphasize?
Will your presentation of themes fall primarily under the category of political, economic, social, cultural, intellectual, religious, diplomatic, or some other significant theme.

6. How will you decide which topics are studied in depth?
Is political history more important than social and cultural history? Is early history more important than current history? Can you skip some topics?

7. What textbook(s) will you use?

8. What supplemental sources will you use?

9. What primary sources will you use?

10. Will you incorporate literature, film, art, or music into the curriculum? If so, what will you use?

11. How will you deliver basic historical information?
Will students obtain information primarily from the textbook, lectures, PowerPoint presentations, or some other source?

12. What teaching strategies will you use to motivate and engage students?

13. What academic skills will you emphasize?
Will your class focus primarily on developing reading, writing, or thinking skills? Are there other skills you want to help students develop, such as computer skills or social skills?

14. Will you incorporate technology into the curriculum? If so, how?

15. How will you handle controversial issues?

16. How will you evaluate students?
Will you evaluate students primarily through the products they create (written or constructed), their performances (role playing, oral reports, simulations), exams (multiple choice or constructed responses), or some other means of evaluation.

17. How will you keep learning and growing as a history teacher?

18. How will you keep yourself motivated as a history teacher?

19. What is the higher purpose of what you will try to achieve as a history teacher? What is the value of teaching and studying history?

20. What is your personal mission statement as a history teacher?

Characteristics of a Good History Teacher

A Good History Teacher ...
  1. Is knowledgeable about history and loves learning history.
  2. Is able to explain the importance of studying history.
  3. Provides an in-depth study of selected topics and avoids teaching history as a laundry list of information.
  4. Explains the relationship between fact and conjecture.
  5. Carries significant historical themes and questions from early history to the present day.
  6. Is able to deal with controversial issues.
  7. Offers students opportunities for active learning and questioning.
  8. Uses primary source materials including diaries, letters, newspapers, photos, music, clothing, works of art, and other historical artifacts.
  9. Engages students with literature, art, music, and biography.
  10. Covers course content in the time available.
  11. Explains what has been left out of the history course and why.
  12. Helps students develop basic academic skills.
  13. Asks questions that require analytical thinking and problem solving.
  14. Uses diverse strategies for teaching history.
  15. Presents a study of people from diverse backgrounds and conditions, as well as an understanding of what binds all of us together as human beings.

Creating a Personal Mission Statement for Teaching History

A personal mission statement can serve as a manifesto that adds focus, direction, and a sense of purpose to our daily decisions.

An example of an effective personal mission statement can be found by examining the one that guided Mahatma Gandhi.

Let the first act of every morning be to make the following resolve for the day:
– I shall not fear anyone on Earth.
– I shall fear only God.
– I shall not bear ill will toward anyone.
– I shall not submit to injustice from anyone.
– I shall conquer untruth by truth. In resisting untruth, I shall endure all suffering.

Several years ago, after reading
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey, I created my own mission statement and found it quite useful in my teaching career. My mission statement clarified what I hoped to achieve as a history teacher and guided me toward understanding how I might improve my teaching. The mission statement served me so well that I asked the prospective history teachers in a class I was teaching at a local university to create their own statements.

Students were asked to craft a mission statement that described what they wanted to accomplish as history teachers. I asked that their mission statements declare the general principles they wanted to bring into their teaching, statements that would explain their higher purpose for teaching history. Students were asked to think of their mission statements as personal constitutions, documents that would govern their actions as history teachers.

Students were told their mission statements might be one sentence or several pages. Their mission statements might take the form of a drawing, a cartoon, or a piece of music. It didn't matter. They were
personal mission statements.

I learned from reading the statements that the university students I taught possessed genuine idealism about teaching. Most seemed to be entering the teaching profession for reasons of the heart. I asked them never to lose sight of their idealism. After all, idealism is essential to staying motivated in almost any profession.

I also advised students to look at their mission statements often during their teaching careers. Although a mission statement might be revised, it should always serve as a reminder of the reasons for being a teacher.

For the record here's my personal mission statement for teaching history:

I will never abandon the belief that all students can learn.

I will encourage my students to succeed and never be made to think they cannot conquer challenging tasks. Like a coach who motivates players by telling them to “hold on to the ball” rather than “don’t fumble,” I will plant positive thoughts in the minds of my students. Student success is built on a foundation of affirmative thinking and a sense of self-worth. I must therefore do whatever I can to nurture these attributes in my students.

In pursuit of being a good teacher I will never cease to be a good student. I will continue to develop my own knowledge and skills. I will stay open to change and new ideas, especially the ideas of my students.

I will be a missionary for my subject. I will keep in mind that history can be the most humanizing of all subjects.

As a history teacher, I will commit myself to passing on humane ideas from the past, as well as the stories of inspiring achievements that show the best in human beings. I will use history to help students better understand the goodness in humanity and the unlimited potential of what they might achieve for themselves and their world.

I will use history to empower young people by encouraging them to think about important issues, to develop their own ideas, to present information in defense of their own ideas, and to use their ideas to make our world better.

I will avoid planting the seeds of negativity and cynicism in my students. In doing my part to help students grow into virtuous adults, I must keep in mind that negativity and cynicism are not virtues.

I will never forget the main reason I became a teacher — I wanted to make a difference. For me, success has always been defined by how much a person does to make the world a better place. I hope someday to say that, as a teacher, I was a success.

Why Teach History?

Let's hope that every professional can identify a higher purpose to their work, a purpose that goes beyond simply making a living. Attorneys, for example, might be motivated by a sense of justice. Scientists might view their research as a way to improve people’s lives. Law enforcement officers might feel a sense of duty to serve and protect.

History teachers should also sense a higher purpose to what they are doing, not just as teachers, but as
history teachers. When trying to identify that higher purpose history teachers should focus on the needs of all students, and they should make sure they are motivated by humane objectives. They should keep the needs of their students and the health of their society in mind.

With these goals in mind I present my personal list of ten reason for teaching history. This is not a definitive list and teachers are encouraged to use the list only as a starting point for clarifying their own reasons for teaching history.

Ten Reasons to Teach History

1. History provides students an opportunity to develop basic academic skills (reading, writing, and analytical thinking).
In the “real” world we may rarely need to know the details of how George Washington persuaded the Senate to ratify the Jay Treaty or how Andrew Jackson destroyed the Bank of the United States. However, we will always need to know how to read, write, and think. Regardless of what our students decide to do with their lives, developing basic academic skills is vital to their success.

2. History helps students better understand the world in which they live.
We live in a diverse and complex world, and all of us need to understand that world in order to survive. One of the best ways to understand our world is to understand its history, an understanding that is vital not only to our personal happiness, but also the health our society.

3. History helps students understand human beings and, in the process, understand themselves as individuals.
In many ways history is a study of human nature and can help us identify human failures and successes. Since all of us must live with both the vulgarity and the nobility of human existence, we should understand that studying people from the past is one of the best ways to prepare ourselves to live with other human beings, at both their best and their worst.

"In history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see, and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things rotten through and through to avoid."

– Livy

4. History helps students understand people who are different.
Learning to think historically requires that we learn to avoid presentism. That is, we learn to study the past by minimizing the biases of the present. To understand people from the eighteenth century we must be able to put ourselves in their world, knowing only what they knew. If we develop this skill successfully we will then be able to understand people from five hundred years ago or two thousand years ago. We will be able to understand people in modern times who live in different nations or grow up in different cultures.

5. History allows students to gain perspective and learn to see a bigger picture.
History allows us to leave the confines of our own environment and see ourselves as a product of thousands of years of history. As the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero stated, “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be forever a child.”

6. History can inspire students.
Most people, at one time or another, need a little inspiration, and what better place to look for inspiration than to dig into the past? History is full of heroic individuals who found something within themselves that helped them overcome tremendous obstacles. We therefore study history, in part, to learn about inspirational people and their triumphs. We can use history to guide us and help us find the strength and wisdom to deal with life’s hardships.

7. History can provide students with a reason for being — it can give meaning to their lives.
All of us need a reason for living, a higher purpose to our lives. Are we here primarily to help others or explore new frontiers? Are we here to create and bring beauty into the world? To what extent should we define our lives by our emotional and spiritual development? Is it enough to define our lives by hedonistic desires? All these questions have been dealt with by people who came before us and will help us in modern times find our own answers.

8. History can help students feel a sense of connection.
If we consider that an average life span is seventy-five years, it was only two lifetimes ago that it was 1864, and Abraham Lincoln was fighting the Civil War. Only three lifetimes ago it was 1789 and George Washington had just become president. History helps us understand how closely we are connected to the past.

9. History is entertaining and fun.
History is full of drama, suspense, mystery, romance, tragedy, and comedy. If we let the facts speak for themselves, students will likely find great entertainment in stories from the past.

10. History provides students time to wonder and dream — it gives them an opportunity to imagine a better future for themselves.
History leads us to a place where we better understand each other and the world we live in. This understanding can help us then imagine a better way to live and give us the ability to pursue our dreams while staying grounded in our knowledge of the past.

"To me, history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn’t just part of our civic responsibility. To me, it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is."

– David McCullough

What is History?

"Imagination is the ability to bring to mind things that aren’t present to our senses. With imagination you can revisit the past. Indeed you have a past. It is the root of historical study. What history teaches is that the past is not settled. It’s not a closed account. It’s a vibrant, fertile place that’s open to constant reinterpretation. With imagination you can visit other people’s point of view. You can empathize with their life. You can empathize with how they see and feel things."

– Sir Kenneth Robinson

Before history students open a textbook, memorize a date, or write a thesis statement, they should understand what they will be learning and why they will be learning it. Students don’t necessarily come to school looking forward to learning history, and unless they understand the importance of what they will be studying, they will likely put little effort into learning it.

I have listed seven questions below that I hope will lead students toward a better understanding of the historical process and why it matters to learn that process. I make no claims to having profound answers to the questions. I only ask that history teachers use this information to spark their own thinking and develop their own answers, possibly even adding new questions.

1. What is history?
History is a
story created from an examination of the recorded past.

2. Why is history defined as a “story"?
When we study history we don’t necessarily learn what happened — we learn a “story” about what happened. History might not always move forward in a linear fashion with clear beginnings and endings that can be divided into distinct chapters. Even so, historians often explain the past with stories divided into chapters so that it makes sense. The historical process requires historians to compartmentalize and categorize information into a variety of topics (or chapters). Otherwise, the past might appear chaotic.

It might help to think of historians as detectives. They gather evidence about something that happened and then hope they can recreate the past in a way that persuades people to accept their version beyond a reasonable doubt.

Like detectives, historians might never know for certain whether they have accurately recreated what happened. The best they can do is create a narrative that conforms to the evidence available to them. They also understand that different detectives/historians might provide different narratives, even when they have examined the same evidence.

If several people witness a crime, for example, investigators might hear several versions of what happened. Even if they have a film of the crime, they might interpret what they see in the film in different ways. Over time, investigators might even gather evidence that discredits eyewitness accounts, leading to entirely new versions of the story.

In short, the job of historians, like crime investigators, is to reach rational conclusions based on the evidence available to them and then create a narrative from that evidence. For the narrative to make sense, historians must compartmentalize and categorize information, and whenever new evidence emerges, they must be willing to reevaluate their conclusions and change their narrative.

And that’s the historical process. Students should understand that history requires them to tolerate uncertainty. They can never really know what happened. They can only examine the “stories” created from available evidence.

Everybody likes a bit of gossip to some point, as long as it’s gossip with some point to it. That’s why I like history. History is nothing but gossip about the past, with the hope that it might be true.

– Gore Vidal

3. What is meant by describing history as the "recorded" past?
If we have no records from the past, we quite simply have no way of knowing what happened.

Historians look at a variety of artifacts and documents to create their stories of the past. They study letters, diaries, paintings, photographs, music, old clothes, cooking utensils, weapons, garbage, and much more. They might even study natural phenomena, looking at the geographical features of where people lived or the significant natural events that might have affected their lives.

All told, trying to tell a story about what happened in the past requires historians to assemble a puzzle from many different pieces of evidence. Even when the picture is seemingly complete, a new piece of the puzzle can cause the historian to see an entirely new picture and revise the story they had always told. Some pieces of the puzzle might be lost forever, and the historian might never know the entire story about something that happened.

Like detectives, historians have problems to solve. They ask questions about the past and then look at artifacts to create a narrative to answer those questions and describe what life was like for people living in a bygone era.

4. Why do we wonder about a world that no longer exists?
We wonder about the past because we cannot help ourselves. We read an old letter and wonder about the person who wrote it. We look at an old stove and wonder what type of food people cooked on that stove. We look at our system of government and wonder how it developed. We see our friends and colleagues on Monday and ask them what they did over the weekend. Questions about the past are ever present in our lives.

History might also help us understand what is eternally true about being human. It might help us understand ourselves as individuals and the world in which we live. History helps us see a bigger picture of how human beings once lived and how our lives fit into that picture. It’s only natural to wonder how much our world is the same as the world of the past, as well as how much it is different.

5. How does history help us understand today’s world?
All of us are products of the world in which we live. If we had been born in a different time and place, we might speak different languages, eat different types of food, wear different types of clothes, adhere to different social customs, and follow different religions. Much of who we are and what we think is a product of our time and place in history, and the distinct character of our time is a product of thousands of years of history.

Even the things we wonder about are a product of the time in which we live. The questions we ask about the past reflect the circumstances of our lives, and we can’t force ourselves to wonder about the things we just don’t wonder about. (I hope that makes sense!)

Americans in today’s world, for example, ask different questions about the past than Americans of the 1890s, 1930s, or 1960s. Additionally, the questions that Americans ask about the past are probably much different from the questions people in China or Russia ask about their past.

In short, history is a dynamic, ever-changing, and often contentious subject.

The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.

– Paul Johnson

6. How does the dynamic nature of history affect the stories we tell about the past?
Our stories about the past are always changing. The story of the American Civil War that people heard in the 1930s is different from the story told today, and the story that is told 80 years from now will be different from the story we tell today. History is not necessarily what happened, it is a
story about what happened, and the way we tell the story keeps changing to accommodate the time in which we live.

Not only does the time in which we live shape the story, the place we live also affects the way history is told. Americans tell a much different story of the American Revolution than the British. The Vietnamese tell a much different story of the Vietnam War than Americans.

The challenge for all of us is to become bigger than the time in which we live.

7. What does it mean to become “bigger” that the time in which we live?
Studying history provides us with the bigger picture of our lives. We are able to see how our lives compare to the lives of the billions of people who came before us. The more we understand about the people of the past, the more we can understand ourselves. History gives us a much greater perspective on our world and our place in it.

And there is no reason we must remain prisoners of the modern world. We can learn to think beyond our lives and imagine a better world. Like Americans who knew slavery was wrong while living in a world that accepted slavery, we can put ourselves on the right side of history. We can imagine a better and more humane world to come. We can be “bigger” than the time in which we live.