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Good history teaching . . . provid[es] students with the skills they need to be competent and engaged citizens

Anyone who actually remembers typing a term paper on an electric typewriter can tell you that the 21st century symbolizes more than the introduction of new toys, gizmos, and gadgets. We are witnessing a revolutionary “flattening” of a global economy, an explosion of technological capabilities, and an insatiable demand for natural and human resources that command our attention to respond to the challenges of the world in critical, creative ways.

How can the world, let alone schools be expected to keep up with the ever-growing amount of information we need to know? We can’t. Education as a paradigm needs to change from acquiring knowledge, to finding, understanding, and using knowledge to become responsible, engaged members of the human race capable of solving complex problems in a complex world.

What does this mean for history teachers? We know that good history teaching is purposeful teaching—it provides students with a basic knowledge of people, places and events. But more importantly, it frames history as a series of lessons that inform the future while providing students with the skills they need to be competent and engaged citizens.

So what skills do they need? The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, adopted by 14 states, identifies the 4 C’s: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation. By being intentional about developing these skills within the history curriculum, educators can bridge the profound gap between what most students learn in school and what they need in demanding 21st century communities and workplaces.

Consider the following example: Students use online databases to locate primary source materials from the Civil Rights Movement and identify problems the movement intended to address. They evaluate the effectiveness of a specific event—such as the 1965 march on Selma, Alabama—in reaching the movement’s goals, and work collaboratively to make a presentation with the use of technology. Students then explore their local community for examples of social inequities, whether related to race, age, gender, or culture, and, if they occur, proceed to analyze and propose public policy solutions.

This kind of approach certainly provides students with important content knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement. But it also requires them to analyze primary sources, understand cause and effect, build technology skills, problem-solve, and then apply their learning to new contexts to encourage civic action and build civic literacy.

Only then will we realize the most important lesson of all—that learning about the past will always remain in the past unless the lessons learned and the skills developed are emblazoned in the citizens of tomorrow as prologue to the present and future of our world.