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Transcending Facts to Discover Knowledge

Too often elementary history education in America consists of only exposing students to who did what, where, and when in hopes they will remember and appreciate it. The common tools employed in this shortsighted approach to history consist of the textbook, trade books, and possibly a video that present the subject in a predigested form where historical thinking has been subtracted from the lesson and replaced with reading skills at best. Little evidence exists to prove the effectiveness of these instruction techniques, but they continue to be used. If student math skills were equal to their history skills, a call for improved strategies would have been made long ago. Think of how often "man on the street" interviews ask a history question just to hear the dumb answers people give. How did we come to the point of asking history questions for humor?

The reality of testing cannot be ignored, but ignoring history instruction overlooks a valuable test preparation tool.

The pressure to prepare for state assessments in other subjects overcomes thoughts of implementing innovative techniques that will make history not just memorable but also a vital part of the curriculum. These tests are known to narrow the curriculum, usually at the expense of teaching history. In one study, teachers reported spending 30 minutes per week on social studies instruction while enfolding the subject into novel studies or skills instruction the remainder of the time. One teacher admitted covering social studies "superficially in order to cover the greatest amount of material in the shortest amount of time" (1). The reality of testing cannot be ignored, but ignoring history instruction overlooks a valuable test preparation tool.

Elementary teachers work hard at their craft, but new ideas need to be considered when it comes to teaching history. If teachers and administrators understood that history involves skills such as investigating texts, objects, and images with questions, then the problem of replacing history lessons with more test preparation time would be solved. History instruction should be seen as something to be done rather than just something to remember.

The work of historians can be adapted to use in elementary schools as purported by Dr. Bruce Vansledright (2). For instance, in my state instead of focusing a lesson entirely on who fought at the Alamo and the events of those fateful 13 days, students should seek to understand why people would choose to fight against such dire odds and how the battle affected people who were not there. To do so students would have to consult multiple sources. The traditional textbook, trade book, and video formula augmented with a few visual and print primary sources would provide ample resources. In seeking their answers to these subjective questions students would learn the objective information through handling the information for an authentic purpose.

Most children do not have their curiosity peaked by the prepackaged stories in the textbook, but give them something to argue about and they will dig in.

Students who are taught to interpret history instead of recalling it will have no trouble answering questions on a reading assessment. Furthermore, teaching students to write out their ideas in an expository form prepares them for writing tests. My students have done similar investigations and their findings have been exciting examples of "doing history." Their test results also show them to be well prepared without completing daily test preparation worksheets.

Driving history instruction with thought-provoking questions instead of lists of names, events, and stories to memorize gives purpose to learning the past. Most children do not have their curiosity peaked by the prepackaged stories in the textbook, but give them something to argue about and they will dig in. And if they happen to be thinking critically while they do it, doesn't it make us all winners in the end?

Footnotes
1 S. Burroughs, E. Groce, and M.L. Webeck, "Social Studies Education in the Age of Testing and Accountability," Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice (2005): 13–20.
2 B. Vansledright, "Can Ten-Year Olds Learn to Investigate History As Historians Do?," Organization of American Historians Newsletter August (2000).
 
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