Social Studies

Advocates Finding Ways to Bulk Up History Learning

By Caralee J. Adams — July 09, 2013 9 min read
Jakub Simacek, center, discusses his exhibit with a visitor at the National History Day competition at the University of Maryland College Park. Mr. Simacek, a student from Newark High School in Newark, Del., detailed the capture of the Pegasus Bridge by British troops during the early hours of D-Day in World War II.
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STEM careers may be promoted as the wave of the future, but history advocates say students still need to know about the past.

Historical research can teach critical-thinking skills useful to any profession, including science, technology, engineering, and math, they point out. But the attention is focused on subjects in which students are assessed and federal money is flowing—and that’s not history.

“In public schools or any schools that are subject to state testing, history has really taken a beating,” said Thomas R. English, the president of the Organization of History Teachers, an affiliate of the American Historical Association. “Everybody is fighting about who gets the kids for how much time.”

While the battle to keep history central to the curriculum has been going on for years, efforts are ramping up to use technology and other activities to engage students more deeply in the subject and compete with the new emphasis on stem.

Online history lessons have been crafted for students to analyze primary sources and critique different interpretations of historical events. Upcoming changes to the Advanced Placement U.S. History course in fall 2014 and its accompanying exam in 2015 are expected to offer teachers flexibility to focus on specific historical events in more depth. The National History Bee & Bowl tournaments have been launched, joining the established National History Day as activities to excite students about history through competition.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report last month calling on the nation to protect the central role of the humanities and social sciences in education. Among its recommendations: Invest in the preparation of citizens in democracy by ensuring a “thorough grounding” in history, civics, and social studies; increase access to online resources and teaching materials in the humanities; and create a Humanities Master Teacher Corps to complement the one already established for STEM teachers.

Upcoming Framework

Despite those efforts, Mr. English is skeptical that big change will happen until steps are taken to ensure students are getting more instructional time in history and are held accountable for learning it.

Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford University, also is dubious. He’s taken matters into his own hands by making available for free his Reading Like a Historian curriculum that encourages high school students to dig into historical documents, such as letters and speeches, to reach their own conclusions about events. “It’s important for young people to discern truth from the goulash of voices out there,” said Mr. Wineburg. “You don’t get that in a math or engineering curriculum. The place where we learn to contend with conflicting voices, the training ground, the sandbox is history.”

Since 2010, nearly 1 million educators have downloaded the materials. Because of the response, Mr. Wineburg plans to roll out curriculum for middle school students and go completely digital, formatting the lessons for tablets.

“If the humanities want to keep pace with the rapid technological changes that are going on in society, they, too, have to reconfigure themselves,” he said.

Many educators believe that history and social studies have been marginalized since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which requires students to be tested in math and reading, and to a lesser degree, science.

“When test scores go down, schools double up on reading and math and kick social studies to the curb,” said Michelle Herczog, the president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies, based in Silver Spring, Md.

As a result, she is concerned that students are growing up not knowing history, economics, and how to operate in a democracy.

A model of the Enola Gay airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, is part of junior Drew Bondurant's exhibit, "The Atomic Bomb: How it Changed History," at the National History Day competition. He attends St. Luke School in Columbus, Ga.

While the federal government provides money for math, reading, and science instruction, there is significantly less for social science education, said Ms. Herczog.

For the past three years, the NCSS, representatives from 20 states, and 14 other organizations have been crafting a framework for teaching social studies with an emphasis on inquiry and deep content. In August, the final version is expected to be unveiled.

The Council of Chief State School Officers last month stepped out of its role as the group’s convener, but Ms. Herczog said the others are well-positioned to continue with the implementation. The project, she said, aims to do for social studies what the Next Generation Science Standards are doing to reshape science instruction.

Some history teachers, such as Ron Briley, think the new framework may have some impact but they expect states are more focused on implementing the Common Core State Standards. And since history isn’t directly tested in the common core, that omission leaves the impression that it is less important than math and literacy, said Mr. Briley, who has taught for 35 years at the Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, N.M.

Not Practical?

Other history advocates hope that teachers will incorporate historical analysis into lessons geared to meet the English/language arts standards.

In his school, Mr. Briley said students are interested in studying history, but their families aren’t as supportive. “Parents say it’s not practical. You can’t make money at it. They all want their kids to major in engineering.” At parent meetings, he said, everyone rushes to the math and science departments, leaving the history and English teachers to visit with each other.

Mr. Briley acknowledges the pressure to go into the STEM fields given their higher financial rewards, yet he maintains that history helps students develop skills that employers value. Being able to conduct research, present ideas using logical thinking, and back up arguments with historical examples have great applications to life and the workplace, he said.

That argument is echoed by the AAAS commission, which says in its report that ability to adapt in a changing world is based not only on instruction for specific jobs of today but also for the development of “inquisitiveness, perceptiveness, the ability to put a received idea to a new purpose, and the capacity to share and build ideas with others.”

“The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire: Blazing the Trail for Labor Reforms”, a student-produced exhibit, is displayed at the National History Day competition. Krupali Patel and Lauren Zweifel, juniors at Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando, Fla., are the creators.

Much of the action in bringing history to students is taking place in the extracurricular realm, often catering to students with a particular interest in the subject. The National History Club, for example, has nearly 500 member schools where participants work on projects and activities that dig deep into historical topics. The club is an offshoot of The Concord Review, a journal that publishes high school students’ scholarly research papers analyzing key events and trends in history.

Another way students are getting experience with long-term historical research is through National History Day. Founded in 1974, the nationwide competition has evolved into an organization that sponsors broader programming, including training and resources for history teachers.

“It’s very much about getting kids out of the classrooms and into an archive to be real historians,” said Executive Director Cathy Gorn.

Some 600,000 students took part in National History Day programs this year. At the national finals in College Park, Md., last month, nearly 2,900 students from all 50 states, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, China, South Korea, and Indonesia competed.

Ballrooms on the University of Maryland campus were filled with rows of elaborate displays explaining everything from the Scopes “monkey trial” to the Irish potato famine to the New Deal. Framed photos, dioramas, videos, lights, and memorabilia brought the events to life. In other rooms, students were doing historical performances, explaining websites, and screening documentaries they’d made.

Rising 9th grader Cameron Tilley from Conway, Ark., explained how he had worked since November on an exhibit about the polio vaccine as a turning point in medical history. His three-sided, revolving exhibit included a giant model of a needle on top, clips from the Journal of the American Medical Association, and quotes from an interview he had with a woman in his hometown who had polio as a child.

“Having polio changed their lives. They couldn’t walk or breathe even. They had to have iron lungs,” said Cameron, who wants to be a surgeon someday. “It’s crazy how much things have changed in such a short amount of time. The vaccine had a huge impact.”

An evaluation of the program by the independent research firm Rockman et al. shows participants perform better on high-stakes tests, are better writers, more confident and capable researchers, and have a more mature perspective on current events and civic engagement than their peers.

Evaluating Knowledge

Despite continued growth in participation, Congress cut off the annual appropriation of $500,000 for National History Day in 2009. Private funders have stepped in to support the organization, said Ms. Gorn, an adjunct professor of history at the University of Maryland.

Seniors Trinity Hamm, Spencer Miller, and Emily Reiss from the Kutztown Area High School in Kutztown, Pa., entered their exhibit, “Adding More Oil to the Anti-War Fire”: The Impact of the Tet Offensive Within and Beyond the Vietnam War," in the National History Day competition.

Douglas Brisson, a National History Day judge and a historian from Northern Virginia, says the competition offers an opportunity for students to learn where knowledge comes from and how to evaluate it.

Three judges stand in front of an exhibit on the Berlin Wall made by 8th graders James Burke and Marcus Alexander from Warwick, R.I., and quiz the pair on their work. The three-fold, 5-foot-tall, wooden display’s background is spray painted to depict the graffiti on the Berlin Wall, and the panels are filled with photos and text. The judges ask about the significance of the wall, if the students encountered any conflicting information in their research, and why they chose the topic.

The students explain the variety of sources they consulted, the late nights working on the project, and how they learned about the importance of both the rise and fall of the wall during their research.

Preparing Teachers

With the goal of engaging students more deeply in history, David Madden, a “Jeopardy!” champion and former high school and college quiz-bowl player, established the National History Bee & Bowl in 2010. Now in about 2,000 schools—elementary through high—individual Bee competitions and Bowl events are held throughout the country.

Mr. Madden, 31, discovered there was plenty of demand. “We are building it as fast as we can,” he said.

That competitive experience is designed to be fun and a learning opportunity. It is not trivia, but rather a fact-based competition where students advance as they answer more and more challenging questions and draw conclusions.

“There is only so much that can be taught in the classroom with only so many hours in the day. Competitions like these encourage students to go off and explore on their own and find out more about a subject,” he said. “This is something that really rewards long-term, in-depth knowledge as opposed to cramming for a test.”

To make a real impact on history education, what many advocates want to see is better preparation for history teachers.

Gary Nash, the director of the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he was encouraged that the academy’s report put a spotlight on the need to better prepare teachers. He works to provide professional development for K-12 history teachers and provide curricular materials to engage students in U.S. and world history, such as the online World History for All platform for middle and high school teachers. Mr. Nash likes the idea of funding master teachers in history equivalent to those in STEM, as the report recommends, but doubts that Congress is in the mood to launch any new initiatives.

Ms. Gorn agrees that it will be a hard push to get policymakers to respond. But in today’s global community, students need to understand the past, different cultures, and their place in the world, she said. “Ultimately, the goal is to create thoughtful, engaged citizens and thoughtful voters.”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Advocates Finding Ways to Bulk Up History Learning


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