Social Studies

History Instruction Indicted: Too Much Memorization, Too Little Meaning

By Catherine Gewertz — May 07, 2019 2 min read
Third-grade students, from left to right, Peyton C., Landen H., Jeremiah W., and Sophie M., participate in a social studies lesson focused on the history and symbolism of the American flag at Freedom Elementary School in Colorado Springs, Colo. The school district is focused on teaching students to do history rather than passively receive it.
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Students in U.S. classrooms are startlingly ignorant of American history, but it’s not because their teachers have failed them. It’s because the curriculum in most schools focuses on memorizing “irrelevant, boring” names and dates, according to a study released Tuesday.

Researchers for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation surveyed the 50 states and found that students are indeed weak on their knowledge of American history. But unlike some critics, who fault teacher training or weak course requirements, the report’s authors say bad curriculum is to blame.

“Based on our analysis, this is not an issue of whether high school history teachers are adequately prepared or whether children today even study American history in school,” the foundation’s president, Arthur Levine, says in a statement. “The answer to both questions is yes. This is an issue of how we teach American history and whether today’s learners see relevance and are engaged in what and how history is taught.”

The foundation’s new report is a followup to a 50-state poll it released in February. That poll showed that only 4 in 10 citizens are able to pass a multiple-choice test made up of 20 questions from the U.S. citizenship test.

The new report dives into the reasons people are ill-equipped to pass a citizenship test. It finds that states’ history requirements are not the problem. All but five states require students to study American history in elementary school. All but 11 require it in middle school, and all but eight states require one American history course in high school, the report says.

(Check out the results of Education Week‘s own survey, too, which examined states’ requirements for history and civics instruction.)

"[T]he simple fact is that all of the questions asked on the citizenship test would be covered in a one-year American history course,” the study says. “A lack of exposure is not why the majority of Americans failed the test,” the study says.

The Woodrow Wilson team also found that teacher training isn’t the problem. Eighty-three percent of high school social science teachers are certified in social sciences, and 79 percent majored in American history or a related social science discipline.

The researchers concluded that too much passive instruction—relying on textbooks and lectures, with lots of memorization of facts, dates, and places—explains students’ poor grasp of history. History instruction must be changed to become more relevant and engaging, with interactive approaches to teaching, and an emphasis on deep understanding, the researchers argue.

(The foundation is on the verge of launching an initiative to help transform the teaching of American history. It aims to make learning history more interesting, with an interactive digital platform that includes simulations and video games.)

“Any temptation to cast blame for the low passage rates on failing students or fumbling teachers is misguided,” the report says. “The problem is not that today’s Americans are ignorant or that the current generation is less equipped than its predecessors. The problem is not that the schools have abandoned American history, the teacher force is uneducated, or the American history curriculum has been ravaged. “

“The problem is not new,” the report adds. “It’s perennial. Memorizing random facts doesn’t work.”

As part of a major analysis of civics education, Education Week has asked whether the way history is taught in American classrooms could fuel political polarization.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.