Teaching Opinion

Response: Teaching History By Not Giving ‘The Answers’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 02, 2014 11 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

Lychellia Cheeks asked:

What are some stories (testimonials) of the process teachers experienced when moving from the “stereotypical history teacher who only gives multiple choice tests on the dates of battles and offers their students a steady diet of mind dumbing worksheets and lectures.” (Eric Langhorst, part two of your response to Ways We Can Teach Social Studies More Effectively; April 2012).

In Part One, educators Diana Laufenberg, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez and Peter Pappas contributed their responses.

Today, Bruce Lesh, PJ Caposey, and Dave Orphal share their thoughts, and I’m also including comments from readers.

I also thought educators might find my list, The “All-Time” Best Social Studies Sites, useful.

Response From Bruce Lesh

Bruce Lesh has been a teacher and department chair for eighteen years at Franklin High School in Reisterstown, Maryland. His book “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer": Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 was published by Stenhouse in 2011:

Throughout the past twenty years as a classroom teacher, I have suffered from what I have come to call “lecture guilt.” It is the result of the furrowed brows I see when I answer “No” to the question “Should I lecture?” I have learned to deal with this guilt because it is ameliorated by positive comments such as “I never knew history was interesting.”

Making the transition from teaching history as it has always been taught, to a methodology more in tune with effective practice, is simultaneously disconcerting and rewarding. Moving from lectures, worksheets, and textbooks to having students investigate the past through the lens of deep historical questions, analyzing historical sources and developing evidence-based answers to the overarching questions, is disconcerting for both teacher and student because it goes against how teachers learned history as a student and how they were trained to teach it.

As a teacher, I have forced myself to move away from how I was taught history and onto somewhat untrammeled ground. What has always been troubling to me is the sense I get from many peers that, by having students engage in an investigation of the past, I am violating some sort of sacred bond among history educators that the study of history is to be the transmission of facts, facts, and more facts. Colleagues looked at me funny as students began to ask questions and engage in debates about historical evidence. My peers--who have been trained (as I was) to lecture, assign readings from the books, break things up with Hollywood movies, and test with quickly graded multiple-choice questions--wondered why I was challenging “what has always worked.” I will always remember the comment of a veteran teacher who said that once I finished “having fun,” I could come to him and he “would show [me] how to really teach history.” As I watched his kids laboriously copy notes from an overhead projector for 180 school days, I realized that the benefits of the choice I was making would far outweigh the costs.

The reaction of my students was often just as daunting as those of my peers. Students had become accustomed to history being taught in a certain manner. In their effort to learn to “do school,” they expected to come into the history classroom and be regaled with stories of the past distributed through lectures, films, and textbooks, and they had mastered the skill set necessary to “do history.” Early on during my transition from memory history to that more akin to what historians do, I was often confronted with questions such as “Why won’t you just tell us the answer?” As students were challenged to consider the past through a series of questions, and taught to evaluate various forms of historical evidence, they were so much more engaged with the past because it was not presented as a litany of information that they had to memorize in a predetermined order. And although I was anxious about asking students to engage with the past rather than digest it, the rewards far outweighed the initially perplexing stares from colleagues and students.

When students tell me that they feel like they are “looking at history through a microscope” and learning to understand the past “from a variety of perspectives,” I realize that they are interested and engaged--two significant goals on the way to a deeper understanding of the past. Increased student engagement, increased participation in the examination of the past, and the development of a deeper set of academic skills make the busting of the history teacher stereotype well worth it!

Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is Assistant Superintendent/High School Principal for Meridian CUSD 223 in Illinois. PJ has won many awards, become a sought after speaker on many topics, and has written two books in the past two years including Teach Smart: 11 Learner-Centered Strategies That Ensure Student Success.

The following is a commentary from one of the finest Social Studies teachers I have had the privilege of supervising in my administrative career, Mr. Michael Boyer.

“I would like to start by explaining how my experience in history classes has influenced my own thinking today. In high school, my experience with history was memorizing dates, 90 minute lectures while taking notes off the overhead, packets full of useless work sheets, and 100 question multiple choice tests. I felt like this was preparing me to major in history in college, but found out I was completely wrong when I took my first history course in college. Analyzing primary sources, and writing historical essays were the assignments given in my first college level class, and I had no knowledge of how to do either of these things. Suddenly, my memorization of random facts, and worksheets were useless to me. This college experience should have opened my eyes on how I wanted to educate students, but it obviously did not because my first two years of teaching history resulted in me giving the same types of assignments that I was given in high school (multiple choice tests, useless worksheets, notes off the overhead). My principal motivated me to change the way I taught history by introducing me to the Common Core Standards. These standards helped me examine my curriculum and helped me realize that I was doing nothing to prepare my students for college level history work. Immediately, I changed the way I (taught and) assessed my students.”

When working with teachers I focus on two elements when trying to change from the ‘status quo’ to what is best for kids. One is the focus on standards alluded to above, the other is the Google test. If it can be answered via a simple Google search - then very little instructional time should be spent on it and it should not be assessed. CCSS is a game-changer, so too can be the ‘Google Test.’

Response From Dave Orphal

Dave Orphal is a high school teacher in Oakland, California. He blogs at After The Bell:

“That was the best summer school ever!” one student said as she left class on the last day of July.

Best summer school ever? Can you believe it? This comment came from a student who had failed 7th grade World History and was giving up her summer days to retake the class that clearly she didn’t like the first time.

Why is that? Here’s why:

That’s me in the picture. I’m in my full 14th Century armor, getting ready to fight.

I’m a complete nerd about medieval history. I spend a lot of my weekend and summers playing in a club called the Society for Creative Anachronisms. In my club, members dress up in costumes ranging from around the Norman invasion of England to the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Members of the club make clothing, and jewelry. They create illuminated manuscripts, cook food, build furniture, and hundreds of other arts and crafts.

Not so humbly, I claim that my participation in this club and my friendships with these amazing artist allow me to deliver perhaps the greatest medieval-history unit EVAR!!!

For the entire five-weeks of summer school, that’s all we did, medieval history all day, every day.

It was my belief that trying to cover 180 days of history in 25 days was a proposition guaranteed to fail. Instead of trying to recover content, I wanted to spark the nerdy fire of curiosity. I wanted my students to believe, like I do, that history is cool. So this is what we did.

The first 60 minutes of each 2 ½ hour block was devoted to the basics. Some days I lectured about the feudalism. Other days, I talked about crop rotation and the manor system. I lectured about the Norman Conquest, the Crusades, and the 100-Years War. We learned about the life of a peasant, merchant, artist, knight, noble, and women of all social classes.

Then the fun began. Each day one of my friends would visit for the final 90 minutes of class. They would be dressed in medieval clothing, and would teach about the particular art that they specialized in.

We learned how to draw Celtic knotwork from a stone carver. We learned how to spin raw wool into thread. We learned calligraphy. We learned about heraldry and made our own coats of arms. Most of all, we had fun.

On the last day of school, my several of my friends arrived with their armor and weapons. On the lawn, in front of hundreds of middle-school children, we fought. Afterwards, we took questions from the crowd and played show-n-tell with the armor and weapons.

Because I am a high school teacher in the Fall and Spring, occasionally one of those middle school students would return to my classroom. They may not have remembered much from the lectures and worksheets, but they always remembered how much fun they had and how, many for the very first time, realized that learning can be fun.

So what’s the lesson here? Should all history teachers join my club and get some armor or some art supplies? Certainly not. The lesson for my colleagues is this - remember that WE became history teachers because of OUR passion for some aspect of the past. Find ways to share that passion with your kids.

Responses From Readers

John Norton:

Getting middle grades kids interested in history has been a top priority at our MiddleWeb site since we relaunched in June 2012. The Future of History blog features posts from Aaron Brock, who teaches 8th gr US history in the Compton CA schools and shares his ideas about engaging diverse groups of students. The blog also shares teaching strategies from Jodi Passanisi and Shara Peters, who teach at an LA independent school.

Last week we published an excerpt from one of the best books we’ve read on teaching history in middle school: Making History Mine by Sarah Cooper.

This observation from Cooper could apply at any grade level: “The history we teach reaches them best when it involves novelty, humor, meaning, a sense of self, and a connection to the real world.”

Mary Haas:

There are fewer discipline problems when students are involved in various strategies. Students get to know each other through interacting together. Of course you have to work to get a classroom atmosphere that respects the right to hold different perspectives and views and the respect for evidence to hold these. The biggest problems come from students who have figured out the traditional way of working and get good grades. The may fight doing something different as they have to think. Most of the other students are so bored that they enjoy trying something new and different.


For me, the answer to that question is easy. Rather than textbooks, use a couple of biographies, personal accounts of historic moments, and a few of the most notable documents. Make it more of a philosophy class than a history class: What do freedom, democracy, and heroism mean? In such a class historical events can be reduced to a timeline and summaries. Students don’t remember the details of wars, land acquisitions, and most presidencies under the current forms of teaching history; why continue it?

A number of readers used Twitter to contribute comments. I’ve used Storify to collect them:

Thanks to Bruce, PJ and Dave, and to readers, for their contributions!

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