I open up my World History textbook and sigh.
It starts with the origins of civilization, and it wraps up with a rushed snapshot of today. That’s 5,000 years of history.
“So,” I asked myself early in my career, “we’re supposed to teach everything that’s ever happened everywhere on Earth?”
“Right (inject sarcasm).”
It wasn’t until my fifth year that I began selecting units to merely touch upon and other units to dive deep into, but in a class based on chronology, that can be difficult for students. I was never much into the European Middle Ages, but I couldn’t breeze over it and expect my students to understand why the European Renaissance emerged.
About my seventh year, I began to wonder, “What’s this all about? Who cares about DaVinci? Who cares about the Roaring Twenties? Who cares about Sun Tzu? Who cares about any of this history? What’s the point?”
I mean, I care, because I nerd out over it. I’m guessing most historians do. But I’m also guessing many kids don’t.
I run into people all the time who say, “I hated history as a kid, but I like it now.” They also can’t tell me anything about their history class, except for how boring the teacher was, but they can tell me about whatever history interests them today. Why does that happen?
Why do students hate history?
I’m pretty sure it’s a diverse list of reasons, but usually students who dislike my class say it is boring.
“Why is it boring?” I ask.
Students often answer with something along the lines of, “How is learning about the Treaty of Versailles going to help me in life?”
It makes me question whether the content should be the focus.
What is it about the social studies that’s most important to my students?
My answer: strengthening their thinking skills.
I want my students to think. I want them to make reasoned decisions that consider the many variables of an event. I want them to understand a decision’s consequences, for the long term as well as the short. I want them to understand how others will be affected by the decision. And I want them to act accordingly.
If my goal is, as the Ohio Department of Education puts it, to “prepare students to be participating citizens,” then it seems that I want to challenge students’ decisionmaking, and to provide them with the opportunity to take action.
And it makes sense that students can practice those decisionmaking skills with any subject—not a boring one.
Why does history have to be taught through a chronology of topics?
Why do my students have to learn about the fall of Rome or the East India Trading Co.? Maybe one of them would like to focus on elections in Burundi.
Textbooks are often written with brief and incomplete details, blowing through the specifics, kind of like how a teacher who isn’t comfortable with the subject matter would teach a topic. This method misses out on the many variables that matter in understanding cause and effect.
Textbooks also tend to dismiss the humanity of the subject—akin to telling a story with no main character.
If we want our students to make reasoned decisions, then they’ll have to be able to understand the complicated mix of people, places, and things that lead to an outcome.”
If we want our students to make reasoned decisions, then they’ll have to be able to understand the complicated mix of people, places, and things that lead to an outcome.
My students ask questions that show how perceptive they are. They realize that there are gaps in a lesson, or that I’ve breezed over something. I could run with that awareness, answering the students’ questions, fulfilling the so-called “teachable moment,” but why not let the students discover the answer on their own?
Unfortunately, our courses aren’t designed this way. They are not à la carte. The menu is set, and the dishes are going to come out in the same order every time. And because the structure is already set, a student looks at her text and thinks: “Oh, well, that question isn’t in here, so it won’t be on the test, so let’s just move this along. What’s on the next page, I wonder? Oh, vulcanization. How awfully exhilarating.”
I could construct a lesson that leaves a gap open for all of my students to practice inquiry skills and develop a conclusion, which I do. But might there be other options that attract the students—that allow them to decide what they like, instead of giving me that choice?
Why not let each student decide what gap he or she wants to research and solve, instead of demanding that all students have a similar learning experience with the same topic?
Rather than a standardized chronology of events, why not choose one topic to dive deep into for the semester, allowing the students to really tear the topic apart, providing them with the necessary details to make valid arguments?
If one topic per semester sounds a little extreme, try four topics during the course of a semester. The point is that fewer topics, with a concentration on depth, will allow the richness of the history to attract the students.
As history classes are currently designed, time is a huge issue. “How am I supposed to get through 5,000 years of history?”
Teachers are deeply and constantly concerned with time, and for good reason.
“I can’t spend any more time on the Korean War because I have to be to Watergate by next week, and I still have to cover the civil rights movement to adequately prepare my students for the test.”
What hogwash. All the students need in order to practice their social studies skills is one of those topics. They are all fascinating. Let’s choose one.
A semester could be based on the themes Inquiry, Analysis, and Solutions, and teachers could let those concepts guide the course, instead of the label Western Civilization. A course that focuses on methods could choose five interesting and unrelated events or people to study in depth.
Social studies is just that: studying society. We love to try to build equations about how society and the people within it will act. Economics tries to predict these trends all the time, but there really is no way to predict with any consistency what a person will do. Because there is a level of uncertainty about human behavior, we try to categorize it and make sense of it. We attach names to eras and titles to chapters, and we stick it in a book, and we call it history.
“Here is what happened in the past,” we say. “Phew, we got that figured out.”
And then a student asks a question: “Why is the U.S. prison population so high?”
And then we’re like, “Oh, that’s not on the test, let’s get back to the timeline” and the kid’s curiosity is shattered, and they’re like, “History’s boring.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2015 edition of Education Week as Why Do Students Hate History?