This vintage portrait features George Washington. (iStock)

Back in 1982, a survey was taken of sixth and 12th-graders in a Midwest school district to determine how the students felt about social studies.  The results: The kids were “largely indifferent” or revealed “negative attitudes” toward social studies. If you listen to students and teachers, not much has changed since: A lot of kids in K-12 schools find history class boring.

What’s more, the number of college history majors has been declining; the Los Angeles Times reported:

Since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2007, the history major has lost significant market share in academia, declining from 2.2% of all undergraduate degrees to 1.7%. The graduating class of 2014, the most recent for which there are national data, included 9% fewer history majors than the previous year’s cohort, compounding a 2.8% decrease the year before that. The drop is most pronounced at large research universities and prestigious liberal arts colleges.

Some college history departments now take pains to woo students, explaining that there is employment for history majors after they graduate. Boston University, for example, has a page on its website that says “So, you think you want to study history? But you’re worried it might not be the right choice.” It then goes on to dispels myths “that make some nervous about majoring or minoring in history” and says history majors do, in fact, get good jobs:

Myth No. 1: History is boring.

Maybe you had awkward experiences in high school. You assume history is going to be all names and dates and “one damned thing after another,” as the saying goes. Maybe, like Virginia Woolf, you’ve concluded that history is too much about old men and their wars or that it is “more or less bunk,” as Henry Ford proclaimed. (Then again, Ford also called physical exercise bunk, so he might not be the best authority.)

But wait … it’s not like that.

College history is not designed around state-mandated textbooks or standardized tests … Historical knowledge is powerful currency for the 21st century.  History increases cultural literacy and sensitivity. You will learn to consider multiple points of view and changing global contexts. And you will get more jokes. It also offers a unique education in the curation of content, teaching you how to collect, evaluate, and arrange a variety of sources into persuasive arguments and narratives. By interpreting the past you will better understand yourself. And those who know their history help to shape how people see themselves in the present and what they hope for the future.

All of this brings us to a new book titled “Rebooting Social Studies: Strategies for Reimagining History Classes,” by Greg Milo, who taught high school social studies for 13 years and who currently works with Global Ties Akron and the Knight Foundation, organizing community events so that people of different backgrounds can learn more about their own community together. He is also a member of Akron Promise, a nonprofit that works to increase educational opportunities for all students.

This is an excerpt from the book:

“I wish I could take a history class now. I hated it when I was young,” said the parent to the teacher.

Do you ever encounter such sadness?

What did they hate about the class? They’ll usually say, “It was boring.”

“What did you find boring about it?”

They all say something like, “We just had to memorize facts about dead people.”

It’s hard to argue with that answer. It’s a struggle to even memorize the names of the students at the start of each year. Heck, passwords are hard to memorize, and those are used daily.

Memorizing names or dates or anything isn’t very motivating for most people.

“Class, what year did Benjamin Franklin run away from his brother James?”

“In what year did Nikita Khrushchev slam his shoe while giving a speech at the U. N.?”

“Here, class, memorize the dates of the Thirty Years War.”

Whoa, riveting.

Not to mention, that much of what we ask our students to memorize is all very bland — breadth without the depth. Can you imagine if “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .” was followed by two hours of generalized paragraphs that glossed over the excitement?

Like dates, content can get in the way of student learning. Does it matter if students memorize the story of Benjamin Franklin — or at least the few things we demand student learn about him. Is it the facts that matter or the story that matters?

Content is necessary, no doubt, and dates certainly do give some context to an event so that it fits within the larger story, but have history courses placed too much importance on memorizing content? Does specific content even matter?

To have a course, you have to have content. There isn’t any doubt about that, but there seems to be a heavy emphasis in our Social Studies standards on content, placing content over skills. The assumption by the standards is there’s a certain collection of historical events that students must cover in order to be competent in history. Hogwash.

For the state to determine what world history is important for a student to learn hints at a delusion of grandeur. How can anyone in their right mind select the historical events for a particular person to study? Impossible. The fact that the system even attempts to select the events for our history classes just shows its limited knowledge of world history.

“Here children, study this stuff I learned in high school, whether you’re interested or not, because I don’t know anything about the rest of the world — seeing as how this is a world history class.”

It’s ignorance, really. Why are certain sections in a World History textbook lengthier than others? Basically, because the people putting the curriculum together don’t know about the other stuff. They didn’t grow up learning about pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. They learned about pirates in the Caribbean.

When it comes down to it, there’s a battle between content and methods, and methods is losing, even though methods is the more useful of the two — the one that will transform students’ minds from recall to that of independence and inquiry.

Which is more important for students to learn: the French Revolution or the Taiping Rebellion? The Victorian Age or the Qajar Age? Perhaps different students in the same class would like to dive into different empires, British or Persian. Might even make for a little fun.

Is there a certain core knowledge that history students should learn? For example, should high school students learn about the French Revolution? Or, as history teachers, is it more our responsibility to teach students how to think, whether it’s the French Revolution or the Taiping Rebellion?

The problem-solving student will serve society (and the student) much better in the future than the date-regurgitator. A student who has practiced the skills necessary to adapt will more likely innovate than the student who has memorized the events of the Era of Absolutism.*

The thinking process must be the focus, not the content. And this can be accomplished with any historical content, from any era and any region of the world.

If education does dethrone Queen Content in favor of a focus on individual thinking skills, education will also have to embrace hands-on, active learning and in-depth, rich inquiry. Schools will have to adopt programs that place students in the driver’s seat, working with whatever it is they are studying. Plus, history courses will have to drop the rushed memorize-this-hundreds-of-years mentality and implement topic-specific courses that allow students time to dig through the rigor.

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What if the film Star Wars: A New Hope was in a history course textbook? What would that look like? Like the Thirty Years War in a World History course, the film would be only a small part of the overall course, and it might be in a chapter titled The Galactic Empire and look a little like this:

The Galactic Empire had increased its hold on a growing number of planets; however, the rebels continued to fight. In an effort to reign in the rebels, the Empire built a space station that could destroy a planet. In a show of power, the Empire destroyed the planet Alderaan, proving its strength.

The Empire was planning on destroying more planets, which would certainly stall any rebel efforts, but during the Battle of Yavin, rebel pilots found a weakness and the space station was destroyed. This was a damaging blow to the Empire, and it was a huge boost to the rebel morale, but the Empire’s growth was merely stalled.

There, that’s the movie. That’s what we ask students to learn about most wars in history. There are no specific players. There are no personal stories. There isn’t much substance. And there’s little doubt that the above version of Star Wars would not lead to a series of other movies, action figures, and kids pajamas.

We love stories that pull us in, stories that don’t gloss over the excitement. We are drawn to stories that make us a part of it. That highlight the humanity. That require us to struggle with themes that we can relate to, like right and wrong or good and bad.

Far too often, we model a very hands-off approach to life in the Social Studies. We hand students thick texts that tiptoe over thousands of years of history. Students pass tests by regurgitating the text, and we expect them to be innovative. We give A+ scores for essays that follow the perfect five paragraph format.

None of this memorizing challenges problem-solving skills or instills moral decision-making. Instead, memorization makes education “a call-and-response game,” as a 2013 Atlantic article put it. The article written by Ben Orlin goes on to state, “What separates memorization from learning is a sense of meaning.”

The meaning has been sapped from the education.

But it’s not you! It’s the Social Studies — the system that has been in place for years.

So, Social Studies teachers, “Why do people like history after they leave the clutches of the system?” That’s the real question.

They like it now because they can read about what interests them. They have a choice. They learn about specific stories of specific people. Bottom line, they don’t read a textbook and they aren’t forced to memorize. They’ve had more experiences, so they can put meaning to the history.

So, how do we make it interesting?

Easy. We use our talents as Social Studies teachers to turn the system upside down.

We all know that we have to engage the students and motivate them, but how can we do that given the current system, which sometimes feels stifling or restrictive?

Change takes time, but there are some quick adjustments that can be used now to motivate students. Give the students the tools to be the expert. Build in opportunities for the students to physically move. Don’t be afraid to give them some independence.

There’s different levels of expertise, and there’s different methods to reach expertise. One simple way for a history course is to adjust the content.

The goal of Social Studies is to help encourage participating citizens. That can’t be done with reading traditional textbooks, but it can be done with reading supplemental pieces that bring life and humanity to the historical story.

So, is there a quick fix that teachers can implement in their lessons immediately? Yep.

There are tons of curriculum out there, some good some bad. One powerful collection is developed by the Choices Program. The curriculum that Choices puts out focuses on world events and history, and it’s definitely challenging. Each unit is thoroughly researched and presented in such a way that students can build a strong understanding of events. Choices also includes a focus on values. Their curriculum on Human Rights challenges students to research a side, reflect on their own view, take a position, and support that decision. It requires students to play a role in the lessons — their own role.

It’s one thing to ask students to debate the refugee crisis in Syria, but it’s another thing to provide students with the background of specific positions on how to address the crisis and to play that role in a class deliberation. Choices gives you the tools to make this happen.

Choices can be altered for your own purposes. They provide a heavy and in-depth curriculum, but teachers can adapt the program for time and level.

You feel the standards handcuff you? There’s enough in the Choices curriculum to hit the standards, while also leading your students to being experts on a topic. Do you feel the standards limit your ability to take time to really dive into content? No matter. Choices is organized in such a way that teachers can use a day’s worth of it or spend a week on a lesson. Choices is adaptable, like good teachers and students.

Once students feel like experts in a topic, it’s time to add some action. Granted, students have already played an active role by researching the material on their own and discussing the material with their group partners, but how can we get them out of their seat?

Students can present their findings to their classmates in the classroom, but that can get stale after a while. Try inviting a panel of judges to your class. Or try holding an assembly where your students make their cases to the school (or to the entire Sophomore class). Or, if the students worked on a human rights unit, maybe they organize a fair trade event. Or ask your students to create a public service announcement about the topic — respect for women in India, for example.

Send students out of the classroom. This might be scary at first. Who will they disrupt? What will they break? Who knows. Once they get into the rhythm of leaving the room, experiencing the excitement and change, they’ll respect the independence. Our students are so conditioned to sit and stay that they don’t know what to do when they stand. They associate standing with social time. We to turn standing into an alternate learning time, but in order to do so, we must structure it in a way that is engaging and meaningful.

Give the students an assignment of developing an information campaign. They come up with the signage and catchy messages, and then they go around the school for a period, posting their creative messages. Perhaps you’ve organized it with some other Social Studies teachers where your students walk into their room to push their campaign of knowledge.

We learn best (adults and kids) when moving around, engaging with what we’re studying. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist (whatever that is, sounds cool though), writes in his book Brain Rules about the importance physical activity has on the brain and memory. He also talks about the importance of naps, and boy, I’m totally in support of that one.

Now put it altogether. Give students the jumpstart with the necessary readings, films, websites, and all to become the expert. While they’re doing that, find ways where they can move about, whether it’s during their research, or as a means of assessment, or as a project. Once the students have gone this far, it’s time for them to make their own choice.

Let the students decide where they want to go next with the topic. If they were researching human rights, now it’s time for them to focus on a particular piece of the puzzle. Maybe one student wants to look further into human trafficking, another wants to study child soldiers, another wants to look at police brutality, another wants to look at crimes against journalists, another wants to examine the rights of musical artists and their online material. There’s a zillion options out there.

While the class is covering the usual World History content, students are working on their own interest on the side. From time to time, students update the class on where they are on their research or interesting discoveries.

The students made the choice to study their topic. They, and only they, are the expert on their topic. They are enlightening the teacher and the rest of the class. This is a powerful motivator.

And who cares what the topic is? Who cares if it’s not specified by the state standards? The point is that students are practicing critical-thinking skills. They are practicing presentation skills. And they did it all while reading about something they were interested in learning about. And by the way, you can finagle just about anything to fit the standards, so long as you’re doing it for the students.

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As Social Studies teachers, we want students to get involved in their community and their education. We want the experience to be real and valuable for them. We want them to take the skills they learn in our classes to their next class, or even better, to college and their future career.

There isn’t much room for memorization of dates and dead people, but there is plenty of room for Social Studies. So, let’s buck the current system.

Leaving thought:

In November 2015, the Obama Administration announced its funding for Next Generation High Schools. As the White House website puts it, the goal is to support “more personalized and active learning,” and “access to real-world and hands-on learning.”

We need to take hold of this and define just what Next Generation means. It’s just the legitimacy we need to direct the education industry on the right path, but we need to convince the government of the importance of the Humanities. It’s great to place students in real-life decision-making situations, but we can’t forget to place it into a human context, one that builds moral character.

 

*The Era of Absolutism, Richelieu and Louis XIV and all that jazz, is one of my favorites. I loved the Three Musketeers growing up, and I love touring the sites across Europe, including Louis’ Versailles and St. Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava, where my fave monarch, Maria Theresa, was coronated.