History for Its Own Sake, and For All of Our Sakes
Post written by Kerry Dunne and Christopher Martell
Recent national media attention on attempts by school districts to fold history and social studies into broader humanities programs has brought attention to the role of history education in today schools.
This begs the question: Is the study of history and the social studies a critical part of a 21st century education? In the age of a Common Core State Standards curriculum dominated by literacy and numeracy, will it survive as a core school subject? We argue that high-quality teaching and learning in history, geography, economics, and civics matter more than ever for today's American students and for the future of the country.
High-quality social studies instruction can and should be engaging, thought provoking, and active, and it should be led by teachers with disciplinary expertise and an education in how to teach it effectively. One of the co-authors of this article, Kerry Dunne, serves as the K–12 social studies director for the Arlington Public Schools in Massachusetts. Arlington is an urban/suburban district bordering Cambridge that works within a below state-average per pupil funding and serves a diverse population that includes students with college professors for parents and students who are recently arrived immigrants to the United States. As part of a new teacher evaluation system, Massachusetts has recently mandated frequent observational walk-throughs of classrooms by administrators in all public school districts, including Arlington. A sample of the teaching and learning that Dunne has observed this past year during these unannounced "pop-by" visits in to classrooms include:
- On-site archaeology digs on led by 3rd grade teachers where students, using shovels and brushes, unearth, analyze, and catalog remnants of Massachusetts' past found hidden underneath their school's lawns.
- As part of a their study of Central American geography, 4th graders writing and exchanging letters about their daily life and the characteristics of their community with counterparts in Arlington's sister city of Teosinte, El Salvador.
- 6th graders researching the inventions of the ancient Sumerians, using school iPads to film original commercial advertisements for these inventions.
- 8th graders doing the hard work of learning how to select high quality sources when researching and why it is important to accurately cite those sources.
- 10th graders working independently to scrutinize visual and print primary source documents such as the Mayflower Compact, Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre, and the Gettysburg Address, and then writing responses placing the documents in historical context, focusing on their importance in shaping American ideals and concepts of democracy.
- 12th graders in an economics elective course working collaboratively to propose an American fiscal policy reaction to a fictitious case study problem in which China devalues its currency.
Some of these examples of high-quality social studies instruction witnessed in Arlington would make the authors of the Common Core's literacy standards for English language arts and "technical subjects" (which includes history) very happy. Analyzing and writing about primary source text, video clips, and visual images is a skill emphasized in Common Core that should be routinely practiced in every K–12 social studies classroom. Synthesizing information from a variety of sources, evaluating sources for quality and bias, and properly attributing sources are skills inherent to writing about history that are also a focus of the Common Core’s standards regarding research skills. Some of these examples, however, are, at heart, about learning history for history's sake, with literacy-related gains potentially emerging as a happy by-product. It is crucial that students learn the unique set of disciplinary components separate from literacy, including understanding historical interpretation, multiple competing perspectives, continuity and change over time, and causality. Furthermore, it is crucial that all students, not just the ones in Arlington, have teachers who possess a rich and deep content knowledge in history to guide them in developing these history-specific skills as well as general academic literacy skills.
We live in a complex world where the legacy of past injustices often lurks, not far beneath the surface, of each bomb blast, border skirmish, diplomatic breakdown, or street uprising. Understanding our past as well as principles of government and economics, and knowing the physical and political geography of our nation and world, leads to nuanced understandings of complicated situations and appreciation for the perspective of others. Our leaders struggle to solve difficult problems such as immigration reform and balanced budgeting, often with the hurdles existing not because of limited resources, but because of a lack of understanding of past policy and decisions that brought us to this place; a lack of ability to articulate one's own position in a respectful, reasonable manner; and reluctance to take the time to learn and understand the position of one’s opponents. A public education that focuses and tests on, almost exclusively, the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, drains time and resources away from content areas such as history, geography, economics, and civics. There are worse things than lagging growth metrics on reading and math standardized tests. A nation full of citizens who do not understand the roots of American democracy or their obligations to be informed voters who care about the future of our country and world would be worse.
History and social studies should not be viewed as a "special" subject or one that is taught when there is extra time. However, this is the message that can be incorrectly, but implicitly, perceived by those concerned about student performance on federal and state-mandated Common Core assessments given their exclusive measurement of literacy and numeracy skills. There is a fallacy that exists in many education policy and leadership circles right now that the best way to obtain high scores and impressive growth metrics on these state and federal exams is through a laser-like focus on teaching and measurement of student learning in the core skills of literacy and math. The more complicated truth is that students who have rich and engaging learning experiences related to a wide variety of topics—and who simply know a lot of "stuff"—will better be able to make judgments about texts they read and will do better on these tests. It may seem counter-intuitive, but NOT teaching to the test often results in the best test results, particularly in literacy/reading. Eliminating, or minimizing, engaging historical instruction by well-trained teachers with an academic background in history, government, economics, and geography will not just create poor citizens, it would also, paradoxically, lead to lower achievement on measures of literacy.
The Common Core standards are right on the money with the literacy skills they emphasize; but there is no mention of historical, geographical, economic, or civic content or discipline-specific skills. We imagine that federal education leaders assumed that states and local districts would use existing guidelines for content in these areas; instead they have been incorrectly used as a cue to eliminate these subjects entirely because their content is not mentioned in the Common Core. Adding social studies content strands, on a grade-by-grade basis, that allow for some individual state flexibility by having a grade designated for local/state history and a range of elective options for 12th graders would remedy this problem and would supply the knowledge base to marry Common Core literacy skills and make learning "sticky": lasting, and meaningful for students. At the state level, careful monitoring must take place to ensure that history and social studies are being taught by teachers who have the correct licensure and that students are taking courses in history, geography, economics, and civics. Finally, while small school districts may need to combine resources in order to do this, every history and social studies teacher deserves to be supervised, at least in part, by a history content specialist who is a proven master teacher.
Despite the good that can come from the Common Core's emphasis on non-fiction reading and analytical skills, we still need to fight to preserve high-quality history education, for history's sake, and for all of our students. The informed citizenry on which our nation's founders banked is at stake, and for those who only care about test metrics—don't worry, it will help with those too.
If you share our concern that history and historical thinking, taught by trained history teachers, is an essential part of a student's education, please use your voice to convey your dismay that the U.S. Department of Education's listed grant initiatives do not include funding for history education. More information and the link to add comments to the proposed funding priorities can be found at www.nche.net.
Kerry Dunne, EdD, is the K–12 Social Studies Director for the Arlington (Mass.) Public Schools and Christopher Martell, PhD, is a clinical assistant professor of social studies education at Boston University. Connect with Dunne on Twitter at @dunneteach and Martell at @chriscmartell.