4 purposes of history class we can convey to students

After I posted her wonderful TED talk, Adora Svitak responded to my post about future-oriented education. I was very inspired by her response, and the article she wrote and sent me called “Do We Treat History Like a Dead Language?”  So much so, that it spun me into 3 different tangents, which will make up my next 3 posts.

The 2 issues I see with our current version of history class are (1) lack of motivation to learn the subject, and (2) lack of understanding the importance of the subject. One of these issues is to perspective, as the other is to action. As they are very interrelated, often resolving one helps to resolve the other.

In Johnmarshall Reeve’s article, “Teachers as Facilitators: What Autonomy-Supportive Teachers Do and Why Their Students Benefit” one of the things  teachers can do to increase student motivation is to “communicate value and provide rationales.” As he goes on, “when asking students to engage in a requested activity […] autonomy-supportive teachers make a special effort to identify and explain the use, value, importance, or otherwise hidden personal utility within the undertaking […] then students understand why they are being asked to invest their attention and effort in a requested activity.”

Anyways, the key here for teachers and textbook writers is to identify the purposes of history education, and then convey those purposes to the students as best they can. This conveying can be both explicit (e.g. make a poster out of this and post it on your chalkboard!) and implicit (e.g. embedded in the lessons.)

Note: Notice both how this quote, and this sentence bridge students’ perspectives and actions. Indeed, wonderful things can happen when one’s attitudes and actions are in alignment.

So what then are the purposes of history class? There are many, but here are 4 major ones that I’ve come up with that can be a guiding force behind all of the lessons:

1. History as a way to collect, record and remember our past.

It is important for humanity to keep recording its past, to preserve it, for continuity’s sake. But this purpose is already well-covered in history classes. My recommendation here is not to eliminate this emphasis, but to reduce it to give way to the other 3…

2. History as a way to answer questions, to better understand ourselves.

I think that a great way to approach some lessons would be to start off with a question, rather than an answer. e.g. When did we decide to live in houses, usually family by family? Who decided to place the leap day on February 29, and who name it February, and after whom? Why did it take so long for the Olympics to come back? Why are the keys on the keyboard arranged that way? etc. Students can supply some of the questions (I hear they’re good at that kind of thing!), and teachers can provide students with questions, in order to keep the class focused on a particular theme.

This is what history is great at: at helping us figure out why we came to be the way we are now. Why we’ve decided to set up our society and institutions in such a fashion. And pursuing these answers can often be more exciting than just receiving facts.

3. History as storytelling.

History is full of stories: life stories of a historical figures, events that lead to other events, and stories of civilizations as they rose and fell. Why not present it as such? The important thing here is to string facts and details together to form narratives. These narratives can be compelling for students read and listen to.

4. History as teaching lessons, as showing linkages between actions and consequences.

One way to prevent this from being cliche is to present the “lessons” in a non-perscriptivist manner. For instance, instead of saying, “Rome fell because they couldn’t manage their money properly, so when you lead groups in the future, remember the bottom line,” you can have students fill out a worksheet with the following questions:
– Why did such-and-such happen?
– How did people react to it?
– What happened as a result of it?
– How could they have reacted differently? What could’ve ended up happening?
– What can we learn from this?
– What are instances in which you can apply this to your life (past, present, or future)?


Reeve says that we need to identify students’ needs, interests, and preferences and create classroom opportunities for students to have these internal states guide their behaviour. Here, I’ve identified 4 principles that relate well to our needs as humans. Hopefully, once teachers convey them to students, students can get excited about learning history, and to see it as a “present, living reality,” as Svitak would say.


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