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Thinking on Education: Adapting Curriculum to Changes in How We Teach History

The way we teach history is changing, and Studies Weekly is working diligently to rise to the challenge.

Many teachers leading their own classrooms today grew up learning history as taught through a “heritage approach.” This pedagogy, according to Valerie Strauss in a 2013 Washington Post article, uses “facts from the past to recreate a present that tells Americans who they are, who they were, and the nation they are part of.”

This approach isn’t necessarily wrong, it just overlooks the many perspectives and messy, intricate parts that actually make up history. It also isn’t the best way to teach today’s multiracial, multi-perspective youth.

According to the Pew Research Center, 48% of youth aged 6 to 21 are racial and ethnic minorities. The face and future of America is significantly more diverse than our past, and history teaching today can and should tap into that diversity.

“No single account, written from one perspective, captures the complexity of the past,” said narrator Anne Hall in a TeachingHistory.org video.

Today many education experts advocate for a “historical thinking” approach to teaching social studies. This type of pedagogy steps away from the memorization of dates and facts. Instead, it challenges the student to ask questions of the past, to analyze multiple views, and to understand the past on its own terms.

“It is our hope that this might help students to see the past not simply as prelude to our present, nor a list of facts to memorize, a cast of heroes and villains to cheer and boo, nor as an itinerary of places to tour, but rather as an ideal field for thinking long and hard about important questions,” explained Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke in a 2007 article for the American Historical Association.

As explained on TeachingHistory.org, teachers can implement historical thinking into their classrooms through these five basic elements:

1. Using multiple accounts and perspectives.

To give students the ability to think critically about the past, they need to analyze as many different perspectives as possible. As they cull these varied viewpoints, they gain a more thorough picture of past events, decisions and changes.

Confederate general
Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, circa 1860-1865.

2. Analyzing primary sources.

Primary sources give students the best window to the past, because they are the documents and images that were created when that past was the present for its participants. These sources often share different perspectives on the same event, and these discrepancies encourage students to explore and question.

Civil war photo
William Harvey Carney, Union soldier, circa 1864
Brooklyn Daily Eagle reports the 1929 Stock Market Crash
A 1929 newspaper reports on the Stock Market Crash of October, 1929.

3. Digging into the origins of the sources.

As they investigate history through primary sources, students should also probe the primary sources themselves. This leads to more questions — ones that look at the author’s motivation, perspective, purpose and timing, in creating the source.

Men lined up at a soup kitchen during the Great Depression
Men lined up outside a soup kitchen during the Great Depression

4. Understanding the context.

As students dig further into these primary sources, they will also need to look for clues to help them understand the past on its own terms. To gain a more complete picture of a historical event or person, they need to consider the culture, society, politics and perspectives of the people who were living then.

5. Developing the ability to use evidence to support claims.

As TeachingHistory.org explains further, students need to learn that “historical arguments and stories rest on evidence.” When students examine history and sources closely and critically, they learn the importance of using evidence to support a historical claim. Further, they learn to use those same reasoning skills in their own lives.

Social studies teachers are not preparing their students to work in the national archives, explains Bruce Lesh, an award-winning history teacher, author and education leader. Instead, social studies teachers teach students important skills that apply to any career, Lesh explained in David Cutler’s 2014 article for The Atlantic, “High School History Doesn’t Have to Be Boring.”

“My job is to teach you how to make arguments. Arguments are based on the application of evidence, and evidence is gained through analysis of information. That’s what we do. We look at historical problems. We build arguments about the questions that we created. We teach you ways to use evidence to support your argument,” Lesh said.

The Studies Weekly curriculum team has been working hard in recent years to develop a social studies curriculum that consistently supports historical thinking, questioning techniques and inquiry-based learning.

This was not always the case for our company. We started more than 30 years ago, when the heritage approach to instruction was the norm. And that is how much of our curriculum was written. In recent years, however, we’ve been working to align ourselves with the shift to teaching through historical thinking. It hasn’t always been easy, and it’s not a quick process, as we have decades of materials to update, adapt and redo.

But we’re on the right path.

Historical thinking skills prepare students to become thoughtful, purposeful thinkers and doers. And that is also our goal: “To create engaging learning experiences that inspire human hearts and profoundly impact millions of students as they become critically thinking, responsible decision makers.”


To learn more about our social studies curriculum, visit our website.

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