Future-Focused History Teaching

The study of history often takes a back seat to the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. Promoting STEM is necessary and worthwhile, and I have stated in a previous blog how we are not misguided in telling a student to “be a scientist and save the world.” I will, however, always be a cheerleader for the importance of students learning history. I will always do what I can to help teachers identify a good reason for teaching history and teaching it well.

Mike Maxwell has addressed the same mission in his informative and thought-provoking book,
Future-Focused History Teaching: Restoring the Power of Historical Learning. History teachers searching for a higher purpose for all their hard work should take a look at Maxwell’s book. As someone who has spent over forty years teaching history and training history teachers, I have read much on the topic of history education, and Maxwell’s book is one of the best.

The book is well-researched and chock-full of information about what is currently happening in history education and what we can do to improve what we teach about the past. Maxwell addresses the ubiquitous presence of textbooks in history classrooms and the general inadequacies of those textbooks. He is particularly disturbed by the history classes that focus too much on the memorization of trivia.

In general, Maxwell wants to identify what makes history a useful subject and discuss the urgent need to teach it well. He asks an essential question and then answers it with common sense:

“Is our society better off holding a realistic view of the United States and its role in the world, or is society better off choosing to see only what it wants to see? Democracy is based on the assumption that the people as a whole will exercise better judgment than will a small group of elites. But this assumption is based on the premise that the people have access to a realistic rendering of reality which is primarily dependent on two institutions of democracy that don’t flinch from portraying reality: a free and honest press and a free and honest education.” (142)

In short, we must assume, as
George Washington believed, that most people want to do the right thing and will do the right thing if they have good information. Maxwell proposes we provide good historical information by moving away from history curricula based primarily on “knowing” and “remembering." We should not be requiring the memorization of massive amounts of historical information easily found on a smart phone when needed.

Maxwell also does not find the solution in creating history classes designed primarily to help students develop historical thinking skills. In a wise and nuanced explanation of the inadequacies of focusing on teaching historical thinking, Maxwell believes history classes are not really helping students develop any skills that are not already being taught across the curriculum. An emphasis on developing thinking skills does not distinguish the importance of studying history from studying other subjects. Maxwell wants to know what makes history different and why it is so important that students learn history.

In short, Maxwell wants history to be future-focused. He wants students identifying recurring patterns or "principles" of history that might help them in the future when confronted with situations similar to what people confronted in the past. Maxwell cautions history teachers against looking for “rules” or “laws” of history. He wants them looking at patterns that occur over time.

A history teacher might, for example, create lessons around the following principle: “Humans exhibit an instinct to resist external control.” This principle could then be illustrated by examining the Greeks in the fifth century BCE, Joan of Arc in 1428, American colonists in 1776, Toussaint Louveture in 1791, Native Americans at the Little Big Horn River in 1876, Zulus in Natal in 1906, Mahatma Gandhi in the first half of the twentieth century, and the Vietnamese people for the past thousand years.

Maybe, just maybe, students who have examined that principle of history will find the knowledge useful when they became voters debating world affairs. In other words, the history they learned was future-focused. They learned a history designed to help them understand the world better and make more informed decisions about how to shape the world. The history they learned was not composed of memorized facts forgotten soon after serving their purpose on an exam. The history they learned came from a set of well-examined principles identifying patterns in history that will help them throughout their lives.

The College Board currently identifies learning objectives for its history classes that state expectations for student performance. The AP US history curriculum, for example, asks students to “Explain how ideas about democracy, freedom, and individualism found expression in the development of cultural values, political institutions, and American identity.” All told, the objective asks students to
know information they can explain. But to what end? Why is it important to know it and explain it? Is it simply an academic exercise, a mind game?

Maxwell’s book gets to the heart of what makes history worthwhile and asks history teachers to reexamine curricula that asks them to teach one thing after another with no eye on the bigger picture, no eye on whether students learn something useful to them in the future.

I suspect most history teachers today are asked to work within a formal curriculum requiring students to know or explain historical information. The curriculum most likely also focuses on developing historical thinking skills. All of these are noble endeavors, but in the end, students need more.

STEM teachers generally have no problem explaining how science, technology, engineering, and math are “future-focused,” how those subjects will be useful in the future. The same is not true for the many teachers who struggle to make history a practical subject for students. For those teachers, I give Maxwell’s book the highest recommendation. He has made a terrific case for creating future-focused history classes. If our educational system adopted his general philosophy, we would have much work to do reaching a consensus about the principles of history we should teach our children. In the end, however, our efforts might not be as difficult as we think and would certainly create a much better answer to the perennial question that plagues history teachers: “Why are we studying this stuff?”