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Before we rush to blame schools, let's examine the factors that have negatively affected U.S. history instruction in the United States.
First, President George W. Bush neglected to include history in his No Child Left Behind Act, marginalizing history instruction to make more time for math and reading in the classroom. Consequently, regular history lessons are left out in many elementary-school classrooms. Without such instruction, we potentially put our students at a knowledge deficit for future history courses and productive citizenship.
Next, history standards vary greatly among the states. Not only are students learning different local, state, and national historical content and skills, but nearly half of the states do not even assess their students or require students to take history courses before graduation. The current Common Core State Standards movement seeks to create a more standardized national curriculum. (While almost all of the states have formally adopted the standards, Virginia has decided to keep the Standards of Learning and incorporate parts of the Common Core State Standards into them.)
Finally, although federal funds have been dedicated to the professional development of U.S. history teachers over the past decade, it has been shadowed by our national focus on the economy and the creation of competitive jobs. Federal and state tax dollars are being poured into science, technology, engineering, and math education (also called STEM), while less money is being spent on the humanities.
We don't want to risk educating the next generation of scientists without the rich historical context of past innovations and inventions. While this agenda addresses the need to compete globally, it does little to address the requirements of future active citizens. Are we to have a nation of engineers and computer scientists who don't have the knowledge or skills to be thoughtful citizens? We need a balance.
While these are all significant hurdles to history education, there is a looming problem larger than just our students' lack of historical knowledge. For the past few years the world has experienced what I term "Gutenberg 2.0." Just as Johannes Gutenberg forever changed history with the invention of the printing press, the emergence of Web 2.0 in the mid-2000s will have a similar effect. Internet users can now create, edit, change, share, buy, sell, and trade information online. Information is changing (often inaccurately) before our eyes. Why does this matter to the history classroom?
History lessons are often associated with rote memorization and unexamined assumptions. Many history educators are failing to improve the way they teach. Many are content to simply pour facts into our children's heads and "cover" historical content. Some stick solely to lectures, textbooks, pre-made worksheets, and multiple-choice tests.
While much is known about how students learn, too many classrooms are stuck in a vacuum: Instruction stays the same while the world changes around them. Metaphorically, our students have two schools: the school building and their cyber connectivity through smartphones and laptops. Within the school, students are guided in their learning but when using technology outside of the school setting, they are on their own to make sense of the world. This can have a dangerous effect: To make good decisions in a democracy requires good information and reasoning skills. We must educate students how to use this technology.
In addition to gaining sound knowledge through classroom lessons, students must practice 21st-century skills to address our democratic and economic challenges. History educators should model critical thinking and allow for creativity and problem-solving in classroom instruction. While learning content, students can grapple with concepts and develop hypotheses or solutions.
Alternatively, when educators provide students with content or summarize information, they take the thinking out of our children's hands (and minds). Children's developing brains need this rigor, and withholding that opportunity is a disservice to them. These challenging processes provide students with a mental tool kit for thoughtful decision-making in our democracy. How can we address this? The answer lies in our schools and in our homes.
HISTORY IN THE MAKING
Today's news is tomorrow's history lesson. University of Richmond president and professor of history Ed Ayers recently wrote, "History is made every day, and this historical record is displayed anew on every broadcast, front page, online video, cartoon, blog; we need to be able to read the meanings of those productions with a critical eye." As important as discussing current events is the need to learn from historic ones. Educators should make time to engage students with primary sources, promote opportunities for student inquiry, and assess how students apply critical thinking.
Further, to meet the challenges of learning 21st-century skills, technology needs to play a key role in instruction. Educators can use technology like interactive whiteboards to provide an engaging format to present new information to students. Software such as Google Docs or blogs can also enable students to collaborate and produce new knowledge.
Paramount to both of these efforts is teacher professional development. All too often schools purchase technology and don't provide instruction to teachers on how to use it meaningfully. Tools like interactive whiteboards have the potential to be dynamic but are often used only to present information. This is a waste of technology. Our students are technologically savvy; educators need to be, too.
Technology also should be used with restraint. The purposeful use of appropriate software, documentary clips, websites, and other tools should be used to complement and enhance history lessons. When it comes to quality instruction and learning, there is a difference between entertainment and engagement. The entirety of a child's education was never meant to rest solely on schools.
START WITH YOURSELF
In U.S. history, American students can do better, and I encourage parents, families, and friends to help. We aren't all history buffs, but educate yourself. Start with your knowledge of history knowledge: How would you do on the NAEP survey? (Try sample questions http://nationsreportcard.gov/ushistory_2010.) If you need a refresher, pick up a few approachable history books. I recommend Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" and Ronald Takaki's "A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America."
Support your students' learning at home. Look up their history curricula online. Visit your public library and work with the media specialist to find appropriate books that mirror these curricula.
Better yet, start the summer before: Turn off your TV and make time for reading in your household. Read with your children. You are stoking their historical curiosity, and potentially improving their test scores and our democracy.
John P. Broome is an assistant professor and director of Undergraduate Secondary Education and PreK-12 programs at the College of Education of the University of Mary Washington. His research interests include the teaching and learning of social studies, civic education, and media literacy in schools.