Brenda M. Trofanenko, a professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education, says that teaching history by rote – that is, by having students memorize historical dates and then testing them on how well they can regurgitate that data on a test – is a pedagogical method guaranteed to get students to tune out and add to our collective civic and historical cluelessness.
“I agree that there should be a base knowledge that students need to know about their country and their community affiliations,” she said. “But its relevance lies not just in knowing historical fact but being able to see what can be gleaned from historical inquiry, including cause and effect, progress and decline, and historical significance. You still have to know what happened, but you also have to be able to put it into a larger context of what was happening at the time, why it was happening, and what relevance it has to the current day.”
While it’s important to know facts and dates, Trofanenko believes history teachers should challenge students, especially high school students, to think like historians.
“We need to start thinking differently about our students’ abilities,” she said. “They can think critically and engage in historical inquiry if they’re actually given the opportunity. Instead, we make them learn facts and test them on their ability to regurgitate them at the end of the week. I think that’s really insulting to them.”
Trofanenko believes that students today are a lot more critical than they were in years past.
“With the amount of information that’s out on the Internet, I don’t think you can fool kids anymore,” Trofanenko said. “They’re much more savvy now about looking things up than they were even a few years ago. They’re certainly critical about other things in their lives, so why can’t they be critical of history as well?”
Thinking like a historian, according to Trofanenko, entails studying primary source documents, thinking about the historical context, weighing the evidence and then making an argument – “something all high school students are capable of doing,” she said. “That helps students develop a historical consciousness, which is the ability to ask why a particular historical narrative or a historical concept is advanced or not.”
Similar concerns have been raised in response to curriculum changes in the UK. Lisa Hamilton writing in the Spectator takes issue with the dumbing down of expectations and absence of critical evaluation skills.
“Suggesting that children are incapable of dealing with complex narrative is intensely patronising. They manage fine with Harry Potter. Like it or not, our island story is a rollicking good read, with as many battles and murders as Grand Theft Auto. Certainly, much British history is of necessity concerned with the activities of elites, but is it not worth understanding why this is so?”
“also seem blind to the reality of how history will be increasingly absorbed. Is it not irresponsible to deny children the capacity to assess information for bias, distortion and inaccuracy in a world of unsupervised, unfiltered internet access?”
Seems like an ideal opportunity to incorporate Serious Games / Immersive Sims. The Making History series from Muzzy Lane are excellent examples of this. Guided discovery with progress based upon increasingly complex thinking skills and the development of more complex knowledge stuctures. Coupled with the ability to MOD the application for user generated content.
I’d add our own small contribution through Rome in Danger. Placing learners back within the historical context faced with non linear thinking challenges and social puzzles.