Why Teach History?

A Website for James L. Smith

Teaching History in Bits and Pieces
by James L. Smith


History is an “Aha!” subject that takes much patience to teach. I’m not referring to the type of patience necessary for teaching students who are unruly or slow to learn — although that certainly takes patience. I’m referring to the patience it takes to deliver the subject matter. When I am teaching a topic I know that students may not begin to understand that topic for weeks, months, or even years after I have finished my presentation. The moment of understanding — or the "Aha!" moment — is often slow in coming.

Students might not understand some provisions of the Constitution taught early in a U.S. history course until those provisions are applied weeks later to a significant event, such as the impeachment of Andrew Johnson or the failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. They might not even understand some provisions of the Constitution until long after they have left school.

History is learned in bits and pieces, and it often takes much time for information to come together and begin to make sense. Unlike science or math teachers, whose students may need to master Chapters 1 and 2 before moving to Chapter 3, history teachers can ask students to open almost any page in the textbook to begin their study of history.

History students can jump around the textbook from one section to another, learning the subject in bits and pieces, examining a mosaic of information that will eventually begin to make sense. Over time, the more they learn, the more insight they should gain about the patterns of history.

History teachers should therefore feel free to experiment with their presentation of history. They should even try employing tools from drama and literature in their presentation of history.

They might, for example, introduce a topic with a foreshadowing event. A history teacher can begin the Civil War with the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and then jump immediately to the 1850s and 1860s to help students discover how ideas introduced in those resolutions contributed to the deaths of over 700,000 people.

A history teacher might employ flashbacks, beginning the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s with the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. A teacher might also begin a study of the Civil War with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment that came at the end of the war. History can be taught like a good movie in which the ending is revealed in the first scene.

History teachers should feel the freedom to abandon the traditional chronological approach to teaching history. Rather than unraveling a year-by-year string of historical events, they might take a significant topic in history and present it as a single unit of study. In a U.S. history class, for example, a teacher might present political history as one topic, covering political developments from colonial times through the present. The teacher might then teach American foreign policy or American economic history from colonial times through the present. They might even try
teaching history backwards.

history cartoon
Whatever approach teachers take, whatever dramatic or literary device they might use, they should make sure they are always giving students a history worth learning. They should make sure that in the process of learning history, students are provided guidance in developing basic reading and writing skills. History teachers should also help students develop their analytical thinking skills, skills that ask students to reach conclusions (not necessarily opinions) based on the historical evidence available to them.

History should be a stimulating subject for students, a subject they are still talking about when the school day has ended. History should engage students, inspiring them to learn more on their own, helping them become more knowledgeable about their world and their place in it.

If taught in bits and pieces, rather than as a laundry list of information presented chronologically, history can help students learn the patience it takes to gain insight into the human condition. Just because students have studied a significant topic in a history class does not mean their study of that topic is complete. The "Aha!" moments take time.

© 2013 James L. Smith

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