Future-Focused History is the commonsense idea that knowledge from the past can inform judgment in the future, an idea that goes back at least twenty-four centuries to the time of Thucydides in Greece and Sun Tzu in China.
Future-Focused History education calls on history teachers to take charge of history schooling and restore the power of historical learning.
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Not only do American students perform much worse in history than in other core school subjects on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), students also perform worse in history compared to kindred social studies fields.
The most recent NAEP assessments in social studies were conducted in 2018 among eighth graders. Fifteen percent of these students performed at or above the proficient level in American history, compared to 24 percent in civics and 25 percent in geography.
Considering that American history has long been the most prominent social studies subject taught in the nation’s schools, one might expect history to easily outperform these other school subjects. What factor can possibly explain why history education consistently performs so poorly?
The probable answer: Other school subjects—including social studies fields—are based on imparting an established set of coherent general principles for students to learn and remember, whereas history schooling is comprised of an amorphous collection of sundry events devoid of any unifying structure to render the knowledge intelligible, meaningful, or memorable.
How long can we continue to accept this lamentable and embarrassing state of affairs when an obvious remedy is readily available? Our schools can and should teach students about Recurring Dynamics of History, which are equivalent to the general principles that define other academic fields and virtually all productive fields of human endeavor.
With help from a few old and new teacher friends, I’m in the process of developing a lesson that demonstrates how Recurring Dynamics of History might be taught in the classroom. The lesson is titled: “Democracy is fragile; it has fallen repeatedly to authoritarian rulers.” Stay tuned for further information.
Since the publication of my book Future-Focused History Teaching in 2018, it has become apparent that some historians will remain uncomfortable with the idea that general principles can be derived from the subject matter of history. Perhaps these people might find it easier to support the sensible concept of future-oriented history instruction if the term recurring dynamics of history were substituted for the term general principles of history.
Recurring dynamics in history are equivalent to the general principles that define other academic subjects and virtually all productive fields of human endeavor, and no one can reasonably doubt their existence. We need only look to major events of our time—the problem-plagued U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession of 2008, or the COVID pandemic of 2020—to recognize contemporary instances of often-repeated dynamics of the past.
Such dynamics may seem obvious to those well-versed in the subject of history, but they may go unrecognized by the general public and by the nation’s leaders unless pointed out, which can leave our society surprised and unprepared when these dynamics recur again. Pointing them out should be a primary function of history education. What historical knowledge could be more important? -Mike Maxwell
The historically weird school year of 2020-21, with its closings, openings, online teaching, and masked crusaders is over and done with. Hopefully teachers are taking a well-deserved break before thinking too hard about the next school year.
We chose this pause between show times to bring back the Future-Focused History Blog from its pandemic hiatus. “Hello” old friends, and “Welcome” to the new folks who signed up to join us during the interregnum.
At this time, I would like to propose a significant modification to our terminology.
As you are likely aware, general principles of history constitute a central component of our conception of future-focused history teaching. However, it has become clear that many academic historians will remain reluctant to accept the idea that general principles can be derived from the subject matter of history. This is important because these are the people who teach history teachers.
Consequently, I have begun to emphasizean alternative term: recurring dynamics of history. No one can reasonably doubt that recurring dynamics of history exist. To do so would be to deny that deadly epidemics, discrimination against minority groups, and failed foreign invasions have occurred repeatedly over the course of human history.
More on this later, but for now, enjoy your summer. -Mike Maxwell
Hello friends- I probably should have posted this message before now, but like a lot of people I’ve been waiting to see what’s next.
This blog has been essentially dormant since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, which is pretty much consuming all the air in education circles. With concerns about closing and reopening schools and how to conduct on-line learning, I doubt there’s much bandwidth left just now to consider reforming history education.
Recently I’ve been working on some updates to my two books on history education. Both now include references to the term “recurring dynamics” of history, which some historians might prefer to the term “general principles” of history. The Student’s Friend Concise World History now sports a snazzier cover and a topic index.
I’ll be back at the blog when the pandemic is under control and we’re on the road to normal schooling again. In the meantime, let’s all plan to stay well.
An article in the February issue of Educational Leadership magazine has this to say about the Common Core literacy standards, which have been adopted by states and school districts across the country:
“After a feckless decade of implementation, one major study found, the standards have turned out to be a bust. Instead of improving performance, the standards led to declines in literacy.”
“In the heady development phase, there was plenty to like about the ELA (English Language Arts) Common Core….But the actual standards were a disaster: The original anchor standards had metastasized into an impossible profusion of grade-by-grade minutiae….Many of the standards were indecipherable: One curriculum expert called them ‘blithering, poorly thought out abstractions.'”
One could say precisely the same thing about the profusion of standards for “historical thinking.”
When historical thinking skills replaced knowledge acquisition as the primary purpose of history education–and migrated from the history profession to the education arena–they swelled in quantity and pretentiousness. History-education groups released competing lists of various skills that tended toward vague competencies and formless objectives, such as “read historical narratives imaginatively,”or “prepare to live with uncertainties.”
The Educational Leadership article makes this recommendation: “Schools should revise their curricula around radically reoriented, severely reduced norms, specifications, guidelines and exemplars.”
You could say precisely the same thing about history education.
The EL article can be accessed here: https://bit.ly/3bjIO2n
Will it be another Roaring 20s? The flapper era brought a new spirit of independence to young women, but let’s hope this go-round is not—like the last 20s—an interlude before a cataclysmic war and a time of stock market excess that brought on a Great Depression. Let’s hope we have learned something from history.
Speaking of useful knowledge gained from prior experience, I recently heard a brief but enlightening (4 minutes long) radio broadcast about what might be “human kind’s greatest strength,” the power of generalization. If interested, click here.
Speaking of the power of generalization, if any of you teachers out there are experimenting with teaching general principles of historical knowledge in your classrooms, please let us know how it’s going. In any case, I hope your new semester is getting off to a real good start. -Mike
Early adopters are the intrepid pioneers willing to enter uncharted territory to explore how Future-Focused History (FFH) can be taught effectively.
Teachers who are not in a position to modify their instruction for the second semester of this school year can begin to think about how they can incorporate principles of history next year. To assist with this process, we have added two new areas to the Future-Focused History blog: “Classroom instruction Posts,” where the latest developments in FFH instruction can be found, and “Classroom instruction Pages,” a place where teachers can share their ideas and experiences and assemble a useful collection of knowledge.
If you are willing to take up the challenge, and plan to teach general principles of history in your classroom, please let us know by adding a comment below or by emailing Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The votes are in. From a list of 38 suggested possibilities, our readers were asked to choose 10 general principles of historical knowledge they considered most suitable for teaching to students in school. Identifying a sample set of enduring principles of history is a preliminary step in preparing to experiment with teaching such principles in classrooms.
General principles of knowledge form the basis of learning in school subjects other than history and in virtually all productive human endeavors. General principles of history (which might also be termed historical tendencies, recurring patterns in history, or lessons of history) are a key component of Future-Focused History teaching, which is designed to fulfill the fundamental purpose of education by imparting knowledge useful in the future
Four principles of history tied for first place in our survey, and seven tied for second place, leaving us with a recommended list of 11 key principles of historical knowledge. Fourteen people participated in the survey, casting 119 votes. While the 11 leading picks represented only 29% of available selections, they garnered 53% of votes cast, indicating solid support for these choices.
Teachers wishing to experiment with bringing Future-Focused History into their classrooms now have a curated set of general principles they can draw from. Teachers may wish to teach any or all of these principles or to teach other principles of their own choosing. Next, we can consider how principles of history might be taught effectively.
ELEVEN SAMPLE GENERAL PRINCIPLES OF HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE CHOSEN BY READERS:
Humans have long manifested an instinctual yearning to explore, to learn, and to develop new technologies to improve their lives.
People tend to promote their self-interest and the interest of their group, so bias is all around us.
Humans tend to position themselves along a political spectrum that ranges from conservative to liberal.
Major events usually result from multiple causes, some long-term and some more immediate.
Taking control of the media makes it possible to brainwash large numbers of people.
When a country’s government is toppled by internal revolution or an external enemy, civil war may break out as factions in the country compete to fill the power vacuum.
Humans exhibit an instinct to resist external control.
Humans exhibit a propensity to fear, dislike, kill, subjugate, and discriminate against people from groups different than their own.
Government actions tend to produce unintended consequences.
Major cultures and empires have followed a general pattern of growth, flowering, and decline throughout history.
Mismanagement of the environment will be paid back by loss of resources.