Welcome to the Future-Focused History blog

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.

To learn more, to follow this blog, or to join the cause, see the the menu at left—on smart phones the three bars at the top of the page. (Click on the small arrows to expand the menu.) Your comments and contributions are welcome here.

History isn’t the only incoherent mishmash in American education

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

See also: “Historical Thinking Skills: A Second Opinion,” by Mike Maxwell, from the Nov. 2019 issue of Social Education, journal of the National Council for the Social Studies.

Best wishes for the new decade

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

Feeling like a pioneer?

For any teachers who might wish to begin experimenting with adding principles of historical knowledge to their instruction, we now have a sample set of 11 recommended principles available for use second semester. Being timeless and universal, principles of history should be suitable for both U.S. and world history courses. (More about general principles of historical knowledge here.)

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. 

Visit the Classroom instruction Pages for some preliminary thoughts about how to teach general principles of history.

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 max@studentsfriend.com.

Eleven key principles of history chosen by readers

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 tendenciesrecurring 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.  

See also:
Mike’s five additional principles of history
Original list of 38 suggested principles of history
More about general principles of history
The power (and peril) of generalization
“Historical Thinking Skills: A Second Opinion”

Blog followers: We need your help.

Choose 10 important and enduring principles of historical knowledge that we can begin teaching to students in school.

To make your selections, visit this page in the blog’s Classroom Instruction section: “Help us identify 10 key principles of historical knowledge.”

Thanks for your valuable contribution to advancing the goal of Future-Focused History education. -Mike Maxwell

Proposal to the American Historical Association

Last week I wrote to leaders of the American Historical Association (AHA)—particularly the Teaching Division—proposing that the AHA consider developing “a basic structure for effective history education.” Several wrote back, mostly suggesting that I join the AHA or review previous AHA positions.

However, AHA President John McNeil shared my grave concern about the decline of history education, and he liked my suggested purpose for historical study: fostering judgment in human affairs. AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman agreed with my view that history education must adopt a focus on being “useful” to society.

I hope this might be the beginning of a productive dialogue that considers how the present incoherent mishmash of history schooling in the United States might be replaced with a rational model of instruction. For purposes of discussion, this is the structure that I suggested to the AHA leadership (a framework that will seem familiar to readers of my book Future-Focused History Teaching):

-A coherent and useful purpose for history education (fostering judgment in human affairs)

-An assimilable body of important historical knowledge (that fosters “a sense of history” by illustrating human development through time)

-Identification of key historical tendencies derived from the historical record (that can serve to inform future judgment in human affairs)

-Emphasis on the signature thinking skill of historical study: source analysis (a useful tool for informing future judgment about conflicting claims in society)

-Instruction based on well-established principles of cognitive science (so that instruction is effective, and not wasted).

Might this nascent discussion grow to produce tangible results? The odds are surely against it, but sometimes a logical approach to a compelling need can develop a momentum of its own.

How to structure a principles-based history course

Consider joining the discussion. I direct your attention to the comments section of the Nov. 6 blog post (below): “Where do we go from here?” Tefel Hall, who teaches at the San Francisco Unified School District, offered his thoughts about structuring a Future-Focused History course, and he listed some of his favorite principles of historical knowledge. Mike Maxwell responded with his thoughts about structuring the course. Please share yours.

Where do we go from here?

Hello again. In a blog post about five weeks ago, I raised the question of where to go from here in advancing the goal of Future-Focused History (FFH) education.

In the intervening weeks, I was distracted by technical problems with this blog, the publication of my recent article in the NCSS journal, and personal projects. I’m back now, and plan to concentrate on discussing with you the future of FFH schooling.

Here’s where we stand at the moment. There is the book I published last year that documents the declining role of history education in our schools and colleges and outlines a hopeful vision of historical learning that can be useful to peoples’ lives. And there is this blog, which has been in existence for three months (and summarizes some of the main points raised in the book), and there are the 78 souls who are interested enough in this vision to sign up to follow the blog.

Most blog followers are history teachers, an exceptional group of educators who have moved beyond the concerns of day-to-day classroom survival to consider the fundamental questions behind history schooling: Why does it exist, and how can it best fulfill its mission? I am honored to be in the company of such people.

Over the past few weeks, it’s become clear to me that the FFH vision needs to move beyond theory to practice; teachers want to see a curriculum. Fred, a follower of this blog, wrote, “Mike, so just as an example of FFH, if I am teaching the Age of Exploration to my grandson through homeschooling, how would I implement this system?” 

Veteran teacher Chase Parsley suggested that we try to identify “the principles, cognitive learning strategies, and historical knowledge we think are important (like suggested in the book), and go from there? Maybe… producing some sort of canned curriculum?”

On the FFHistory Facebook page, a thoughtful teacher named Justin Schwenk also asked about identifying principles of history, which are a cornerstone of FFH education. He writes, “Who gets to define…what a comprehensive list of “principles of history” are, and how do we arrange them into a curriculum?” 

The final chapter of my FFH book (most of the book, actually) discusses in a general way how FFH education might be implemented in the American system of schooling. But for FFH schooling to become a reality, it will need a classroom-tested curriculum that features effective lessons.

So, we need come up with volunteers who are willing to pioneer the FFH concept by experimenting with FFH in their classrooms. Some of you have already graciously volunteered to help—which is terrific. But perhaps we need to first identify, as Chase and Justin suggested, a set of important general principles of history that can be incorporated into a history curriculum.

I don’t know what an optimal number of general principles would be, but I’ll make a suggestion that we begin by identifying ten principles of historical knowledge. What do you think? And which principles should be chosen? Well, a sample of six principles, and related historical events, are available on the “More about general principles” page of this blog.

I’ve just added another blog page that lists 23 principles of historical knowledge mentioned in my FFH book, certainly not an exhaustive listing. Please feel free to suggest any other principles of history that you feel are worth consideration.

If we can pin down a suitable list of general principles of history to start with, maybe we could begin to experiment with adding them to the curriculum by next semester. As always, your input is welcome. Nay, it is essential. -Mike