Welcome to the Future-Focused History blog

NEW: Recurring Dynamics of History sample teaching module: click here.

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.

Sample teaching module now available

This multi-part lesson demonstrates how Recurring Dynamics of History can be taught in the classroom. It’s titled “Democracy is Fragile; It has repeatedly fallen to authoritarian rulers.” Available in online and printed formats at https://futurefocusedhistory.blog/recurring-dynamics-of-history-sample-teaching-module/. Enjoy.

Comparing student performance in history to other social studies fields

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.

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Recurring Dynamics of History…or General Principles?

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

Weeeee’re back!


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 emphasize an 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

Awaiting normalcy

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.

Best wishes, Mike.

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.

Big Surprise! Classroom learning 5 times stronger than ACT scores in predicting college success.

Time to dump ACT and SAT and other one-shot, high-stakes testing in our schools? How about those AP history exams?

Read the report here: https://diverseeducation.com/article/165315/

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.