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

3 thoughts on “Where do we go from here?”

  1. I definitely like the idea of a curriculum that is organized around the “lessons of history”. Not to say it would be easy. I always struggled with how best to teach history. Sometimes I would try to keep everything in a strict chronological order, even if it meant jumping around between Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. But the jumping around was a bit too confusing. So then I’d try to stick to one region, and “tell the story of China” for example, before jumping to another geographic location. But then it always bothered me that I’d have to jump back in time to begin the new story at the beginning.

    I like the way the Student’s Friend handled it, which is a bit a both. You tell the story of regions, or movements, or wars, and you get a sense of the beginning, middle, and end of each story, while at the same time you keep the stories more-or-less in chronological order. There are only a few places where I had to remind myself: “Oh, what I’m reading about now happened before the thing that I read about yesterday.”

    And now, it seems, you’re contemplating a whole new organizing principle: Organize history around the lessons of history. I imagine each “chapter” would be devoted to a different lesson. The lesson would be like the thesis statement of an essay, and the rest of the essay would provide evidence that the thesis statement is true. The evidence might consist of historical events from ancient to modern times.

    This approach would certainly go a long way toward answering the question: “Why are we learning this?” It would make clear that we are learning lessons–and not simply entertaining ourselves with stories or random facts. It would also be a good way of getting students to see how an argument can be presented in a logical and organized way.

    And I don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing, if some of the lessons are somewhat contradictory. Students would simply be forced to evaluate the arguments and the evidence, then make up their own minds. You know, like in real life.

    Anyway, I’d love to see such a textbook (although I don’t think I could contribute much to it). When I was teaching history (I am now teaching English), some of the lessons I used to emphasize more than others were these:

    “People everywhere hate to be ruled by foreign soldiers.” (Of course, this is just my own wording of “Humans exhibit an instinct to resist external control.)

    Another one: “If you control the media, it is possible to brainwash large numbers of people.” I think your lesson on the rise of Nazi Germany makes this one pretty clear, but it would be fun to gather more examples.

    Here’s another lesson that’s sometimes hard-learned: “In the end, it’s the men with the guns who make the rules.” In other words, kings, queens, dictators, and presidents are powerful–not because of some abstract “divine right” or because they were elected or whatnot, but because “men with guns” have decided that it is in their own self-interest to obey the ruler . . . for now.

    Here are some to others:

    Wars are fought for many different reasons: money, religion, etc. There are stated reasons and underlying reasons. Greed is often a major factor, but not always. “Follow the money” is often true, but sometimes people start wars because of their deeply-held religious convictions, as illogical as some of these may be.

    After a revolution (or after a regime has been overthrown by a foreign power), there is–almost inevitably–a civil war between factions that want to fill the power vacuum.

    Humans are not very good at addressing slow-moving threats (such as global warming). Democracies are terrible at addressing threats that won’t affect us until after the next election.

    Anyway, I’m just ruminating on the general topic of “lessons of history” and how, perhaps, a curriculum could be built around these lessons.

    Re-reading the lessons just now, I’m struck at how many of these lessons might equally be lessons of human psychology or human instinct. Which raises the possibility of a cross-cultural approach. In other words, evidence that supports a “lesson of history” might include evidence from the fields of psychology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, etc.

    Integrating all of that would be quite a challenge, but Mike–you’ve already done a lot of that in your books. Maybe you’re up to the challenge?

  2. Hey there Tefel (alias Hippotoes)-
    Thanks for your general thoughts about teaching with principles–or lessons or tendencies–of history and for offering some of your favorite ones. For now, I would like to respond to your comments about the structure of the history course.

    You say that you liked teaching with the Student’s Friend Concise World History because of the way it’s structured: Related events are grouped together in more-or-less chronological order. But you thought I might be suggesting a different approach, a more thematic structure that organizes the history course around historical principles instead. I wasn’t making such a suggestion, but I understand why you might have thought that I was.

    I don’t know the best way to structure such a history course (which is why collaboration and classroom experimentation are so important), but I have always envisioned a course that generally followed a chronological approach similar to the Student’s Friend. The teacher might introduce a number of important general principles at the beginning of the course, and students would look for recurring examples of these principles as students proceeded through the chronological record–kind of like an Easter egg hunt. And students would be encouraged to identify their own recurring patterns/general principles of history, which could then be considered by the entire class. Maybe provide an incentive, such as extra credit or a pizza party, for recognizing or suggesting these principles.

    This approach wouldn’t fundamentally change the instruction of a teacher who uses the chronological approach; it would simply add another layer to instruction–one meant to make historical study more meaningful and useful in the future.

    But maybe classroom experience might reveal that a thematic approach works better, with the themes being principles of history.

    Personally, I favor a chronological approach because I believe it’s difficult to acquire a good understanding of human development through time–a good “sense of history”–when jumping around in time.

    Plus, the chronological approach can make clearer the dynamic of cause-and-effect in history, of downstream effects that result from earlier events. For example, the voyage of Columbus leads to the Atlantic Slave trade to the U.S. Civil War to the Black Lives Matter movement. The chronological approach can make it possible to recognize how contemporaneous events may be interconnected: How, for example, the slave trade is related to Native American genocide and how Black Lives Matter is related to pipelines encroaching on Native lands.

    But that’s just me. Others, of course, may favor different approaches. If you have suggestions about how to structure a history course that features general principles of historical knowledge, please share your thoughts with us. -Mike

  3. This makes sense. You don’t need to restructure everything; you just need to ask the right questions. For example, “What lesson of history is supported by this historical event?” Or something more open-ended: “What general principal can we deduce from these (and other) events that we have been studying?”

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