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