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

Historical thinking skills questioned in NCSS article by Mike Maxwell

The October issue of Social Education, the official journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, features an article by Mike Maxwell, the former journalist and history teacher who operates this blog. The article is titled “Historical Thinking Skills: A Second Opinion.”

Maxwell says historical thinking skills haven’t lived up to their potential due to two limiting factors: “Useful thinking requires useful knowledge to think about, and historical thinking skills are not exclusive to history.”

To read a pdf version of the journal article, click here.

Blog comments problem fixed (I hope)

Mea culpa.

I just finished a paid session with an expert from WordPress, the company that hosts this blog. As you may be aware, blog followers have been experiencing problems when trying to add their comments to blog posts and pages.

It looks like the problems were probably due to operator error on my part. I didn’t understand the purpose of a default setting in the WordPress application, so I left it unchanged. This setting required those wishing to make comments to first sign up for a WordPress account.

This setting is now disabled, so email followers without WordPress accounts should be able to freely make comments. The reason I started this blog in the first place (rather than establishing a website) was because I wanted a collaborative space where people could work together to advance the concept of Future-Focused History education.

I hope collaboration just became easier. If you should experience any further problems using the blog, please let me know at contactsf@studentsfriend.com. I apologize for any inconvenience you might have experienced, and thanks for hanging in there. -Mike

UPDATE: I discarded two previous posts relating to technical issues, which I believe are now resolved. No need to keep the posts, except that I didn’t want to lose a comment from Byron Thomas, so I moved it to the Sept. 28 post below titled “Whadda ya think about a ‘Future-Focused History Alliance?”

Whadda ya think about a “Future-Focused History Alliance?”

To the followers of the Future-Focused History blog:

I promised to return in September (after the new school year was well underway) to discuss where we might go from here. First, I’m pleased to report that our ranks have more than doubled since my previous report: from 33 blog followers in August to 72 today, some of whom are eager to get to work on advancing the goal of future-focused history education.

Here are my thoughts about the role of this blog (and please consider sharing your thoughts in the comment section below…we’re all FFH pioneers here, and we’re in this together).

It seems to me that this blog has essentially two basic functions: education and advocacy. Perhaps most people who signed up to follow the FFH blog are intrigued by the idea of future-focused history schooling and are interested in keeping abreast of any new developments in the field; these people are tuning-in to the education function. Others—often veteran teachers—are so concerned about the state of history education that they are ready to begin taking action now. They are ready to undertake an advocacy function.

I’ve tried to serve the education function by writing a book, Future-Focused History Teaching: Restoring the Power of Historical Learning, and by starting this blog, which features informational articles about contemporary history schooling and the concept of future-focused history.

Of course, both of these efforts are forms of individual advocacy, but an effective advocacy movement will require forming an organization that can combine the efforts of many people working toward a common goal. Such an organization is welcome to have a home on this blog. 

What about a name for this advocacy organization? The best name I have been able to come up with is “Future-Focused History Alliance.” This could be an alliance consisting not only of individuals, but also of sister organizations that likewise support a goal of useful historical learning. Are you comfortable with this name? Do you have other suggestions?

That’s probably enough business for us to cover in this post: Do we want to start an advocacy organization? If so, would “Future-Focused History Alliance” be a suitable name? 

Please weigh in—your input matters. If there is little interest in forming an advocacy organization, I’ll probably drop the idea. If, on the other hand, we decide to pursue an advocacy function, next we can consider the forms this advocacy might take.

Best wishes, Mike

Biggest challenge to democracy?

“We don’t study history in a way that we can apply it.” This was identified as “the biggest challenge we face in all the Western democracies,” by Jim Mattis, former commander of US military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and former Secretary of Defense, in an interview this morning on National Public Radio. https://www.npr.org/2019/09/03/756976562/a-leaders-job-is-to-set-the-vision-retired-gen-mattis-says