Why Are We Learning This? Teaching History to Inspire Today’s Students

When your students ask the question, “Why are we learning this?” they may actually be on to something. Understanding the real-world context of lessons and stories not only makes them more meaningful, but it also makes the material easier to remember.

Articulating the meaning of history lessons can be particularly challenging, especially because the past is rife with stories of inequality, injustice and political turmoil. Still, helping students understand the past is essential for turning them into the informed citizens of the present. Teaching history with these ideas and lesson plans can help you demonstrate the relevance of our past while inspiring students to make a difference now.

Why Does History Matter?

Understanding the importance of history can make you better prepared to answer questions about why it matters. It can also help you realize the invaluable benefits of sharing, and learning from, the past. On a fundamental level, learning from history is important because it helps us be better both as individuals and as contributors to society.

“Understanding the linkages between past and present is absolutely basic for a good understanding of the condition of being human,” says historian Penelope J. Corfield.

Part of the reason teaching history thoughtfully is so important, is because it is often nuanced and complex. It demands that we think beyond our current frame of reference to see other points of view. When discussing sensitive topics like war, racism or genocide, students are challenged to understand multiple perspectives at the same time.

Aside from learning to communicate ideas and engage in debates, history demonstrates clearly that many problems in life have no clear answer, says associate professor of history Erika Bsumek at Life & Letters. Realizing these complexities allows students to cultivate flexibility, problem-solving skills and an openness towards other people’s perspectives.

History Helps Us See the World Better

In addition to supporting future job skills and building empathy, history lessons help students see what it looks like to do good in the world. Positioning everyday people as heroes can prove that anyone is capable of accomplishing great things. These role models give students tangible examples to aspire to, says Ph.D. philosophy candidate Marteen van Doorn.

Nelson Mandela, for example, is an example of someone who is admired and can be emulated, van Doorn writes. How did he accomplish all that he did? How can we recreate his philosophies and behavior to create a better world? These are the kinds of questions that meaningful history lessons allow students to explore.

History can also holds lessons about science, technology and the world around us. For example, modern green architecture plans are often based off of ancient layouts, explains Kara Masterson at the online compendium, Realm of History.

Some of the most important innovations in history have been based on ancient wisdom, and it’s important that we share the value of this knowledge with future generations.

teaching history

Empathy for Historical Figures Builds Meaning

Broadening the concept of humanity can also help us understand shared struggles and victories, which can in turn build empathy. When students start to see historical figures as real human beings with similar (and different) struggles, they begin to cultivate a sense of self-awareness. This allows them to connect life lessons from others to their own daily experience.

Former teacher and TIME for Kids education editor Lina Mai agrees that by contextualizing the actions of people in the past, teachers can better help students “engage with history and process their own roles in the world today.” She shares a number of lesson tips for enabling students to empathize with people from the past. One is to highlight lesser-known stories from history. This ensures that lessons are inclusive of multiple perspectives from periods and experiences.

As an example, she points to a 2017 article from TIME magazine, which interviewed Carlotta Walls LaNier of the Little Rock Nine. Using this text as the basis for a lesson plan can connect students to a lesser-known story of a monumental moment in history. This story can also be juxtaposed with a TIME article from 1957 to offer more context of the politics and perspectives during the time period being discussed.

Another interesting perspective on fostering tolerance and empathy through history comes from Walter G. Moss, a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. He believes that empathy is not just about feeling what others feel, but also thinking how they think. “Empathy is a holistic concept encompassing not just the affective region but also the cognitive one,” he writes.

To help students understand history while heightening their empathy, he uses novels like “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “Doctor Zhivago” and “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. These books help students experience what it might have been like to live three very different life experiences: a German soldier in the trenches of World War I, a Russian doctor living through war and African victims of Western imperialism around 1900.

Knowledge of Past Injustice Ignites Change

Another benefit of knowing what has happened before us is that it empowers us to ignite change where injustices have occurred. This starts with a deep understanding of different cultures and backgrounds. As the team at Arcadia Publishing explains, global, national and regional history resources enable us to see how other cultures have influenced and improved our own.

When we can see the essential links between other cultures and the present day, we can develop a deeper appreciation for those who are different from us. This is especially important when teaching more sensitive, yet critical topics like African American history and immigrant history. When these stories are taught clearly and honestly, students can begin to see how they can play a role in preventing such future injustices.

A game created by eighth grade social studies teacher Doug Henry aims at exactly that. The game helps students explore the real-world effects of historical figures. It asks students to making inferences based on primary and secondary sources, use historical perspective, solve political problems and communicate an outcome.

The hands-on approach excites students and involves them in historical subjects in new and meaningful ways, Henry says. “Students get excited about it because they realize they are drivers of history,” he explains. “They are in a position where they are shaping something and all of us want to be creators.”

Similarly, a project at Sidwell Friends School helps seventh and eighth grade students learn from local D.C. area activists and participate in interactive lessons on justice and changemaking. Developed by the social justice nonprofit Teaching for Change, this project had three main goals:

  • To help students identify local social justice issues.
  • To teach students about promoting equity.
  • To show real-world examples of challenging injustice through activism, not charity.

teaching history

Teaching History and Sharing Collective Memory, Regionally and Globally

History can also be thought of as collective memory that informs the present, explains public historian Tiffany R. Isselhardt. Embracing this collective memory is essential to being an informed citizen, which enables us to be active participants in democracy.

“It encourages people to actively participate and debate, helping to refine our core beliefs and, possibly, challenge old beliefs that are no longer relevant,” writes Isselhardt. She uses the example of the Iraq war to show how teaching history helps us understand current events. Questions might include: Why was there a war? Why did it matter to other countries? Why did such a regime exist? What other regimes have been allowed to exist for so long?

Answering these questions helps students understand the roles religion, politics, environment and colonialism play in the Middle East now and throughout history.

Looking at regional history is as important as studying global history, because it gives students more context as to who they are and how they got there. These histories often reveal stories of injustice and can be used to create a better world, explains attorney and MIT history professor Malick Ghachem.

“I believe that this kind of sustained patience for understanding the local in historical contexts is itself a tool of public policy, a way of seeing and talking about the world, and (if wielded correctly) an instrument of power and justice,” he writes.

Images by: giorgiorossi73/©123RF.com, Dave Hanlon/©123RF.com, bowie15/©123RF.com

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