It used to be that American students learned the history of their country from “official” sources — teachers and textbooks accredited and vetted by experts. But that’s no longer true.
Amateur historians and others without official bona fides can upload anything they want to the internet, profoundly changing the amount of information available and how we access it. This onslaught of online data might mean it’s time to let the textbook method of teaching history become part of the past itself.
“Many of our pedagogies were developed at a time when there was a scarcity of information and so we needed to memorize things. We couldn’t lug a textbook around everywhere that we went,” says Sam Wineburg, professor of education and history at Stanford University and author of Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone?).
“Now it’s faster to ask Siri than it is to recall it from memory. So we’ve got devices now that externalize memory in ways that are unimaginable. Given that, how should we efficiently and thoughtfully use the time we devote to instruction in school?”
Wineburg, who studies the way history is taught in the United States, says that instead of protecting students from the internet, it’s time to teach them how to differentiate the good information from the bad.
“You prepare people for the challenges they will face, rather than trying to build a moat around those challenges and protect them,” he says. “You give them staggered experiences where they increasingly build up their muscle to deal with ambiguity and complexity. We live in a complex world….It’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what to believe.”
Beyond teaching students how to evaluate and verify what they find online, Wineburg believes history classes should also give students a broad chronological knowledge of history and a fundamental understanding of the nation’s founding principles.
“An understanding of our Constitution is absolutely necessary. An understanding of the threats that are posed by fascism are absolutely necessary,” he says. “We want people to be historically informed. We want people to understand that, unchecked, threats to our freedom can grow into cancers. If the history curriculum doesn’t strive to strengthen democracy, then the history curriculum has no place in the school day.”
In addition to what students are taught, how they are taught is a critical concern for the non-profit Woodrow Wilson Center.
“We need to do more to make history more relevant and to make it come alive to today’s kids who are very, very different than those kids who were learning American history in our schools 25 or 50 years ago,” says Patrick Riccard of the Woodrow Wilson Center. “How do you tell American history so that it’s relevant to the student who’s learning it? How do you tell the story of westward expansion to an inner city youth back East?”
The non-profit currently works with history teachers nationwide to develop gaming strategies, such as card and board games, along with other approaches to help make the past resonate with students today.
And, in an increasingly diverse nation, both Wineburg and Riccard see the value of looking at history through different lenses.
“We know that those multiple perspectives, being able to see the same event through multiple eyes, becomes really important to understanding it and to understanding the context,” says Riccard.
But for Wineburg, a key challenge that remains is to instill basic citizenship skills that will encourage future voters to assess information online, should they spend a few minutes researching policy and political issues on their phone before heading to the polls or while waiting in line to vote.
“The question for our age is how to make those 10 minutes count,” Wineburg says. That’s the question. Will that person become confused by misinformation in those 10 minutes or will they have some basic skills that will increase the probability that they will get to a trustworthy source? That is the question that is facing our democracy today.”