All teachers have power, but I believe history teachers have particular powers solely held in their discipline. History falls under the wider umbrella of social studies which comprises disciplines that examine human action and interaction. In history, my students and I examine what people did, but we also ask why and how they did it. Beyond even the broad questions of why and how, I ask my students to connect their reasoning to the problems, issues, and conflicts of today. When taught correctly, a history teacher has the power to transform a students perception of history and how it impacts the contemporary world.
If you are interested in using history to learn more about modern issues, check out History Forge’s Primary Source Lessons. These lessons will help students understand the past; additionally, the teacher can allow students to make connections from the primary sources to the present. For example, how have athletes used their standing to draw attention to social issues?
As a history teacher, I have the power to shape the historical landscape that students possess. Historians and history teachers know myths exist in history curriculums, but to what level will they help students challenge those myths? For example, asking students to delve into the myth of American exceptionalism and how modern Americans dangerously ignore a past that has created modern problems. Issues with immigration, voting rights, gun control, and all of the other issues have a connection to history. Allowing students to find the myths and question how they influence our present decision making will ultimately create a wiser citizenry.
Additionally, history teachers can demonstrate the power of history by describing how groups argue over ideas based on historical interpretations. In his book The Skillful Teacher Stephen Brookfield wrote “squabbles based on personality differences and exacerbated by ideology and history exert great influence over day-to-day life” (Brookfield, 253). Brookfield was describing the politics of teaching, but his advice is a reminder of the power of history over present actions. Students could experiment with this knowledge and determine why their family, school, community, and state make the decisions they do. A teacher should allow a student to start from the present and work backwards to find the reasons behind certain decisions.
One way to allow students to examine historical myths or modern issues is to let them complete a project of their choice. If you are interested in this idea, check out History Forge’s Choosing and Narrowing Projects Topics.
An Example of Not
Giving Students Power
There are history teachers who describe their classroom lectures as discussions, or the biographies of historical figures as a Project Based Learning exercise. Teachers believe these things because they want to say their students are historically thinking, but in reality the teacher has kept all of the power. If students have to follow the rules and rubrics that the teacher sets, then how are they really demonstrating their voice, interest, and power?
One such way of a history teacher keeping the power is when a student asks, “Will this information be on the test?” (Brookfield 243). This should signify to any teacher that the students only value what the teacher says when they are directly referencing an exam. The students fear this power and want to ensure they are meeting the demands of the teacher to get an A. What does this A really signify? Basically, students learned how to milk the teacher of factoids and memorize them long enough to check the right box. This type of power is uneven and students should be given some control over their learning so they can be held accountable for it.
Lecturing from the front will only get a teacher so far when they want students to think on their own.
A teacher should allow students to make choices based on their interests, desires, and future dreams. If a teacher does this, they can then ask the student to fully commit to the discipline because now the knowledge and procedures directly benefit where the students want to go. Allowing students to have power does not mean the teacher will cease all of their decision making. The teacher will continue to make decisions and guide students; additionally, the teacher will create environments and procedures that are conducive to students expressing their voice and interests.
Students Do Not Know How
to Wield Power
Getting students to operate by their own original thinking can feel like a power struggle.
If you allow students to make choices and develop from original thinking, there will be some inevitable growing pains. In my own practice of using historical thinking and National History Day projects, I had students who became emotional and began to oppose my attempts to have them think for themselves. Apparently, Brookfield and I have had the same experiences; he described how students “want me to stop insisting that they come to their own intellectual judgements on the merits of different theories, concepts, or research. ‘Just tell us what we need to know’ is the cry” (Brookfield, 246).
Students just wanting to know the answer is a clear sign that the culture of school has awarded students for focusing on memorization and recall of factoids. Students judge historical intellect as knowing a lot of pieces of information, but not how those pieces create a more complex puzzle. Unfortunately, they will find out later in life that knowing thousands of historical facts is only good at winning trivia nights (I won last night by the way!)
All of the information in the world is worthless unless you know what to do with it.
Young people just wanting to know a correct answer is evident in how students understand media manipulation. Most students wish to place media coverage in compartilized boxes labeled “incorrect” and “true.” Adults do this as well, but younger students are more susceptible to this because their brains have not matured. When students become uncritical of media, history, and their own viewpoints, they can begin to only choose topics or groups that fit their narrow ideology (Brookfield, 246). This is extremely dangerous as the best learning happens when people are met with wildly opposing opinions that make them reevaluate their own.