Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why kids don't know history

After a post I did a couple of weeks ago, Liz Ditz shared this piece from Evan Thomas with me. Thomas complains that kids--even college kids--know absolutely nothing about history these days. He also says that he sees no "joy" from kids learning about history, and he says he is looking for reasons why. Liz asked me to comment on this, and I will, but I'd love to hear other people's opinions on this.

First of all, I have to admit that I get a little touchy about members of the elite criticizing us peons who are involved in K-12 education. Although Evans, who is the assistant managing editor at Newsweek and the author of a number of history books, doesn't explicitly slam high school history teachers, I thought criticism was clearly implied. Nevertheless, I do think Thomas hit on one point that has made things more difficult, and that is the change in history content that is taught. When I went to school, there seemed to be an agreement about the people and events that kids should know about, but there isn't any more. Traditionalists think we should teach about the "dead white males," but others believe we need to focus on multiculturalism. Some, like those in charge in our state, believe we should compromise by teaching everything, which means we can't go into enough depth on anything to make it interesting.

I believe, however, that the biggest problems are cultural. We are in a "me" and "now" dominated society, and the past just doesn't seem very important--especially to teenagers. Even more than that, however, is something in our culture that hockey coaches like me have been complaining about for several years now.

That's right--you did not misread the last paragraph, and it doesn't contain a misprint. History teachers and Northern Minnesota hockey coaches face a similar problem. In the past, many kids in our part of the country would spend hour after hour at outdoor rinks--often eight to ten hours a day--playing shinny hockey. As a result, by the time they got to high school, some of them had developed incredible skills. But today kids don't do that any more because there are so many other things for them to do. There are hundreds of TV channels, I-pods, cell phones, PlayStation, video games, DVDs, the Internet, MySpace, and YouTube. In fact, there are so many new high tech gadgets out there for kids, and I do such a poor job keeping up with them, that half of what I just wrote might well be obsolete by now.

I think the same problem this causes for high school hockey coaches applies to something like history. I was never an A-student in high school, but I actually did read books about history once in a while when I was growing up. I remember reading books about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, George Armstrong Custer, Valley Forge, Bull Run, World War II, and I even read John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. I wonder how many of my A-students have read as many history books as I did. Probably not very many. Would I have read those books if I'd have had all the gadgets and distractions that they have today? Probably not.


Blogger M said...

this is one of the biggest problems the view that education needs to go back to teaching how they used to back in the 1950s. The problem is that this isn't the 1950s anymore! Kids are different. I'm sure parents today don't treat their own children in the same way that parents in the 1950s disciplined their kids. Things change.

1/20/2008 7:40 PM  
Blogger Liz Ditz said...

Hi Dennis!

My daughter, the 19 yo college freshman, had a lot of conversation over this issue over the holidays.

Her sense is that she has a lot of puzzle pieces, but not a picture of how to put them together in meaningful way(s).

Two particulars:

1. she is unsure about the big-picture timeline (well, she is sure that the War of Independence happened before the Civil War...but not by how much. Here's how she put it: I know that both my grandfathers served in the military in WWII. I know which of my great-grandfathers served in the military in WWI. That gives me a sense of the distance in time between the two. Just the dates I can remember if I have to, but for it to be meaningful, "thinkable about" -- what can I peg it to?

Plus there's something I'm just sort of fumbling at...I heard all my grandparents telling stories about life before electricity (come from rural California stock) the excitement of getting telephone service, the first car -- in other words, I had a first-person picture of technology transition. In other words, my grandparents' childhood was not so different from the childhood lived by the 18th century founders of our republic. Somehow it made that 18th century history more accessible or imaginable.

Not so for my children -- one of my earliest memories is of getting a television.

This isn't a particularly coherent response.

What I am trying to get across is that those of us born in the 1940s and 1950s might have found the events of 1770 on easier to picture and make real than our childen born in the 1970s on.

1/20/2008 9:42 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

M and Liz, I think you both have good points.

Part of the problem is definitely a generational thing. Liz takes it farther than this, but look at Thomas's complaint about his daughter not knowing who Patton is. Like me, Thomas was born in 1951, so in a way, we grew up with World War II. One of my earliest memories is combing my hair straight down when I was five years old, and then my father telling me not to do that because it made me look like Hitler. In my first teaching job, I worked with someone who was wounded twice fighting in Patton's army. When I was in college the movie Patton came out, and was a very big hit. None of that is the case for Thomas's daughter. Why should Patton be so important to her? Unlike me, she also obviously was introduced to the role that blacks played in WWII. Is that a bad thing? I'm sure M would say that it's a good thing. And finally, I think Thomas's standards might be just a tad high. I find it hard to accept that a student who got a 5 on an AP history test knows nothing about history.

1/21/2008 5:17 AM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

Never mind Patton and Profiles In Courage... I asked a class of grade 10 history students to name the dates of American Independence and Canadian formation, and not a single one could name either. Yikes!

1/21/2008 6:14 AM  
Blogger EHT said...

I think everyone has made valid points here but the process of education has to take some of the blame as well. For example, in my own school I see many of the teachers using the same curriculum materials and the same lessons year after year regarding topics like MLK. Is it any wonder they get board when they see the same video or same set of books over and over. Wouldn't it be a bit easier if teachers teamed verticallly across grade levels and disciplines to make sure the same dog and pony show isn't being dragged out year after year?

"Sit and get" tactics don't work with today's kids....they are always on the move. They want to argue a point, research and create a newspaper page, interview a WWII or Vietnam vet...

I guess what I'm getting at is I don't see enough of this type of thing going on, and in the process we are loosing our students and producing adults with huge gaps in their knowledge of history.

I do realize that content has to be taught in order for students to manipulate it, but we need to do more to reach all students...not just the ones who respond to lectures, textbooks, and date memorization including those students who have environmental and behaviorial issues. You know how much I love those students, Dennis.:)

1/21/2008 2:09 PM  
Anonymous Zeke said...

Two points:
There have been several times over the last 75+ years when papers such as the NY Times have published articles on how little kids know about history, usually based on multiple choice tests. This criticism is not new and shares the same fallacy as Thomas. They all equate 'knowing' history with knowing facts, not understanding broad issues. I'm not sure how well our students do with the issues, either, but that is the real value of history.
As far a facts go, I expected my students to 'learn' quite a few facts during a unit and over a year but I didn't expect that they would remember many of them much longer. Facts are the basis for understanding but are very unimportant in themselves. Anyone could list 10 'must-know' facts that I would agree with but I could also list 10 others, 20 others, etc. Pretty soon, just 'trivial pursuit'.
I do agree with Dennis that lack of reading is a real problem but on the other hand, if someone wants to know a fact, the internet has Encyclopedia Britannica beat all hollow!

My prescription for improvement: team-teach, two period classes in history and literature. The literature helps with narrative and big ideas, while the history places the fiction in context. Add art and music and students will actually enjoy history! I taught in such a situation for the last 15 years of my career and it was the best teaching/learning I ever experienced, both for me and for the kids.

1/21/2008 3:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And finally, I think Thomas's standards might be just a tad high. I find it hard to accept that a student who got a 5 on an AP history test knows nothing about history."

It is actually quite plausible, depending on how long it has been since the AP History class.

I tripped over this article a few years ago:

and find this quite interesting:
"Studies show that if material is studied for one semester or one year, it will be retained adequately for perhaps a year after the last practice (Semb, Ellis, & Araujo, 1993), but most of it will be forgotten by the end of three or four years in the absence of further practice. If material is studied for three or four years, however, the learning may be retained for as long as 50 years after the last practice (Bahrick, 1984; Bahrick & Hall, 1991). There is some forgetting over the first five years, but after that, forgetting stops and the remainder will not be forgotten even if it is not practiced again."

A one-year AP History course, with no reinforcement over time (typical, no?) fits the bill for the "most of it will be forgotten by the end of three or four years in the absence of further practice" behavior they describe.

If we want kids to remember stuff beyond graduation, a bunch of single year courses just don't seem to do much good :-(

-Mark Roulo

1/21/2008 8:26 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

Personally, I never had all that much interest in history in school, something I only kind of regret.

Most of the way history was taught in my school was very sterile. Dates were taught, and abstractly assasinations were mentioned, but on the whole it remained quite dry.

This contrasts greatly with the way history can be wielded in a discussion or debate. If the US could break away from England, why did we prevent the South from seceding in the Civil War? Were the early settlers attacked by Native Americans, or did the attack them? Did dropping the atom bomb on Japan actually save lives, and did the US actually gain anything by it? Is the current House Resolution 1955 just like the House Unamerican Activities Committee of the McCarthy era?

Some of these can be hard questions, and don't necessarily have PC answers, but making a stab at them as controversies would show a purpose in studying history in the first place.

And yes, some high school students have trouble with dates. As a high school student, I still had at least a good sense of Revolutionary War(1776), War of 1812, Civil War (1860), WWI, WWII, and then very fuzzy after that (the school didn't want to teach anything too recent due to controversy).

1/22/2008 7:02 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I like your ideas, but the problem is that students have to know something about those things to discuss them. Some of my students are willing learn about those things, and they do a great job in discussions like that, but others aren't. They just don't care. Unfortunately, I have more of those this year than I ever have.

Mark, I found your point very interesting, and I have to say that it fits with my own experience (and my frustrations).

1/24/2008 5:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The multicultural Marxist crap that is being passed off as history in the schools is not an accident. It began with the Frankfurt school of disposessed Marxists who were kicked out of Germany by Hitler and found a home at Colombia Universty. The goal is to create a Marxist society through cultural change in social insitutions. Modern public ed has accepted these ideas of multiculturalism which are anti- western and anti-American.That is why millions are being spent on education and the result is an overly sensitive uneducated historically ignorant generation. This has been going on for decades. It is viewed as a success by the multiculturalists and a disaster by real Americans of which there are becoming fewer and fewer. Conservatives are blackballed in the hiring process, while new building and fancy teacher lounges are created for this bunch of vipers. The whole rotten system needs to have WAR declared on it and be utterly destroyed ASAP! The indocrination and corresponding material is so boring students hate it, thus a historically ignorant group is created by these America hating administratiors and teachers.

4/12/2008 8:07 PM  
Blogger Marc K. said...

I know that this is late but I just found this page after doing research on what kids know about history. As far as anonymous is concerned, this country is going to hell in a hand basket. Yet I find that there are so many teachers out there who do care about history that we should be seeking them out, applauding them, and asking how can we help. There are too many people who shout out that they are concerned but who is doing anything about it? I want to be a teacher who cares and finds as many possible ways to getting kids to remember their history, and ours, so that they remember years after they get out of school. Math is tough for me to tackle and history may be for others, so lets stop complaining and start doing. Then, and only then, can we see improvement in our kids. Use the tools that our kids have today by getting them to watch shows on historic themes and then get them to talk about it. Hey wait, parents talking to their kids? Now that is something we should be dicussing.

3/13/2009 3:27 PM  
Anonymous العاب said...

yup its hundred percent right that student have a less knowledge about the history so we should adopt some tools through which we can encourage the students to get the knowledge about the history.
we can use the puzzle games or the questioning games as a tool for teaching the history.
games are the tool to enhance the concentration of the people so we should try.........

8/28/2009 3:43 AM  
Blogger Bethjd said...

That kids have more distractions so they don't learn is a bunch of bs. Kids no matter the time period can always find something to do other than study if they are bored with school.My dad used to go fishing. I would walk to the mall near our house. My friend's kid plays video games.

My kids have all the tech stuff and they know history. yeah, sometimes I have to remind them to put it away and get to their homework. But they know it. And two of them love it!

The real problem? Two dirty little secrets:

Parents have allowed schools become the primary caregivers. Rich or poor districts--doesn't matter.

The reality is most kids could learn the basic info necessary to be a fully functioning, critical thinking individuals in our society in a lot less time we waste on it in school. Weeks and weeks on the same stuff--boring busy work so the teacher can verify the kids "know" it. My friend's daughter had to write a caption for a cartoon about the U.S. Constitution. What??? How does that even begin to show she understands the Constitution? She didn't even have to create the single pane cartoon.

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