Why Do We Need to Know?

The vast majority of clashes between history teachers seem to me to go back to the

No substitute for memorization

question of “What do students need to know?”  There is broad general agreement on the skills students should acquire–critical reading, analysis of primary sources, argumentation, writing, speaking–and on habits of mind such as consideration of change over time, contextualization, and cause and effect.  We argue sometimes about the emphasis to put on one sort of narrative vs. another–should our junior U.S. History class be organized around patterns of social change or shifts in political power, economic determinism or cultural analysis?–but I rarely find myself arguing that a colleague in flat out wrong in his interpretation of a historical event. Where the daggers are drawn, however, is when we get down to our handling of that content. Ask any three teachers what students should know about U.S. History and you are likely to get answers that differ radically in scope. Should students memorize dates?  How many key terms are too many?  Should assessments emphasize narrative or argument? What can we leave out?

I would argue that the first step toward reaching a consensus on more of these questions is to spend a little less time asking what students need to know and a little more asking why they need to know it. Our answers to that second question will go a long way toward clarifying, I think, the different kinds of “knowing” that we have in mind and should offer a sort of litmus test for making decisions about the question of what to include and what to leave out. So here are my answers to the ‘why?’ question.  I’d love to hear yours.

So why do students need to learn historical facts by heart when they can find the basic narrative of virtually any event online or in a library in a matter of minutes?

1) Students need to remember ideas they might not otherwise know to look for. I want my students to have patterns they can apply to contemporary events (post-colonial India, for example, might offer a lens through which to consider the Arab Spring). I want my students to have a background against which to situate any new events they decide to read up on:  otherwise, history would be made up of purely isolated episodes.  I want my students to have enough context to be alert to historical oversimplifications.  Taken together, these might be called historical literacy:  a framework within which to process new knowledge.

The kind of knowledge I’m talking about here is made up of broad strokes:  these are the sorts of things around which I frame essential questions and unit goals. Ironically, although these are the elements of knowledge I hope students will remember 20 years from now, they are not the sorts of things I can usefully offer in a study guide to be memorized. “Knowing” history in this way requires that students explore it in enough depth to reach lasting, memorable, complex conclusions of their own.

2) Students need to understand aspects of events that are not self-evident. Sometimes, history is complicated, contradictory, or counter-intuitive.  While you can read about the development of an economic bubble by yourself, it is likely to make a lot more sense to you if someone sits down and explains it.

Technical understandings are much more directly transferable than broad thematic conclusions.  These are, usually, explanations that are not so much valuable in themselves as bridges that must be crossed before one can form a complex understanding of a bigger picture.  Teaching these may require us to be imaginative in the ways we get the ideas across:  we need to know not only that the student has memorized an explanation in the form we gave it but that he or she can apply it. Given that caveat, though, this is the sort of thing it may sometimes make sense to ask students to be able to reproduce from memory.  The litmus test, I would submit, would be again the question of why they need to understand this particular concept: it should not be an end in itself so much as a tool applied to some further inquiry.

3) Students need access to a critical mass of information. Without examples and details, there is no way for students to authentically arrive at their own analyses: evidence is essential to any historical argument. History classes need a lot of facts to provide a starting point for our discussions and this, I think, is the basis for many of our struggles.

Students need to be exposed to these facts.  They need the ability to understand them, organize them, and be comfortable putting them together in multiple ways.  These are, in themselves, important skills.  It is not clear to me, however, that they need to remember this sort of facts, as long as they are familiar enough with them to know where to find them again.

If we take this approach, we will be asking students to do something much more like what “real” historians do:  since my first year of grad school, I have spent no time at all memorizing sequences of events but lots of time quickly “getting up” the history of an era or region–reading, distilling, summarizing and organizing information to serve one specific purpose or another–and even more time thinking about their deeper meanings and implications.  In Making Learning Whole, David Perkins talks about the value of letting students “play the real game” as a way to create greater engagement and give learning real meaning; I find that a compelling argument.

Very often in high school history classes, though, we seem to be asking students to memorize a lot of facts in this third category.  Maybe that’s because they are the easiest to communicate and assess. Maybe it’s because we’ve agreed that they’re important without asking “important in what way?” Maybe it’s because that’s what we remember doing in high school ourselves.  Whatever the reason, I would argue that the key to getting ourselves out of the coverage vs. critical thinking tug of war is to be very, very clear about what needs to be memorized and what really only needs to be understood.


About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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