Teaching History how to Make Students Enthusiastic about Learning

For many history teachers, it’s a familiar scenario: you love your subject and you feel that your students should share that love too. But one look at their bored, listless faces tells you that it’s just not happening. To them, history is nothing more than a whole lot of facts about dead people. What to do? How can enthusiasm be generated in a bunch of teens who would rather be playing video games or washing their hair?

There are no guaranteed solutions to the problem, but there are certainly a few positive steps worth taking; steps that can help any history teacher to reach out and grab the attention of hearts and minds that don’t know what they’re missing.

The most obvious, and most important of these, is to explain why you think history is fascinating, or better still, allow the students to work it out for themselves. The first lesson might begin something like this:

“Why do you think I became a history teacher? What is it about history – not just the past, but history – that made me spend a good part of my life trying to learn about it, and another good part of my life trying to teach it to people like you?”

Some students may suggest that it’s because you’re old – to many students, ‘old’ means being over 30. That’s a great start; one that will provide an opportunity to introduce the idea that even old things can have an influence on the lives of modern people. Another student might comment that it’s because history is about where we all came from, or that it deals with ideas that are still important today. Eventually, a couple of astute young minds may pick up on the words, “people like you”, and recognize that those nameless faces from the past were once real people, with feelings and needs not too dissimilar from their own. 

It is essential that these ideas come from the students, rather than from the teacher, whose role is simply to elaborate. Many teachers make the mistake of thinking that their own enthusiasm is enough to sway students, and while that’s important too, the students need to understand their teacher’s passion, rather than just appreciate it or think it ridiculous. For this reason, make sure that all ideas are noted on the whiteboard and later, perhaps, transcribed to a poster.

By now, you should have their attention. In trying to understand the motivations of someone from a different time – you – the students have in fact just completed their first piece of historical analysis, and should be complimented on this. It’s now time to begin the grunt work of teaching, and here are a few suggestions for making it more interesting for everyone.

Investigate the living past

Field trips don’t need to be to the local museum or gallery, as most towns have their own history displayed on almost every street corner. Try to find out who these streets are named for. Many old buildings have their year of construction inscribed on their facades, and many war memorials will have names that are familiar to the students. Teachers may find that their students are more enthusiastic about a field trip like this if they’re not steered towards historical artefacts, but are allowed to find them for themselves. A worksheet may ask the students to find, for example, six things that are ‘historical’ on the streets of their town, or six things in local shop windows that were also used by their grandmothers. On returning to the classroom, ensure that the student’s research is shared and compiled.

Give the students a chance to find out a little of their own family history too. A questionnaire asking grandparents or elderly neighbours to comment on their schooldays, their favourite toy, or the clothes they once wore, can give young people a chance to connect with the past.

Make it real and relevant

The tips discussed above have more to do with historical skills than any specific area of study. When it is time to take an in-depth look at a particular time and place, ask yourself how you can help your students to see and experience the past, rather than just ‘learn’ facts about it.

As many students are visual learners, try to have pertinent images on display at all times. No words, just pictures. These can be enlarged photographs or paintings, or montages of smaller pictures. If there’s a digital projector in the classroom, have an occasional slide show of relevant images running throughout the lesson. This can even be effective while students are completing book work, as the pictures help the students to tune-in to what they’re supposed to be doing, as well as giving them visual hints that might aid the completion of the task at hand.

Try also to think of ways to help your students physically experience events from the past. For instance, if immigration is being studied, give a few students the chance to present a first-hand account of what it was like on board the sailing vessels. Wrap them up in a blanket and roll them around a circle of arms. You may even encourage them – half-jokingly – to break wind so that they understand the smells, as well as the heat, darkness and unsteadiness of life on an immigrant ship.

Help students to understand that the past relates to them by bringing relatives – or potential relatives – into their learning. Some areas of study allow students to link their own family to historical events – most students have an old soldier or two in the family tree, for instance – but in cases where this is not possible, even someone with the same name can be strangely affecting. It is an absorbing exercise for a young person to uncover historical information about someone who shares a surname, whether they are related or not.

History can also become more relevant to young minds once they understand that in many parts of the modern world, people are living as they did in the past. There are still feudal societies and places where women are treated differently, and there are still plagues and wars. These places and events can be studied in conjunction with the historical stuff, in order to impress upon the students that learning about the past can sometimes help them to understand the problems faced by many people today.

Puzzles and stories

The teaching of history should always have more to do with storytelling than with bald facts. As Josef Stalin said, “When one person dies, it’s a tragedy: when a million die, it’s a statistic.” Which of these would you rather your students thought about? Remember that there’s a reason why Anne Frank’s diary has always been more popular than text books on the Holocaust, and try to find the human story in everything you teach.

History is, above all, a detective story and should be treated as such. Try to give your students ‘clues’ to aid their independent research, rather than spoon-feeding them lots of information. The more they can work out on their own, the more enthused they will be, and the more they’re likely to remember. You may also want to use the following trick to help them organize their deductive thinking.

Introduce the concept of “chain-thinking” to your students. Just as the events in a story link to each other in a certain order, with each one affecting the next, so too do events from the past link inexorably to those that come later. Give your students ten or so important facts about a significant period in history, typed out on a sheet of paper. Have them cut these out and consider what chronological order they might go in. The students can then curl the strips into rings and link them together to form a chain. The decisions made by the students should then be discussed, either as a whole group or in pairs, with the chains perhaps exchanged as little gifts. (This exercise may be modelled first, using a familiar story as an example.)

By following some of the tips offered above, it’s entirely likely that history won’t seem so dull after all. Yes, there will still be book work too, but chances are that it will be completed by students who actually want to learn.