It may be foolhardy to speak of “history” education in isolation from the broader context of the social studies. It is impossible to teach history outside of critical understandings of geography, economics, psychology, sociology, political science, philosophy and the like. We have an obligation to children in a democracy to make available every tool to insure a critical understanding of how human life and experience is intertwined and connected. This only happens when students are encouraged to make inquiry into those things that matter.
If we expect children to understand, for example, the age of exploration, it is incumbent upon us, as teachers, to make the age of exploration meaningful for students. It is simply not good enough to ask students to memorize a list of European explorers and the dates of their “discoveries.” When I taught 7th grade social studies the curriculum began with the age of exploration. I asked students to consider the following question: If Columbus wasn’t first, why does he get all the credit? By asking a question like this students were able to explore ideas such as:
1. How geography contributed to the European desire to explore?
2. How economics contributed to the European desire to explore?
3. How the Crusades influenced European economic systems?
4. What Europeans visited the Americas prior to Columbus?
5. Who were all those people that inhabited the Americas and how did they get there?
6. What about the Chinese circumnavigation of the earth in 1421?
7. Did St. Brendon really cross the Atlantic from Ireland in the 9th century?
8. How did people navigate across open ocean?
9. How did cartography play a part in European exploration?
10. What was the role of religion in European exploration and expansion?
This list could go on and on. My point is that students must be given an opportunity to make sophisticated, critical inquiry into real problems attached to historical and cultural questions if we are ever to expect them to be interested enough to know those things that are deemed important for educated people to know. Challenge students with authentic activities and questions and watch them thrive.
Of course, No Child Left Behind devalues studying history in favor of a more technical instructional program dedicated to reading and mathematics so all this may be moot.