Models for Teaching History

History is NOT a set of unconnected events. Every event happens because other events have happened. When enough events occur or when specific events have a major impact on a group of people, they provoke the events that we call history. In brief, every event is a product of the conditions created by other events. The study of similar events produces historical concepts.

Why is this concept important to History teachers? It’s important because it affects how we teach, or can teach, history.

We can teach history in three ways.

Model 1: Factual Model Teach about the events, such as the dates, the key players, and the locations. Instruction focuses on the historical events. Students are expected to be able to recall facts about the events.

Example 1: We could teach students that World War I occurred during such-and-such years, that some countries were on our side and some were on the other side, that so many people died, and that important battles occurred in various places. Then we teach about World War II, with the same types of information.

Model 2. Cause and Effect Model Teach about the events as they relate to other prior events. Students are expected to make inferences and draw connections among events.

Example 2: We could teach students how Germany’s economic difficulties following WW-I lead to the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and, eventually, WW-II

Model 3. Concept Model Teach historical concepts, using a study of events to demonstrate those concepts. Students are expected to apply concepts to other events and show how those other events demonstrate concepts. Students are also expected to generate concepts and identify various events that do or do not demonstrate the concept.

Example 3: We could teach students the concept of how national economic strain and loss of clear political leadership produces and supports the growth of “radical” political movements that seek responsible groups. We could teach the same concepts as in Example #2, but then we could also show how the rise of the Tea Party Movement and the Occupy Wall Street Movement demonstrate the same concept.

Choosing a Model

Having considered these three models for history instruction, we ask ourselves, “What’s the purpose of education?” We can answer this in many ways: personal satisfaction, contribution to public good, workforce readiness, etc. One answer, my favorite answer, is wisdom. Education helps children become wise.

But wisdom is the ability to make informed decisions that lead to future benefit (again, my definition). To become wise, students need to understand core concepts, which they can then apply to their current conditions to aid in the decision-making process.

The third model for teaching history is the model best suited for contributing to students’ wisdom. Our role, therefore, is to ensure we are using the third model: focusing our instruction on core concepts and helping students to apply them not only to historical events but also to their daily lives.

Using the conceptual model doesn’t mean abandoning the other models. In fact, for students to understand how events fit historical concepts, they need a thorough understanding of the events (model 1) and how those events connect (model 2). What the conceptual model does, however, is provide a framework for learning history, a reason to study our past, and the ability to apply what we learn.

What’s your take on teaching history? Why do you teach history? Which model do you use?

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