‘Historically Illiterate’ students- – 5 tips to address the problem


As a former middle school social studies teacher, I was appalled to hear (but not too surprised) that historical author David McCullough said on the CBS show “60 Minutes” that American students today are ‘historically illiterate’. He went on in great detail, as McCullough typically does, as to what we can do to address it.

I’ve come across those various media clips where people can name more Simpson’s characters than Supreme Court Justices, can name The Three Stooges, but not the three branches of government, etc. This was different; something struck me when a college student approached McCullough after a lecture and admitted she thought the 13 Colonies were in the middle of the US and not on the east coast. I cringed, and immediately began to think of my old lessons and activities, trying to assure myself that this was not one of my students!

In most cases, the social studies curriculum is very broad. In most states, social studies starts in Kindergarten, with the family and learning about each other. Each year, this propels in into lessons on the community, which progresses into the town, state, and, eventually the basics of the Revolutionary War in 5th grade. Middle Schools in the US typically begin with a year of world history followed with two years of American History, and, depending on your track for post-high school, courses are selected.

One issue has continuously arose with students not performing well is boredom. Boredom can and will lead to historical illiteracy. McCullough made several indirect references that students often get bored in class, often leading to apathy and loss of connection, hence becoming ‘historically illiterate’. Here are five staples that I used in my classroom daily to curb boredom:

1. Integrate technology. Social Studies teachers typically live & die by the textbook. While textbooks have totally evolved within the past three years, it’s time to stop using them as the end-all-be-all. There is a plethora of technology than can be used in a classroom today, form student cell phones to interactive websites. Make sure your district has a policy / regulation pertaining to cell phone usage, and start searching the web!

2. Build a common vocabulary. Social studies classes are fortunate enough that a certain group of vocabulary words are used over and over for the entire course. Start the year / unit off right by utilizing those words and use them daily. If you have the same historical vocabulary vocabulary in play, all in attendance won’t feel like outsiders when they hear these words, and will follow along with your lesson.

3. Switch it up! Learning Stations, PBL units, skits, newscasts, webquests, cooking demonstrations, art analysis, music sampling, museum trunks – – – you get the idea. The more you differentiate, the bigger your audience, and hence more student attention.

4. Remember – this is THEIR CLASSROOM. A 21st century classroom educator is more ‘guide on the side’ and not ‘wise sage on the stage’. From students developing their own class rules to students asking other student’s follow-up questions, student engagement is paramount – and will keep all on their toes (and hence pay more attention).

5. Seek feedback from peers and Administrators. I’ll admit it – I had some lessons that crashed-n-burned. I also had lessons that were so awesome that others teachers did the same lesson the next year. Your peers are boards of input, and since most schools are utilizing the PLC format, it’s a great place to share, reflect, and change. Making those small changes (or scrapping all together) shows you openness and your willingness to try to reach others.

None of the above is easy – but this is education – nothing is easy. I hope you can try something new, and alleviate this historical illiteracy that is cast upon us.

Link to the McCullough segment on 60 Minutes: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-57547353/david-mcculloughs-heroes-of-history/?tag=contentMain;cbsCarousel

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