What is history? Why we need to hook students with current events

** Warning — this is a loooong post.  If you don’t have at least 15-20 minutes to read and think about this, come back when you have more time **

Today, I read an article in the Washington Post about how the Tiananmen Square protests are being remembered in Hong Kong.

What grabbed me about the article was this sentence:

With details of the 1989 student protests erased from official Chinese histories, many young people on the mainland have little or no knowledge of the biggest pro-democracy movement since the 1949 Communist revolution.

The article was talking about how there’s a contrast between how history is presented in China (where Tiananmen Square is not talked about and where if you search for it on Google, you learn only about the square itself — references to the protests have been removed by the Great Firewall of China) and in Hong Kong.

Here’s the start of the article:

Something else that grabbed me about the article is that most students in the United States will learn nothing about Tiananmen Square.  It’s not part of the curriculum.  Or if it is mentioned somewhere, it’s given perhaps 10 minutes of class time at the end of the year.

But to understand this big event, you need a bunch of context.  And our survey courses do not provide time for context.  So if you asked a typical group of ninth graders what happened in China in 1989, they would have no clue.

I’ve written before in this blog about Tiananmen Square in connection with the protests that went on recently in Egypt and that toppled the Mubarak government.

See https://wiltoday.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/interconnected/

Most 9th grade students who see the picture below will have no idea who “tank man” is or what the picture represents.


And can you blame them?  After all, this event happened back in 1989 — 22 years ago.  That’s more than six years before today’s ninth graders were BORN.

If we back up ten more years, to 1979, that’s ancient history for these folks as well.

I was on the TED website yesterday, where I saw a great TED Talk given by an artist who was influenced by the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and who has had to live much of her life in exile because she is so critical of the current Iranian government.  Here’s a compelling quote from her talk, where she describes why she made her most recent film:

I made this film because I felt it’s important for it to speak to the Westerners about our history as a country. That all of you seem to remember Iran after the Islamic Revolution. That Iran was once a secular society, and we had democracy, and this democracy was stolen from us by the American government, by the British government. This film also speaks to the Iranian people in asking them to return to their history and look at themselves before they were so Islamicized — in the way we looked, in the way we played music, in the way had intellectual life. And most of all, in the way that we fought for democracy.

That description probably challenges the image most Americans have about Iran.

Such a compelling description might just make students sit up and take notice: Wait a minute — I’ve learned that the United States fights FOR democracy.  This woman says that the democracy that Iran had “was stolen from us by the American Government, by the British government.”  That can’t be right.  Let me look into this…

And if a student were given time during a morning session devoted to learning about the world, a student would find that the woman giving the talk is correct, though that’s not an aspect of U.S. History that gets much emphasis (much as Tiananmen Square gets ignored on mainland China).

Here’s the blurb from Wikipedia about Iran’s modern history: 

In 1925, Reza Khan overthrew the weakening Qajar Dynasty and became Shah. Reza Shah initiated industrialization, railroad construction, and the establishment of a national education system. Reza Shah sought to balance Russian and British influence, but when World War II started, his nascent ties to Germany alarmed Britain and Russia. In 1941, Britain and the USSR invaded Iran to use Iranian railroad capacity during World War II. The Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

In 1951, after the assassination of prime minister Ali Razmara, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh was elected prime minister by a parliamentary vote which was then ratified by the Shah. As prime minister, Mossadegh became enormously popular in Iran after he nationalized Iran’s petroleum industry and oil reserves.



source for Wikipedia info and pictures:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran

To return to the title of this post, history is learning about the past because you’re curious — because you learn something that makes you say “wait a minute — I want to understand what happened and WHY it happened.”

Students need a compelling story they can relate to that makes them want to INVESTIGATE the past.

What do we do in history class?  We present the distant distant past to students who, by and large, don’t care about it.  Here’s a fictionalized dialogue between a ninth or tenth grade world history teacher and her students:

Teacher: “Today, class, we’re learning about Alexander The Great  Yay!”

Student 1: “Ummm… that was 2000 years ago (actually, students never talk that way — they say “that was such a long time ago”) — why should I care?”

Teacher: “Well, Alexander was a great general who also spread Greek culture all over the ancient world”  See that map?  He conquered all of that in just 13 years:

Student 2: “We spent three days on Greek culture and I’m still a bit muddy on the difference between Sophocles and Socrates”

Teacher: “Well, okay — but we have to move on”

Student 3: “But I’m fascinated by military history.  Do we get to study Alexander’s battle tactics — the ones that Wikipedia just told me are really important?  I looked it up and it says that Alexander became the measure against which generals, even to this day, compare themselves and military academies throughout the world still teach his tactical exploits.”

Teacher: “Look — just know that he was a great conqueror and that he spread Greek Culture — that’s what you need for the end-of-grade test.  Let’s move on to the Romans…”

This is a bit of an exaggeration, but not much of one.  In our rush to teach “world history” we necessarily dilute the details so that students can get the “overview.” I fear that we do so at the expense of having students get into history.

Here’s an example of a school that lets students follow their passion and learn about what they want.  Watch this video for one minute (the link will take you to the relevant section) and you will see how a high school student’s passion about Vietnam led him to become a history major in college. 

As a student develops an interest in a part of the world (be it Vietnam or China or Iran), a useful tool to help empathize with that new place is Google Earth.  Google Earth is a great tool for bringing the world to life and imagining what someone else’s life might be like.

As an aside (especially for those who are not familiar with how Google Earth can be used to bring context to a news story), here’s a very cool five minute video I made about this picture from a desert in Namibia:

(Yes it really is a picture, not a painting — watch the video)

Okay, so before we get to the third example, which will use Google Earth to bring a book to life, let’s recap: the first example is Tiananmen Square in China — an event from 1989 that most American high school students don’t learn about.  The second example is something else we neglect in our history: how the U.S. government helped overthrow the Iranian government in 1953 (and we didn’t even get to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 or the hostage crisis that lasted 444 days).  And now the third example comes from a book that my wife Jocelyn got from her mother and that happened to be on our bookshelf –it’s called Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women.

It’s a book from 1995 by Geraldine Brooks, an award-winning author.  It has a compelling opening, which I will share with you thanks to the power of Amazon’s “look inside this book” feature:

Isn’t that compelling?  Don’t you want to find out what happens?  What is the deal with Saudi Arabia that makes it against the law to rent a room to a woman?

Let’s keep reading:

Wow — so she was jailed!  This is a good story.  This would grab students far more than Alexander the Great would (except for that student who was into military history — she could have spent weeks learning all about Alexander).  Hmmm…. why not let students study what they want to study some of the time???

Let’s go back to the book for a minute:

Hmmm… women are dangerous?  What an interesting concept.  Maybe I want to investigate the role women have played in three or four select countries from say 1900 to the present.

Let’s keep reading this book, though:

Okay, so first of all, since this book was written in 1995, the world’s total of Muslims has gone way up.  It’s up to at least 1.5 billion, according to this Facebook Group Page.

Some estimates put the Muslim population of the world as high as 1.97 billion.

While it would be interesting to consult several sources to see the range of estimates of the world’s Muslims, I want to look at the second question from the book excerpt above — where the heck is Dhahran??

Let’s look it up on Google Earth:

So now I know where Dhahran is located.  Now what’s interesting (for me, anyway) is that Dhahran is located right next to Pearl Square in the island country of Bahrain.  I’d heard a powerful piece on NPR about Bahrain recently, and I’d made a place mark on Google Earth so that I could get some context.

I’ll get back to Bahrain in a moment, but first let me show how I used Google Earth to put a place mark on Dhahran so that I will remember that this is where the opening scene from Geraldine Brooks’ book takes place:

Now, when I visit Saudi Arabia on Google Earth, I will see Dhahran and know that it’s about 700 miles away from the holy city of Mecca. 

But now let’s zoom back in and turn on some past place marks that I just made.  We can see that Dhahran is right near Pearl Square in Bahrain.

Now, the Pearl Square story needs more time than I can give to it here, but the short version is that I heard a powerful piece on NPR a few days ago (back on May 31) that described how women are being treated in Bahrain.

The protests had been centered around the Pearl Monument, so named because the monument that used to be there looked like a large pearl on some pedestals.  The key tense to that verb is “used to be” — as in, the government decided in March to tear down the monument so that people would not be reminded of the protests from late February and early March.

That’s kind of like Tiananmen Square in China, which still exists as a square, but there’s no plaque commemorating the events of June 4, 1989.  And it’s kind of like the minimal treatment most US history texts would give to the CIA-sponsored coup in Iran.

Governments like to sanitize history.  History, IMHO, should be about seeing things from multiple perspectives and getting a sense for recurring patterns, such as the common theme to all of these examples — sanitizing a controversial event.

There’s not much controversial about Alexander the Great the way we teach him (though, from an Iranian perspective, there could be — he’s seen as a great conqueror from a Greek perspective, but how is he viewed from a Persian perspective?), and frankly, most younger students have a hard time relating to events from 2300 years ago.

There’s quite enough going on in the recent past — from Iran in 1953 to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 to Tiananmen Square (and the fall of the Berlin Wall) 1989 to events going on right now with women’s rights in places such as Bahrain and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.  That will keep us busy for a while.  Once we have a sense of the world we live in, it then makes sense to inquire into the past and see what’s up with Alexander the Great. 

But I think we have it backwards: having the ancient grounding is meaningless if students are not asked to DO SOMETHING with the information (other than regurgitate it on a test).  First we have to get students hooked on a question — something compelling, such as how the role of women has changed in the past 50 years — and then we can explore the historical roots in service of answering the STUDENT-GENERATED question.

At the school I plan to open in 2013, we will start most mornings with an exploration of the news, using Google Earth place marks to keep track as we go.  After a morning session, we won’t have all the answers, but that’s okay.  The point is to generate questions about how the world got to be the way it is, to learn geography, and to practice listening, reading, writing and speaking. 

Afternoon project time will be a chance to explore in-depth some of the issues that come up in the morning.  For example, a superb afternoon project that might last several weeks during a sixth grade year would be to explore the changing role of women in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and the United States, from 1945 to the present.  Students could Skype with women in each of those countries and do original research, which we’d put into context with background research.  We’d share what we learned at the end of our study by posting a web page that displays the interviews we conducted and the research and the maps that put the information in context.

Thanks for reading this very long post.  Before you leave, let me make one more plug for Google Earth as a tool to tie the world together… Here’s a look at my most recent place marks:

If you watched the Namibia tree video, you now have a sense of just about all of the place marks I’ve visited lately as I’ve learned about the world (the Ship Breaking folder is from a while back). 

The one you should catch up on is Iitate, a city where Public Radio International reporter Marco Werman filed a story from recently.  Why?  Because it’s near the nuclear reactor that was damaged by the earthquake in Japan.

There’s another BIG story that needs some exploration — is nuclear power safe?  That’s big enough of a project to occupy several months during seventh grade.  Students would learn science, math, politics and history if they tackled such a project.  I’ll write about nuclear energy and its safety later this month…

For now, here’s the Google Earth place mark for Iitate, and a link to the report from Marco Werman.

It’s fun to learn about the world and record what you learn using Google Earth.  School should be fun, because learning about the world is fun.  Learning what other people think is important is a little less fun.

Oh, and for homework, rather than doing what a teacher thinks is important (such as “read this short article about Alexander the Great”), students should have multiple options — 1) read the Geraldine Brooks book for an hour, 2) look into the history of nuclear power (if you did this, here’s a great starting point from the BBC), 3) watch the TED talk about art in Iran and learn more about Iran’s modern history.

At the school I plan to open, all students would read great literature and compelling essays, learn vocabulary, and study math to prepare for the next day — but there would also be variation in HW according to individual interests, and students would regularly assign themselves homework that followed up on areas that piqued their interest from the morning session (or from some other aspect of their lives).  The key is that students engage and learn on a regular basis, building skills as they go so that they can eventually teach themselves.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to What is history? Why we need to hook students with current events

  1. Ric Murry says:

    This is among the five best posts I have ever read on how to teach history, social studies, current events, etc.

    I teach students in a grade 7 social studies class in Georgia. Tiananmen Square is a part of our standards, but as you say elsewhere, it is such a glossing of the content that most will never have the inkling to dig further. I do show an hour-long documentary on Tank Man. The kids love it! It sparks conversation, questions, and wonder.

    It is interesting how you included Iran (something else we teach in Georgia), and how democracy was ended there. As events unfolded beginning on January 25, in Egypt, several of my students wanted to know what was going on.

    The #1 question from students was something to the effect of, “Why is the United States so concerned about this if what the people of Egypt want is a democracy.”

    Our kids, given the right setting, want to know more about modern history, current events, and social issues. As I tell them at the beginning of the year, “The only subject that really matters is social studies” (hyperbole intended). Everything that people are interested in, argue about, and fight over comes back to a social studies/history concept.

    Thanks for this magnificent post. I am passing it along to the other Social Studies teachers in my school.

    BTW – Where is the school you will be opening? I might need to apply. 🙂

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