(Re)Defining History Shapes our Teaching

In our very first blog we defined history. We’ve brought this blog up pretty consistently in other blog posts, too. History is not the past. History is the study of the past. Today, I want to pose that we history teachers take that definition seriously when designing our class lessons and unit plans.

In several past blogs we’ve also covered the importance of depth over breadth when teaching and that content coverage isn’t the end goal. We’ve even asked, “But what if the rigor, the analysis, the deep thinking was the essential content?” It is this essential content that we will teach if we truly teach history by its own definition.

Unfortunately, when most people hear that we are history teachers, they interpret that to mean that we are teachers of the past. Even more unfortunate? We often internalize this definition of our profession too. We get caught up in covering content so much that history and the past become interchangeable in our lessons and even our identities as teachers. But what if we truly internalized history’s proper definition? What would that look like?

When students came into our classrooms, they would learn how to study the past, not just know it. Their skills of analysis, thought, and writing would be cultivated. We would no longer be satisfied with creating walking encyclopedias, able to drop knowledge of past events when asked; rather, we would cultivate thinking citizens, equipped to analyze both the past and present. Our lessons would be rooted in cultivating those skills. The content would no longer be our end goal, but rather the means by which we teach our end goal: to think historically.

Sometimes grounding ourselves in simple definitions can shift our own paradigms and approaches in life. In the case of the history classroom, we as a profession need to re-ground ourselves in our discipline’s definition. If we don’t, we will quietly put ourselves out of a job. 

21st century technology has made merely knowing the past less and less essential. At any moment, I can pull out my phone and google almost any piece of historical information. But google can’t teach us how to navigate that information. Encyclopedias don’t teach critical thinking. But history can. At Thinking Nation, we want to revolutionize the history classroom, not into something completely new, but by reevaluating it in light of the discipline’s own definition. Let’s teach students how to study the past.