Friday, August 29, 2008

Motivating Students to Learn History

2004 Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
New Jersey, USA

George Santayana, poet and philosopher, noted, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

HOOTSTEIN (1995) interviewed eighth-grade teachers about the strategies they used to motivate students to learn U.S. history. The 10 most frequently mentioned strategies were: having students role-play characters in historical simulations (mentioned by 83% of the teachers), organizing projects that result in the creation of products (60%), playing games with students as a way to review material for tests (44%), relating history to current events or to students' lives (44%), assigning students to read historical novels (44%), asking thought-provoking questions (33%), inviting guest speakers from the community (33%), showing historical videos and films (28%), organizing cooperative learning activities (28%), and providing small-scale hands-on experiences (28%).

Be Enthusiastic (Regularly)

A history teacher generated a great deal of interest by enthusiastically explaining to his students that during the Middle Ages, the Mediterranean Sea was the center of the world. Mediterranean seaports were major trade centers and places like England were outposts of civilization, but this changed drastically with discovery of the New World and the emergence of new centers of trade and culture. His presentation included references to maps, reminders about the primary modes of transportation at the time, and characterizations of the attitudes of the people and their knowledge about other countries and trade possibilities.

Another teacher brought ancient Israel alive by enthusiastically telling his students about David as the slayer of Goliath and ancestor of Jesus, Abraham leading his people to the Promised Land, Moses as the man who presented the Ten Commandments and led the people out of the wilderness, and Solomon as a wise man and builder of the (first) temple. This lesson included locating Jerusalem, Israel, and the Sinai peninsula on a map and speculating about whether the (third) temple (at the time of Jesus it was a second temple -- destroyed by the Romans in 70CE) might be rebuilt in modern Jerusalem (noting that a major Moslem temple is located next to the spot occupied by Solomon's temple.) In each of these examples, the teacher was able to parlay personal interest and detailed knowledge about a topic into an effective presentation that sparked interest and elicited many questions and comments.

First Jerusalem Temple (temple for all nations)

Romans destroy Jerusalem Temple 70 C.E.

Ruins of Second Temple

Induce Dissonance or Cognitive Conflict

If a topic is familiar, students may think that they already know all about it and thus may listen to presentations or read texts with little attention or thought. You can encounter this tendency by pointing out unexpected, incongruous, or paradoxical aspects of the content; by calling attention to unusual or exotic elements; by noting exceptions to general rules; or by challenging students to solve the "mystery" that underlies a paradox.

One teacher used dissonance to stimulate curiosity about the Persian empire by noting that Darius was popular with the people he conquered and asking students to anticipate reasons why this might be so. Another teacher introduced a selection on the Trojan War by telling students that they would read about "how just one horse enabled the Greeks to win a major battle against the Trojans." Another introduced a video on the fall of the Roman Empire by saying , " Some say that the factors that led to the decay (decadence) of the Roman Empire are currently at work in the United States -- as you watch the video, see if you notice parallels."

Romans (Centurions)

Romans of Decadence

United States history is full of opportunities to create dissonance, especially in students whose prior exposures have been confined to overly sanitized and patriotic versions of the subject. Exposure to topics such as the Trail of Tears, the Japanese Internment during World War II, or CIA involvement in undermining foreign governments can be startling eye openers for students, especially if approached not just as past history but as grist for discussions about whether such things might still happen today or what their implications might be for current and future government policy.

In 1838 the Cherokee were stripped of their rights and forced to move against their will on 'The Trail of Tears.'

Japanese Internment Camp (World War II)

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