History Education in a World of Information Surplus

My PLN colleague Liz Becker (@Ellsbeth) kindly wrote yesterday on her excellent blog All Who Wonder are Not Lost: History is Dead, Long Live History about how my post about math education (“…Long Live Mathematics!“) could be applied to¬† history. I’m grateful for her post, and I think we’re reading each others’ minds. I’ve been meaning to write about history education in the 21st century for awhile, but am holding off. Not because I don’t know what to say, but because I have SO MUCH to say. To be clear, I am nearly at the point where I think ALL of history education needs to be rethought. In light of the realities of the 21st century, I think history education needs a complete overhaul. I’ll write about this in detail in a future post, but for now, how ’bout this for a grenade: all history classes should be interdisciplinary courses about current events, taught backwards. As I said, I’ll explain in a future post.

As a history teacher, of course it makes sense for me to say that I frequently think about what a good education in history should be. But it’s been on my mind much more than usual lately. I’ve been in a deep inquiry about what students should leave high school knowing, given that they’ll live in a world where historical facts are always at their fingertips.

Liz states the inquiry quite well in her blog post: “…how much we should shift the approach to teaching history if, through technology, students have much easier access to the facts than in the past?

As I’m sure Liz and most readers would agree, an excellent education in history should never have been construed as just memorizing facts. Yes, remembering names of historical figures and key events is important, but there’s much more to good history than that.

So what should a 21st century education in history be?

Let me start by explaining how my recent inquiry has been motivated by three things. First, I’ve noticed over the last couple years that I rarely pull a History Primary Source Reader off the shelf for my students. Instead, I find excellent sources online. I just can’t find a Reader that gives my students all the relevant primary sources the World Wide Web can. Second, my department is engaged in a curriculum review process this year that has taken us to some very fundamental questions, like: should we attempt to cover the whole history of all human time between 7th and 11th grade (when our required courses end)? should we be focused on “coverage” or on “meaning-making”? what should students know and be able to do upon graduation? is it more important they know a lot of historical facts or that they can think like historians?

And thirdly, a couple week ago I ran across this excellent TEDx talk by Diana Laufenberg. She is a Social Studies teacher at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA, where the curriculum is inquiry-driven, project-based, and focused on 21st-century learning. Though her talk is ostensibly about learning from mistakes, I think she’s making an important point about history education. She begins by stating the obvious, but what most history education standards don’t yet acknowledge – students don’t need to come to school to find historical information:


Laufenberg: “The main point is that if we continue to look at education as if it is about coming to school to get the information… we’re missing the mark.

Like computers can do the computing for mathematical problems, the internet is a better source for historical facts than textbooks or teachers alone. Primary sources abound on the net, and a well-trained history teacher can help students acquire the skills necessary to determine which sources are accurate and relevant, and how to make their own historical narratives out of the abundant facts.

Yes, remembering names of historical figures and key events is important, but not as essential as learning to think like a historian. Students should engage with the truly essential facts of history frequently in the process of making their own historical narratives. I can envision students dealing with tricky historical inquiries about the origins of the Tea Party movement, and coming to grips with facts about southern and rural libertarianism, for example. Certainly, students in a well-designed 21st century history course would retain important facts of history.

Much more valuable than facts is the ability to do historical inquiry – to formulate questions in response to problematic facts, research, then analyze and evaluate conclusions in light of the facts, and create one’s own historical interpretation. Or, to tweak the process slightly, to evaluate historical claims using information literacy skills.

Of course, teaching students to think like historians is not a revolutionary notion. Even those conservative voices advocating old-style “coverage” pedagogy claim that too is their goal. They lecture about a topic, then require students to read much of the same information from a textbook at home, before finally providing the key thought-provoking essay prompt: “Assess the validity of the claim that Jacksonian Democracy was about empowering ‘the people’.” Yes, to respond to the prompt is to think like a historian, for a moment.

But the problem of doing history this way in an age of information-surplus is that students spend much of their time as passive audience members, ingesting information, rather than grappling with it to find their own voices. Let’s be clear – it is inconceivable that students won’t have access to lecture information in the future: Wikipedia has every fact that I’ll cover in my AP U.S. History course this year, and if students want to hear an expert lecture they can always find one on iTunes University from Berkeley or MIT. So instead of coverage-style lecturing we need to use the very valuable classroom time to engage in deep inquiry about historical and current problems. Teachers should create powerful essential questions that require students to master information literacy skills they’ll need in a digital age, and to master historical inquiry. From these questions, students will behave as historians, researching, analyzing, evaluating, and creating DAILY. Isn’t that more valuable critical thinking than the odd essay question every few weeks between lectures?

Liz Becker and Laufenberg and correct. The 20th century history classroom has to change. In a world of information surplus, we must recognize that good history education must transform students into power information critics, able to evaluate claims and build their own truths from myriad facts.

14 thoughts on “History Education in a World of Information Surplus

  1. Mike,
    You had me at “all history classes should be interdisciplinary courses about current events, taught backwards” -a most creative “prequel” exploration of continuity and change!

    Your approach points to the instructional power of a provocative and essential question. I reminds me that shortly after the “end” of the Cold War I gave my AP Comp Gov’t seminars an assignment to “name the new era.” (Post Cold War – wouldn’t cut it). After much wrestling with the prompt, many of them made more insightful, and enduring, observations than Fukuyama’s “End of History.”

    “History Education in a World of Information Surplus” is a must read for thoughtful history teachers. I’m in the midst of planning an upcoming DBQ workshop for teachers. I intend to borrow liberally from it – but that’s why I call my blog “Copy / Paste.”

    Keep stirring it up!


  2. You are describing the approach that all teachers should take, I believe. Information is not in short supply. Understanding and obtaining meaning from the information always will be.

    “students spend much of their time as passive audience members, ingesting information, rather than grappling with it to find their own voices”

    Students won’t naturally grapple with anything. Their entire educational experience has been one of passivity. To ask them to take an active role runs counter to everything they “know” about school but it is the only way for true learning to happen.

    In fact, instead of teachers creating the essential questions, why not lead the students in creating their own relevant questions? After all, curriculums and textbooks are simply questions someone else has thought of. It seems to me that part of the buy-in process has to come from students seeking answers to their own questions. It isn’t easy, but it is so worth it.


    1. Bill,

      Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment.

      I think you’ve hit on an important point here. Namely, that students have been trained to be passive and don’t take naturally to grappling with problems to find solutions. It takes work to get them to do this, and the support of the whole schooling infrastructure. I’ve seen at my school of high-achieving students that when teachers move away from the “stand and deliver” model to one that is more constructivist/student-centered and moves the responsibility for learning to the student, that it isn’t readily welcomed – it’s more work for the students to be thinkers and workers, rather than simply stenographers who memorize and regurgitate for tests. Teachers need to be supported through the inevitable initial period of upset, and students need to be coached how to “achieve” in this new model.

      I agree with you that students coming up with their own essential questions is the best way to go. Thanks for the reminder!




  3. Whilst I agree with the basic tenet of your piece, I just wonder if place too much faith in students’ ability to elicit good history from the web? Whilst the reliance on wikipedia is an obvious concern from a teacher’s perspective, as we all know, many versions of the ‘truth’ are posted out there. You mention the need to determine which sources are accurate and relevant, which is absolutely essential, but i wonder if students need to establish the narrative first, before moving to the evaluative stage?

    I also wonder about boring old hardware accessibility issues….

    As i said at the top, I really like the idea, and will certainly attempt to experiment with it at some point this term. Thanks for the article.


    1. Neil,

      You’re right. We’re going to need to be very careful to help students determine what internet sites are valid, what sites pose as history sources but are really just spreading lies, etc. Teacher training must be enhanced so that we become literacy coaches. The surplus of information is not going away, and if we want students who can make sense of it all, we need to teach information literacy as an essential skill for citizenship.

      I’m confident students can make their own truth if we help them. I don’t want to believe that engaged students with the help of a smart teacher can not make their own meaning. If we concede that citizens can’t find truth on their own and must simply adopt someone else’s narrative of the truth (manipulative politicians, etc.), I fear for our democracy. We can and should present basic information and outlines of history, and then set students free with problems to investigate, from which they will come to their own conclusions. Document-Based Questions are a good way to do this, as an example.

      Agreed, access to the internet is crucial. Now that the web is so mobile, hopefully we can get schools to open up to it.

      Thanks for your comment.




  4. “all history classes should be interdisciplinary courses about current events, taught backwards”…. no explanation necessary. I ask the kids all the time if they are talking about this or that in their Social Studies classes….always “NO”! REAL WORLD LEARNING….we can get the facts of the past through the internet….we can’t get enough discussion of the PRESENT…in reference to the past. We are to LEARN from the past…not just “regurgitate it”!!


    1. Carole,

      So great to hear from you! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      It’s a disappointment to hear that some History classes are so divorced from students’ actual experiences of the world. We must change that if we want to engage them and help them see that knowledge of the past is helpful to the present. You and I both know how important Relevance is if you want to encourage Rigor in student thinking!




  5. Thanks for the excellent insights, Mike. A thought in response:
    Two key points from the blog: “Students should engage with the truly essential facts of history frequently in the process of making their own historical narratives.” And “In a world of information surplus, we must recognize that good history education must transform students into power information critics, able to evaluate claims and build their own truths from myriad facts.”
    “Building one’s own truth” vs. “discovering the truth”: this seems to be one of the great challenges of education and of life. Truth is much more than facts, and learning how to get at the “whole truth” of any issue is the real task.


    1. Chris,

      It’s an honor to have your comments on my blog. I certainly hope life is treating you well!

      You are absolutely correct to note that the search for truth is a complex, and lifelong task! Perhaps Socrates said it best when he encouraged his students to just keep on asking question after question. Perhaps wisdom comes then, over time? Hmm, a great philosophical discussion could be had here!

      Of course, if we want students to be truth-seekers, what better way than to have them engaged in an inquiry, constantly making meaning? It certainly beats passive ingesting of a lecture any day, in my opinion.



  6. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. We are doing much more student-centered approach with student questions and research driving the bus. I truly believe that what you describe is the reform that needs to happen. Still, it can feel like a little unsettling, in the face of colleagues who bemoan the loss of content and students who push back when asked to construct their understanding. Shifting what everyone believes learning history to be is essential. Every year I have to battle with students who see memorizing notes for a test as learning history. I look at terms lists from the past to see how much my teaching has changed. One problem is that with the old way of teaching content it was easier for students and teachers to measure success. We are having to work out a new way of measuring mastery, which can be a little scary. I am on board for the ride, but at times it is a pretty bumpy one.


  7. I am not sure how I missed this when it was posted but I am glad that I found it. My mind reals at what the classroom of the future might look like and I am crafting a new model in my mind every time I enter the classroom. more and more I see that the center of my classroom needs to be evaluation of multiple sources and perspectives. we have to divine the meaning behind all of the voices we are exposed to. I have added this post to the materials I review regularly that help me keep my eyes on the prize. Thanks for your help in formulating my path to get there.


  8. I agree that history (and other subjects) can and should be taught differently than the sage-on-the-stage model. Most teachers, old and new, understand that.

    The problems, however, are many: (1) students have to be introduced to the concepts before they can understand them well enough to go any further; there needs to be someone to do that. (2) Students will not necessarily research well – either the basic information or the conclusions that can be drawn from that information. Someone needs to help them do that. (3) Good research takes time; many schools don’t – particularly at the junior high/middle school and high levels – have 45 minute blocks that don’t lend themselves well to in-depth research. (4) Not all history is interesting to all people (young or old). There is simply stuff one has to know and memorizing it (so to speak) may be the only way to do so. (6) The whole test-taking accountability culture in this country doesn’t allow for much leeway from knowing just the facts.

    I think most adults who believe in the power of the internet don’t fully appreciate that our ability to use the tools is based on our backgrounds. Assuming that students will be able to access information without similar background information and skills is naive.


  9. Hi Mike,
    I’d be very much interested in hearing more about what you mean by “all history classes should be interdisciplinary courses about current events, taught backwards.” I teach high school Latin and part of what I teach is the Greco-Roman legacy in all areas of Western history and culture, including not just the arts, but also things like law, engineering, medicine and science. It’s probably not what you meant, but it always makes me nervous when I hear history teachers talk about reducing history to current events. Instilling that kind of myopia in students is worrisome to me. There is so much lost when that happens, including the ability to understand different perspectives as well as attaining a certain depth of knowledge in the way diachronic cultural transmission works.


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