Balancing content and skills in the history classroom

Debates about what students should learn in the classroom reveal a tension between the importance of content and skill building in History teaching.  In “The History Curriculum in 2023” article, T. Mills Kelly argues that an emphasis on skill building is imperative to keeping History relevant in the 21st century. Students should develop historical thinking skills, and the ability to be critical of the past and present, in a way that can be integrated with technology. Kelly points to digital storytelling and interactive exhibits as examples of successful use of technology in telling history. History should be taught so that students get practice in doing history, and how to do so in a way that embraces prevalent technologies, and prepares students for the changing workplace.

Kelly suggests that the history classroom should provide students with the opportunity to make history in the same way the science lab allows students to conduct experiments. This would create an environment for active learning, where students could practice and develop their skills. Instead of thinking about technology as an obstacle to overcome, or awkwardly introduce, it should be seen as expanding the possibilities for teaching and making history. New technologies, such as digital exhibits, offer new means of teaching history in a more interactive and immersive way. Students also have the ability to practice making history and expressing it through different forms of media, like video games. This approach encourages skill building in practicing history, and using new technology, and these skills would serve to make students more viable in their future careers. An argument for skill development in the history classroom emphasizes its importance over the importance of teaching content.

Although the argument for teaching skills in the classroom is an important one, it is met with arguments that note the importance of teaching certain types of content to students. In the chapter “History in Education: Trends and Themes in Teaching History 1900-2010” by Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon, in the edited collection Debates in Teaching History, trace the history of teaching history to students in the UK. The authors found that what content was taught was contingent on political beliefs at any given time. Although early history education emphasized the history of nation and empire, by the interwar period, history teachers began to emphasize world history. This was seen as essential to preventing war. If students were aware of the world’s history, they would ideally learn from mistakes of the past, and avoid another world scale conflict in the future. The content in the course was also meant to create good citizens. The attitude towards what content is taught, reveals the belief that what students learn in the history classroom has larger social implications.

This reveals a tension between encouraging skill development and covering content to fills gaps in a student’s knowledge. While being able to make history is an undoubtedly valuable skill, there is also value to teaching certain content. If the history classroom did not cover the world, what would students leave school knowing about the global market they will all live and work in? If students did not learn about some of this nation’s more troubling and oppressive actions, would they become passive and unaware citizens? These are important questions to keep in mind, and these questions are further complicated by who decides what content is important. Those who hold the power to set content based curriculum effectively control what knowledge students will be exposed to.

Ideally, students should be taught in an environment that encourages skill building, including the ability to think critically, which would allow them to critically engage the content they are taught. If students question more, instead of passively receiving information, they can work to oppose the authoritative nature of standard curriculums. This approach is less about separating or creating opposition between skills and content, but provides opportunities for these elements to come together. X emphasized the serious need for history to remain relevant, and combination of skills can content can do so. Skills will keep history relevant for the abilities and approaches it can teach students. Learning to make history, and communicate it through growing technologies, will allow the student and the history class to stay relevant. Certain types of content will create students who are more aware and knowledgeable about their society and the world around them. History, and its ability to encourage critical thinking and introduce students to broad types of content make the discipline valuable and relevant in a rapidly changing society, where the value of teaching history is often under attack.

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