What makes history stick


When I was in high school, I found history pretty dull. We spent a lot of time listening to lectures, watching filmstrips, taking notes, and regurgitating facts onto tests.

Only a small fraction of our time was spent debating historical questions (should we have dropped the bomb?) or participating in simulations (like a constitutional convention) — and even less reading about topics of interest to us.

These are common complaints, I know, but it’s too bad. History can be fascinating, if we would get out of the way and stop insisting that what interests teachers (or textbook writers) must be what matters to everyone.

This weekend I was able to visit the Museum of the City of New York, and it made me think about how we can make history more engaging to kids — and what the barriers are. The biggest challenge is our reliance on multiple-choice testing, which forces us to focus on the trees instead of the forest.

Here are a few thoughts on what the museum does right and why it’s hard for teachers to do the same.

  1. The museum was relevant. Why is this city here? Why did it become the financial center of America? The fashion center? The theatre center? Why is it so much more diverse than other American cities? Why did different immigrant groups settle different neighborhoods? How did the five boroughs become one city? Why are so many of the skyscrapers shaped the same? The museum answered so many current questions about New York I didn’t even know I had.
  2. The museum was interactive. I could call up information on certain people or places that interested me and ignore others. I was fascinated by Mme. Demorest, who invented tissue sewing patterns (but didn’t patent them). I’m sure lots of people walk right past her. I was also drawn to the images and stories of 1970s/80s New York — curious about how much of the city’s bad reputation in that era was deserved. (The answer: most of it.)
  3. The museum let me think, without telling me what to think about. A few times as I read a display, I thought about the multiple choice questions we would probably ask. Who were the first European settlers? What goods did they trade with the native people? Which ethnic group made up the largest segment of the population in 1920? Which mayor rescued the city from bankruptcy? Honestly, who cares? Maybe those specific questions are interesting to you, but why should that dictate what I get to learn?

Wouldn’t it be amazing if students could learn all of their history lessons this way, by just dipping into different places and eras and exploring what interested them?

I know they need some shared context — like, knowing when the U.S. declared independence from Britain or when slavery ended — but they can pick up so much of that by focusing on stories that interest them.

We’ll never get away from our obsession with simple facts, though, until we end our reliance on multiple choice testing. We can’t get students to focus on the big picture — questions like: How has New York managed to turn disaster into success over and over? What helped it flourish, while other cities like Detroit and Baltimore have struggled? — by asking small questions.

I just wish we could figure out a better way to help students see that learning history doesn’t have to be boring. We could learn a few things from the best museums.