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3Qs: A ‘history’ lesson for educators

America’s students know less about U.S. history than any other academic subject, according to newly released test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. We asked Shaunna Harrington, a former high school history teacher in the Boston Public Schools who now serves as a full-time professor of education in the College of Professional Studies, to analyze and offer solutions to boost the slumping scores.

The nationwide assessment found 20 percent of fourth graders performed at or above the proficient level on the 2010 U.S. history test compared to only 12 percent of high school seniors. What can educators do to improve these scores?

I work with students who are training to become elementary school teachers. I tell them that there’s no reason why students can’t learn how to read, write and conduct research by studying history. We don’t want teachers to say, “We don’t have time to teach both language arts and history.” Instead, we want them to say, “How can we integrate these two subjects?”

Should changes in how history is taught come through public policy or through teacher training?

Both. Teachers often feel compelled to follow policy guidelines. But that affects what they are able to accomplish in the classroom. I often hear teachers say, “I love history and social studies, but I don’t have time to teach those subjects because of standardized testing.”

To be sure, teachers and teaching candidates need to develop strategies to integrate different subjects. Developing a great curriculum and strict standards will go a long way toward simultaneously teaching multiple disciplines.

How is a subject like history different from more heavily tested subjects, such as math and English? 

We’re still working under the assumption that history is only about memorizing facts. But a growing body of research on how kids learn history suggests that it’s actually more cognitively challenging than other subjects. History needs to be taught in a more student-friendly way. To do that, I think teachers need to focus on teaching historical facts in a conceptual way that allows students to grasp the big ideas. Students improve their ability to memorize and retrieve facts when they have learned them in contextually meaningful ways.