History: Taught Poorly or too Little?

by Guest Blogger
January 13th, 2014

It’s one of those days when Jaywalking, Leno’s bit on the street that often pokes fun at ignorance, is worrying me. I have to remind myself that he probably has to stop a lot of people to get those silly answers to basic questions like “What is the name of the ship the Pilgrims came over on?”, that people must be nervous, and that the bit would not be funny if the audience (i.e., millions of people) did not know the answers.

Still, why does the bit resonate? Because there are far too many people who really don’t know basic facts. It’s easy to chuckle, but hard to stop worrying about them and their children.

Apparently readers of Education Week are worried too. As I was catching up on my end-of-year reading, I was surprised to see that a piece on students’ lack of history knowledge was #2 in a list of the 10 most-viewed Ed Week commentaries of 2013. The author, Vicky Schippers, claims that we’re teaching history wrong—as “a litany of disconnected names, dates, and events to be memorized before an exam” instead of as “a study of struggles, setbacks, and victories.” If that’s true, it’s a shame. I see history as a fascinating web of stories, and I’ve purposefully memorized key names, dates, and events to help anchor those stories in time and place—and to reveal connections.

Schippers, who tutors students, focuses on a dedicated young man struggling to pass the history regents’ exam in New York so he can get his diploma:

What astonishes me about Tony, as it does about any of my students, is how little he knows about the world. The five or six blocks he travels between his home, school, and work circumscribe his entire life….

When we first started to study together, Tony, like all my students, had no sense of U.S. presidents, the sequence of wars in which the United States has been involved, the U.S. Constitution and the structure of government, and the central issues over which our democracy has struggled since we separated from England more than two centuries ago.

He knew the name Abraham Lincoln, but drew a blank when I asked him which war Lincoln was associated with. He was unfamiliar with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Segregation and civil rights were not concepts he could articulate.

Is that Lincoln crossing the Delaware? If your exposure were limited to the six blocks around your home, how would you know?

It could be that all of Tony’s history classes consisted of terribly boring facts that Tony decided not to memorize. But I’d guess that at least some of Tony’s teachers delivered the facts along with the struggles and stories—and I’d guess that Tony’s listening and reading comprehension were too limited to follow along. Rather than making a spectacle of himself with strings of clarifying questions, Tony probably sat in the back of the class, with confusion understandably leading to disengagement.

With Schippers tutoring him, in contrast, Tony asks questions. Schippers doesn’t have a full class to handle; she answers each question directly, making connections between Tony’s life and the content he needs to learn. She’s clearly helping him—but we should ask: What could have been done to prevent Tony from needing a tutor?

Schippers could be right that Tony got very unlucky with his history teachers. But I have reason to believe that there’s more than one cause of his devastating lack of knowledge. I’d bet that Tony received little to no history instruction in elementary school, leaving him with little to no historical knowledge and vocabulary, and little to no chance of comprehending history classes in later grades.

Consider this table from the Report of 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education:

Average Number of Minutes per Day Spent Teaching Each Subject in Self-Contained Classes, by Grades

Number of Minutes

Grades K-3

Grades 4-6

Reading/Language Arts









Social Studies



(Source: Report of 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, Chapter 4, Table 4.2, page 54.)

One to two hours per week on social studies between kindergarten and sixth grade?! That’s shockingly low—but Tony could have had even less since these are averages.

In the 2010 NAEP Civics assessment, teachers of fourth graders were asked how much time they spent on social studies each week. Three percent reported spending 30 minutes or less per week; another eighteen percent reported 30 – 60 minutes per week.

So maybe Tony doesn’t know any history not because it wasn’t taught well in secondary school, but because it wasn’t taught at all in elementary school.


Part 2: The High Cost of Ignorance


  1. History is taught too little AND too poorly. Most history teachers are teaching “out of field.” And, as for the best way for students to learn history—having them read actual history books and write real history term papers….well, we don’t believe in doing that.

    Will Fitzhugh

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — January 13, 2014 @ 11:23 am

  2. Your model Tony had lots of “history” as most people see that subject. Unfortunately, it no longer is a matter of memorizing sequences, names, places, or facts. Those can all be found in less than 30 seconds on a “smartphone” costing less than $50.

    What is not on those smartphones is context, curiosity, the the “stories” that make hi-story worth the effort. No memorizing will give the flavor of the food in a concentration camp, the smells of a box at the Met in 1920, the noise of cannons in … almost any war until Vietnam. Those are the MEAT of history, and building sequences, names, places, dates, geography, economics, sociology and anthropology from such meat is the real responsibility of teaching. But that’s no longer what teachers do. Instead they start with the skeleton – the “common core” – and never get to flesh.

    They also presume that it’s important to know about Washington before Lincoln before Wilson before Roosevelt, when…it isn’t. It is critical to know what each did and why, but their sequencing can come later, after familiarity. The kind of familiarity we should feel – and note it’s damn hard to memorize a feeling – should inspire questions of sequence, to see where those we get to know found out what we like to know about them.

    And The Concord Review is a great place to look, and would be lots better with more online material. It is more than a little elitist to charge $20 for an issue. Unless you want that elitism to be your message, an online version – ideally with videos as well as writing and graphics and with dialog and feedback, much like your blog but with more comments, and ideally in a few different languages while your at it – will get that message to lots more people, and they’ll be a lot more varied than you’ll find in Concord or Lincoln. More like Framingham.

    Comment by Joe Beckmann — January 13, 2014 @ 11:58 am

  3. The cover price of The Concord Review is so elitist that my average salary for the last 26 years has been $10K a year, perhaps less than that of my critic. Speaking of MEAT, he should try producing a quarterly scholarly journal at the high school level sometime. I taught before for ten years in a high school and I do know some educators feel everything should be free, but I found in publishing this unique journal that it doesn’t work like that. And no one (including Mr. Beckmann) wants to fund this effort. Is he a subscriber? Perhaps not.

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — January 13, 2014 @ 12:35 pm

  4. Also, there are 60 essays online on the website (free for nothing) and for variety we have published 1,088 history research papers on a huge range of topics by students from 46 states and 39 other countries (not just Concord and Lincoln). No videos or tweets or cartoons or graphics or other popular ED toys, of course, just serious academic work by diligent HS students of history from all over the world. Mr. Beckmann should read one of the papers sometime.

    Will Fitzhugh

    Comment by Will Fitzhugh — January 13, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

  5. Such a common complaint from the SS side. While I don’t disagree with the concern of the article, where is the outrage over the lack of science education. Might that also be too little and poorly taught? What is the chance that an elementary teacher might have a degree in history versus a degree in biology, chemistry or physics … or should I ask if they might have taken a course in any of those areas? Whenever people are teaching outside their field, they rely on the text. Almost better to skip the subject all together … oh, maybe that’s what they’re doing.

    Comment by ewaldoh — January 13, 2014 @ 3:10 pm

  6. For the last 12 years, under the Bloomberg/Klein control of the NYC schools, principals were given the power to decide what subjects to teach. Because of the pressure they put on the teachers and principals to have their student’s do well on the Reading and Math standardized tests, most principals eliminated Music and Art and drastically reduced the time devoted to Social Studies and Science. The principals then required their teachers to spend this time using test-prep materials to prepare their students for the Reading and Math tests.
    We must drastically reduce the use of standardized tests and require all schools to teach all subject areas.

    Comment by David J. Krupp — January 13, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

  7. [...] Many elementary schools spend little time on history, writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge Blog. Students don’t develop the historical knowledge or vocabulary to understand history when it’s introduced in later grades. [...]

    Pingback by ‘You have to know history to teach it’ — Joanne Jacobs — January 14, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

  8. David Krupp’s comment also goes for for many CA schools. I have talked with teachers who were only allowed to teach reading and math, reading and math, and that holds most true for the schools with the most struggling kids. I don’t really understand why the children can’t read about history and science, but apparently that’s not how it goes?

    Comment by dangermom — January 14, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

  9. There are several aspects to this problem. In Europe (and in many other countries around the world), history crowds around you and doesn’t let you get away. There are dilapidated castles, old towns, ruins of war, churches whose very architecture reveals their era and denomination, etc. You still hear people reminiscing about WWII. Kids learn history not only at school, but from relatives, friends, and surroundings.

    That’s not entirely absent here, but one finds much less of it. History is easier to ignore. In addition, many (though by no means all) immigrants to this country chose to forget some of their history; others had it cut off from them, without their choosing.

    I had no learning deficits growing up, yet I was (or seemed) terrible at history. I could learn languages, math, and music with ease. But when it came to remembering historical details, it didn’t matter what I tried. If I memorized facts, I forgot them soon afterward (and usually before the test). If I put stories together, I later went blank over the details. If I asked myself questions about the stories or facts, I still forgot the stories and facts (though not the questions). Yet I loved history; I began reading Hofstadter and Boorstin in my junior year of high school.

    What I realized, over time, is that history requires immersion, repetition, and building, much like languages. It also seems to involve a particular kind of thinking and intellectual ability, different from mathematical thought or musical thought. Languages come relatively easily to some, and history to others. However, those who don’t learn a subject easily can still learn it over time, with a combination of discipline and extensive exposure.

    I hope CK persists with the practice of exposing children to ideas and works across the subjects–without demanding a measurable outcome all the time. When kids get to take in stories, historical narratives, and poems, they build a basic foundation and develop an ear and a mind for these subjects. Right now our schools are so obsessed with goals and outcomes that they’re nervous about letting kids absorb language, ideas, and stories. They’re nervous about lessons that don’t result in the attainment of a specific and measurable aim. Of course it’s important for students to produce work and show what they have learned–but that should not have to happen every time. There should be room for students to take things in.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 14, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

  10. [...] via History: Taught Poorly or too Little? « The Core Knowledge Blog. [...]

    Pingback by History: Taught Poorly or too Little? « The Core Knowledge Blog | The Echo Chamber — January 15, 2014 @ 2:40 am

  11. I would add a thought to Diana’s comment. I had a similar experience with “history” as a student … as did my son. Later he majored in Art History. It then occurred to me that neither of us had a problem with “history” but rather with the practice of only teaching the history of government and politics— which some will never develop a liking to as adults.
    My major was in the sciences and I am conversational in the history of all areas. I was interested in the who, why, what and when of the developments of ideas I studied in the present. I was not interested in those “facts” that applied to things that did not and do not interest me today.

    Comment by ewaldoh — January 15, 2014 @ 9:35 am

  12. [...] Hansel’s outstanding blog post on the decline in time spent on History  in American schools made reference to a super popular blog post over at EdWeek called “We’re [...]

    Pingback by A Vast Army of Terracotta Warriors: Just How DO We Teach History? « Teach Like a Champion Teach Like a Champion — January 16, 2014 @ 6:45 am

  13. The problem is not that 83 minutes are taught in English, but that part of that does not include either history or science. Literacy is not just confined to literary works. For example my daughter’s science classes included sections on greek and latin roots of science words. Her English and Humanities course are connecting Gilgamesh and ancient history. There was not enough connection of these ideas in her elementary program, but I do see it happening now.

    Comment by DC Parent — January 16, 2014 @ 2:50 pm

  14. Just because students needn’t memorize endless dates and facts, doesn’t mean they need to know NO dates.

    I have had a friend with a Ph. D. in English who didn’t know whether Alexander the Great was before or after Jesus Christ. Which is basically the same as not knowing when Alexander the Great was.

    There is no reason that, say, between third and fifth grades, children cannot be responsible for a few dates — five maybe — to provide some structure for his or her knowledge. The end of the ice age, the pyramids, Babylon, Athenian Democracy, Hellenism (Alexander), or, and Rome, or the first Emperor of China, etc. Most everyone knows the date of the birth of Christ and Columbus’s landfall in the New World. This is a lot less to memorize than the times tables and I can’t for the life of me see why people, even teachers, of all people, are so dead set against it.

    Comment by Harold — January 30, 2014 @ 6:27 pm

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