A Better Way to Teach History

One professor is borrowing a method from Harvard Business School to engage students and inspire better decision-making skills.

Asmati Chibalashvili / wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock/Library of Congress / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic

In a spacious classroom in Aldrich Hall on the Harvard Business School campus, 100 students are passionately discussing a case called “Battle Over a Bank.” But these aren’t MBA students deliberating over how much the government should regulate the financial sector. This group of mostly undergraduates, guided by the award-winning Harvard Business School professor David Moss, is diving into the fierce 1791 debate over whether the Constitution could be interpreted to allow the fledgling U.S. government the power to form a bank at all.

This class, “History of American Democracy,” is no pedestrian historical survey course. It uses the case method—the business school’s signature teaching technique—to immerse undergraduates (as well as a limited number of HBS students) in critical episodes in the development of American democracy.

The field of history is often dismissed as dull, but educators like Moss are experimenting with innovative teaching strategies to teach history in a way that is effective, exciting, and productive. There’s “Reading like a Historian,” based at Stanford and aimed at the K-12 level, which explicitly hones the ability to take primary sources and interpret, construct meaning, recognize competing narratives, and contextualize as a historian would. “Reacting to the Past,” started at Barnard College by Mark Carnes, is a student-centered college curriculum consisting entirely of role-playing games. “Facing History and Ourselves,” which grew out of a course focused on the Holocaust, uses a multi-pronged approach to get young people in grades six through 12 thinking about the ramifications of genocide and mass violence as a way of reflecting on moral choices they themselves face in their own lives.

History education generates heated controversy among educators and policymakers. There is a long history of tension over which historical facts children should be learning in school and when, whether a particular set of proposed standards is too patriotic, too multicultural, or whitewashes uncomfortable truths. Controversies over the content and nature of what children are learning often fall along political lines: The Michigan State Board of Education recently delayed voting on its new social-studies standards because of a controversy over whether liberal bias was behind proposals to include civil rights in the curriculum before high school, while in Texas, critics repeatedly accuse textbook authors of reflecting conservative political views in their coverage of topics such as religion or slavery.

Perhaps the most major current-day divide falls along the lines of content versus skills: Should history classes be about acquiring facts and information, or should they emphasize historical thinking abilities and processes? And if the latter, which skills and how might they best be taught? While a positivist view of history—the 19th-century notion that history was akin to a science, and that the accumulation of historical facts would eventually lead to an objective understanding of events—fell out of favor long ago, this idea seems to remain the operative assumption behind traditional history curricula that emphasize content, chronology, and comprehensiveness.

According to Bob Bain, a professor of history and education at the University of Michigan and faculty lead on the Big History Project, the debate over factual content versus skills—one that has actually waxed and waned ever since history emerged as a field of study a century and a half ago—pertains to a false dichotomy. “You can’t do historical thinking without facts, and you can’t acquire stuff without some sort of historical thinking,” he points out. A good history teacher can teach both effectively, agrees Elaine Carey, a history professor at St. John’s University and the former vice president of the teaching division of the American Historical Association. She emphasizes that teachers can teach “skills through content,” and that you “can’t understand historical continuity if you don’t have historical knowledge.”

The case method goes beyond historical skills and factual content; it aims to hone decision-making skills. Each case is a concentrated story about a specific episode in history. Students are asked what they would have decided had they been, say, an advocate arguing for compulsory public education in 1851, or Theodore Roosevelt deciding whether to intervene in a dispute between labor and industry in 1901. It’s not until after they have fully discussed the case that the historical outcome is revealed to them. (Class participation, even though it is mandatory, is enthusiastic: “We can have 40 hands in the air at any given moment,” Moss tells me.)

Few students think about history that way, according to Moss. Instead, they’re often taught that “what happened is what happened.” Unlike with many history courses, where students look back at historical events students in Moss’s course “play history forward. If you were in that place as that voter, that labor leader, or that congressperson, what decision would you have made?”

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One of the reasons American children often appear to struggle in history, Bain says, is because their knowledge is primarily assessed through multiple-choice tests. Multiple-choice assessment, by nature, often privileges factual content over historical thinking. “If you’re testing historical content out of context, that might explain why they don’t do so well,” Bain says. He advocates embracing the use of narrative—even if that narrative is flawed or one-sided. “The grand narrative is pejorative to many in the historical profession—people say that it tries to inculcate a particular viewpoint in kids. But having a big picture or story is cognitively critical to historical knowledge.”

Similarly, history textbooks appear omniscient and objective, and tend to gloss over competing narratives. But educators say that understanding whose narrative is being told helps students to engage with it; even if it is wrong or they disagree with it, the narrative provides context and a more effective way to learn and remember. “The argument I make all the time is, it’s like if I were to ask someone to assemble a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle without the box-top picture of it. You could of course eventually put it together but the effort to match shapes and colors on each piece would be monumental, and you’d likely give up quite quickly. Such is what happens to many kids in school.”

It’s difficult to track down research corroborating the academic benefits of the case method, but anecdotal evidence speaks to its power. Moss tells me he has observed the results of story-based teaching in his classroom. “People remember cases incredibly well—and often at a level of detail that’s almost shocking. Stories stick in the mind, and when you learn history with a focus on particular stories it’s much easier to remember the pieces around them.”

David Kaufman, a student who took the course last year, says that discussing history through a series of cases allowed the students to “focus a lot more on the process than on, say, the actual legislative result, which I think was much richer.” It is well known that stories aid learning because of how memory is structured. The cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote of two modes of knowing: paradigmatic and narrative; with the latter, attention and emotion influence the strength of a memory. Stories activate emotion, which helps students stay engaged and remember. They also feed the human need to fit things into a coherent structure in order to make meaning of them.

All this makes the case method promising for high school, too, and some of Moss’s cases were indeed adopted for use by history teachers at public and private high schools in a pilot program beginning early last year. One of the participants, Eleanor Cannon, a history teacher at St. John’s School in Houston, expressed astonishment at how students who never thought of themselves as history types before grew to love history. “I’ve never had this experience as a teacher before, and it’s explicitly due to the case method—it’s a game changer.” Rather than merely know which decisions historical figures made, her students now understood why. Facts she had taught multiple times, such as that the Constitution was not handed down intact by the founders but emerged from a protracted period of intense tumult, debate, and compromise, made visceral sense now after students read and discussed a case on James Madison and the making of the Constitution. (As one student told Cannon, “I didn’t realize how much they argued!”)

Moss compares immersion in case after case to batting practice that helps train judgment. The idea is to help students develop an instinct for how to respond even to problems—whether they be furor over same sex marriage or a massive financial crisis—that feel unprecedented. Through sheer repetitive exposure to problems and problem-solving, students learn the art of decision-making—and develop better judgment—in “much the same way as you might learn a language. It’s not an algorithm, it’s the development of an instinct—at least in part,” says Moss. They also provide historical perspective when looking at problems today.

Take the current debate over immigration. Although none of Moss’s cases focuses principally on immigration, themes of exclusion/inclusion are woven throughout, potentially reminding readers that unpleasant historical episodes have happened again and again. A group of people will become accepted into the fold, only to see the fire turned on another one; who the “threatening” outgroup is always changing. “You can see it as deeply disturbing,” Moss says, “that there always seemed to be an outgroup that some Americans looked down upon, but you could also see that there is an ongoing process of expanding tolerance, over time. This doesn’t create an excuse for bigotry—absolutely not—but it does give you a little hope that when there is bigotry it’s not necessarily permanent; there is a chance to get past it, group by group, with the result eventually being a broader, more tolerant society.”

One of Moss’s arguments about democracy is that it is far more complex than people tend to realize—that “it is not a machine built to specification.” Instead, democracy can be understood as a living organism that thrives on productive tension, engagement, and change. Without movement, it would die. Moss mentions the de facto national motto first suggested in 1776 by Benjamin Franklin: E Pluribus Unum. “Out of many, one.” Franklin saw difference that achieves common purpose as a core strength of the country. If one were to apply this analogy to history, ongoing debates about how to teach it only enhance the field—as long as educators remain committed to the same shared goal of helping students understand the past in order to face the future. “The best ideas come out of tension, out of disagreeing,” Moss tells his students. “Tension is what ensures the best ideas win out.”