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What do students want to learn? Try asking them

Written By | Jan 16, 2016

WASHINGTON,  Jan. 16, 2016 – One of the greatest challenges facing history teachers, or really any teacher today, is how to keep students engaged. Universities offer classes on it, teachers attend conferences on it, countless hours go into the effort to answer this question.

But with the advent of technology in the classroom, the use of iPads and the power of the personal cell phone, I find myself asking a new question.

How do I, as teacher, compete?

How on earth do I compete with iPads, reality TV, Twitter, and all of the other manifestations of the tech generation? I am only 12 or so years older than my students, and I feel as if we are an entire generation apart.

At times, I feel like the Spartans at Thermopylae, making a stand to hold the pass against the onslaught of technologically proficient but otherwise completely ignorant rampaging horde of mindless zombies. As it stands now, my experiences with this part of my generation have given me little hope for the future.

It has been said that you have to stand for something, or you will fall for anything.

If kids cannot be bothered to get their faces out of their screens,  it does not seem like they will be making stands anytime soon.

I really do not blame them. When it comes to engaging students in history it is an uphill battle. I am constantly changing my lessons and approaches, I am always trying to find new angles. But sometimes, by that I mean all the time, it is difficult to find ways to make the discovery of corn exciting.

So I began trying to find other classes, maybe some more interesting ones, that I could look into offering. I began looking at different states and how they approach history. I found that on most state websites that offer course descriptions, offerings were few and far between.

For the most part, students take U.S. history, world history, geography, and then econ and government. If students want to take international relations or AP European history, that is an elective.

It is no wonder that they are not interested.

In an age where you can summon the collective pantheon of all the entertainment ever to exist in the world to your fingertips, offering the same things over and over again will quickly lose its appeal.

But then I thought I would bring this issue to them. In class today I asked them one simple question.

What do you want to learn?

I asked if you had the choice to pick a topic to take a history class on, that was not world history or U.S. history or government, what would you choose to learn? I asked the same question in every single one of my classes, and every single class sprang into discussion.

Answers to these questions were coming so fast I could not write all of them down. They wanted a class on the Vikings, on Rome, on the history of entertainment, mythology, political activism and so on and so on.

The answers were diverse and for a time, ceaseless. Finally we had to stop and talk about a few so we could refine our answer.

In the end, there were four or five recurring themes, a few of which struck me as very interesting.

They wanted

  • Military history
  • Ancient History
  • Revolutions and
  • How empires rise and how they fall.

But one of the most important and constant things I heard was they wanted to take a class on either terrorism or world politics. When I asked why, the resounding response was because they wanted to know what is going on in the world.

It dawned on me that for the most part students do not delve into current events in history class. In world history and U.S. history, we are only expected to go to the Reagan era. Many schools, from conversations I have had with other teachers, are lucky to make it to the Cold War. But very few classes discuss things such as terrorism, the Middle East, the energy crisis or American and global politics.

These students want to know why the world is the way it is, and I sincerely believe that the traditional approach to history cannot serve that purpose.

What we can do is offer small, semester-long courses that are electives and supplement the all-encompassing courses that the states require students take.

We should offer:

  • Military History,
  • Conflict in the 20th Century,
  • The History of Revolutions,
  • The Fall of Rome,
  • Ancient Japan

And anything else to get students to actually be interested in the class that demands that they sit in an uncomfortable chair for an hour a day and not stare at their screens. We owe it to them, and we owe it to future generations of voters to get kids interested in their past.

It sounds haughty, and it sounds heavy-handed, but it is either rethink the way we teach high school history or allow our kids to learn their history on their iPads.

Conor Higgins

Conor Higgins has a BA from Catholic University in DC and an MA form George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, both in history. When he not getting his hands dirty in 2nd Amendment and firearms news he is doing his best to take a crack at some drive-by political analysis. And every now and then he may or may not review a low end bourbon for the tax write off. Sit back, relax, and enjoy Back Porch Politics.