The Discovery that Could Change History Schooling:


After I left classroom teaching in 2010, I set out to understand why my teaching—and history schooling in general—seemed so ineffectual.  During six years of intensive investigation, I discovered a fundamental flaw at the heart of history education that prevents history schooling from fulfilling the purpose of schooling, and it helps to explain why society finds it so difficult to learn from history.  

School subjects other than history are based on teaching students general principles of knowledge—principles like the Pythagorean theorem in mathematics, verb-subject agreement in language, and gravity in science. Such general principles describe how the world works and thereby provide knowledge useful in the future. History lacks equivalent general principles of knowledge; they aren't found in textbooks, content standards, the Advanced Placement program, or any other formal program of history instruction that I encountered during three decades as a student and teacher of history.  (See The history profession doesn't recognize general principles of history.)

Would you agree that schooling exists to impart important knowledge of the world that can help students and society to function effectively in the future? Without general principles applicable to future situations, history schooling is unable to fulfill the purpose of schooling like math, language, and science do.  

History educators commonly try to compensate for history schooling's lack of subject-matter knowledge applicable in the future by emphasizing skills knowledge instead: critical thinking skills or the job skills of professional historians. Other core school subjects also have their critical thinking skills and professional practices, but in these other subjects, general principles form the foundation of learning because knowledge of how the world works is the necessary prerequisite to critical thinking. In history schooling, the foundation is missing.

Teaching can't be effective if instruction is incompatible with the way human minds work. Findings from cognitive science indicate that the transfer of knowledge from school to life beyond school is difficult to achieve, and it's most likely to occur when general principles are learned in multiple contexts over an extended period of time. This is how we learned to read, write, and do our sums in elementary school. The prevailing approach to history instruction—superficial coverage of large quantities of one-time events—can't produce the deep learning needed to render knowledge useful in the future. (See Research about learning transfer.)

History education's inability to supply useful knowledge explains  why history occupies a deeply inferior position in the schools relative to the other core subjects of mathematics, language, and science. (See: Comparison of core school subjects.)

Do general principles of historical knowledge exist? It's highly unlikely that history would be the only intellectual discipline not to have them. Is there any doubt that humans tend to position themselves along a political spectrum that ranges from conservative to liberal, or that people exhibit a tendency to fear, dislike, and mistreat people from groups different than their own? Such realities are grounded in the consistency of human nature and revealed through the historical record, which makes them general principles of historical knowledge. (See: Twenty examples of general principles of historical knowledge.)

Without general principles of knowledge, history schooling as now practiced  is unable to

     -impart knowledge applicable to future situations,

     -achieve the purpose of schooling,

     -be cognitively effective,

     -assume its rightful role as a fundamental realm of knowledge taught in school alongside mathematics, language, and science, and

     -provide students and society with important understandings derived from the long record of human experience.

As a result, society is "condemned," as Santayana put it, to keep repeating mistakes of the past.

-Mike Maxwell, August 2016


For related discussions, please visit:

What to teach and how to teach it.

A book about future-focused history teaching.

© 2001-2016 Michael G. Maxwell, Maxwell Learning LLC