What to teach and how to teach it

Shortly after I started

this website in 2001, I

added articles that

addressed the questions

of what to teach in

history classes and how

to teach it. Those articles extended

across five web pages and included a lot of verbiage.

After I left classroom teaching in 2010, I set out to understand why my teaching—and history teaching in general—seemed to be so inefectual. Seven years of concentrated investigation focused my thinking, and today I plan to address the questions of what to teach and how to teach it on just this one page.

Galileo by Jordan

What to teach

Those original articles

from 2001 were based on what I gleaned from examining over a hundred sources about history education. Taken together, they indicated that the proper body of knowledge to be taught in history classrooms consisted of three basic components:

     -conceptual frameworks

     -a chronological narrative

     -thinking strategies

I continue to believe these elements provide a reasonable framework for thinking about history teaching, so let's look at each one in turn.

Conceptual frameworks

Conceptual frameworks are useful tools because they identify and organize salient features in the environment to help us better understand the environment and function more effectively within it.

Conceptual frameworks useful in history instruction include maps that organize spatial information, timelines that organize events along the dimension of time, and a chronological narrative that organizes historical events into a story of human experience.

My recent investigation into history education identified two additional conceptual frameworks—essential frameworks—that other school subjects have, but history schooling does not:

     -a coherent, useful purpose

     -general principles of knowledge

A coherent, useful purpose

Various historians and history educators disagree about the basic purpose of history schooling. (See: Lack of agreement about the purpose of history education.)

Without a coherent purpose to guide instruction, history schooling is a rudderless ship with no destination in mind. It's difficult to succeed at an endeavor when you don't know what that endeavor is trying to accomplish.

What is the rightful purpose of historical learning?  I'll leave that question to thinkers ranging from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides to Thomas Jefferson to the contemporary historian of education Diane Ravitch. These and many other smart people have agreed that knowledge of the past should inform judgment in the future.*

Any society that has developed the capacity to destroy most life on Earth needs all the good judgment it can get, and there is no better place to seek it than in the long record of human experience.

General principles of knowledge

Fostering judgment is clearly a desirable goal, but how might this good intention be turned into a practical reality?  It would require wisdom derived from experience. In other words, it would require general principles of historical knowledge applicable to future situations.

General principles are the basis of learning in school subjects other than history—principles like the Pythagorean theorem in mathematics, verb-subject agreement in language, and laws of motion 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, or the Advanced Placement program. (See: The history profession does not recognize general pinciples 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 the future, history schooling is unable to adequately fulfill the purpose of schooling.  

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 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 absent.

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 people tend to position themselves along a political spectrum that ranges from conservative to liberal, or that humans exhibit a tendency to fear, dislike, and mistreat people from groups different than their own? These 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.)

History education's present lack of a coherent, useful purpose and general principles of knowledge likely 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.)

The chronological narrative

Humans in general—and history schooling in particular—seem to have a compelling need to organize historical events into a chronological narrative that offers an overview of human experience through time. This need is expressed through the textbooks and content standards that have long determined the structure and content of history courses.

The problem with these narratives is that they are too loaded with facts and events for students to make sense of history. Too comprehensive to be comprehensible, they induce historical myopia that prevents students from seeing the forest for the trees. Students are left unable to place past events and events of their own time within the broad context of human experience.

The solution to this problem is a historical narrative broad enough to include the multiple contexts needed for students to understand and internalize general principles of historical knowledge, and concise enough to be assimilable by the human mind. One attempt to provide such a narrative is the Student's Friend concise narrative of world history available free on this website.

How to teach it

Cognitive science

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. (See: Research about learning transfer.)

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.

Cognition (how students learn) joins with history's lack of general principles of knowledge (what student's learn) to compound the disturbing reality of history education: There is little point in teaching a school subject that doesn't provide usable knowledge.

What, then, is the point of history education as now practiced?  The main point of history schooling appears to be requiring students to memorize facts for the next big exam,** facts that may be forgotten shortly after the exam is over.

This approach to education amounts to pretend learning, in contrast to the more demanding process of a) learning important knowledge, b) retaining it in memory, and c) using it in life.  Which is real learning.


Thinking strategies

If we want students to become competent at applying their historical learning to situations encountered in life, we need to give students practice in doing so.

Such practice might begin with source-analysis activities that examine a given historical or contemporary issue from various perspectives. This research can provide background knowledge useful for understanding the specific situation under study.

Then, students can call upon their understanding of human development through time to place the situation in historical perspective, and they can consider which general principles of historical knowledge might provide useful insights applicable to the situation at hand.

In this way, students can acquire experience in combining analysis skills with historical knowledge to arrive at informed judgments about human affairs.

Bringing it all together

Based on my understanding of the history-teaching enterprise, these are essential components needed for effective history instruction:

    a. A coherent and useful purpose to guide instruction, namely, fostering judgment in human affairs.

     b. General principles of historical knowledge that describe how the world works and how humans behave, principles useful for informing future judgment.

     c. General principles learned in multiple contexts over an extended period of time.

     d. Maps.  (See: Outline maps and more.)

     e. A big-picture timeline depicting major stages of human development. (See: Four Eras timeline.)

     f. A comprehensible narrative of human experience through time.  (Such as the Student's Friend.)

     g. Practice in combining analysis skills with historical knowledge to arrive at informed judgments.

These ideas are further explored in my book Future Focused History, scheduled for release in 2017.  For more information, click here.

-Mike Maxwell, May 2017


*Those who have identified the purpose of historical learning as fostering judgment include:

The pioneering historian Thucydides of ancient Greece, who identified his mission as providing "knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future."1

Thomas Jefferson, in his education plan for the citizens of Virginia, wrote, "History, by apprising them of the past, will enable them to judge of the future. It will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men"2

Woodrow Wilson said that history's highest aim is to endow society with "the invaluable mental power we call judgment."3

The respected Bradley Commission on History in the Schools declared, "the study of the past is essential to informed judgment and democratic citizenship."4

Jacques Barzun, a founder of the field of cultural history, wrote: "the highest value of history is judgment in worldly affairs."5

Education historian and reformer Diane Ravitch wrote, History "helps to inform us so that we might make better decisions in the future."6

** If there is any doubt that factual coverage is the main focus of history schooling, one need look no further than the Advanced Placement history program, which is the closest thing America has to a national history curriculum.  Each of AP's three history courses requires students to learn hundreds of discrete historical developments and supporting examples, plus students are typically expected to absorb thousand-page textbooks.  The AP World history course is representative; of 99 pages in the course's curriculum framework, 90 pages are devoted to specifying factual content that students are required to know for the single AP exam that determines the student's eligibility to receive college credit for the course. 7


1. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 1, Section 22, translated by Richard Crawley, University of Calgary, Online: http://people.uclagary.ca/~vandersp/Courses/texts/thucydi1.html,

accessed Jan 15, 2014

2. Jefferson, Thomas, “Notes on Virginia,” The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Modern Library, 1998, p. 246

3. Wilson is quoted in: Wineburg, Sam, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Temple University Press, 2001, p. ix

4. Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools, Bradley Commission on History in Schools, Online: http://www.nche.net/document.doc?id=38, accessed Oct. 23, 2014

5. Barzun, Jacques, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, The University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 70

6. Ravitch, Diane, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, Simon & Schuster, 2000, p.14

7. “AP World History Curriculum Framework," AP World History Course and Exam Description, (College Board, 2016) 6-104

© 2001-2017 Michael G. Maxwell, Maxwell Learning LLC


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