History for our children?

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Hello all, I am wondering if anyone would like to share ideas on how to make the study of history fun for young people.

I had a real dearth of schooling as a kid (long story!) and when I finally got into school, aged 15, history was one of the things I knew almost nothing about! I remember enjoying reading “A child’s history of England” by Charles Dickens and I really enjoyed it because it was written as a story.

Another idea I had is that talking to children and teens about important events that happen today, in the context of how this might be perceived by future generations, might sort of bring the idea of “history” to life.

Would love to hear any thoughts on the subject!



  1. Hi Cassie, and thanks for your comments.
    I’m wondering if you could clarify your question a bit. How young are the young people? What is the setting (ie, home or elementary school, or someplace else like a public library)?
    One thing that came to mind, an idea that I am working with presently, comes from James Paul Gee’s work on video games and learning (see jamespaulgee.com). Gee had wondered why his kids so quickly learned entirely new concepts and symbolic languages when playing games, a type of learning that typically takes much longer time. He found that games combine a few crucial elements that increase the learner’s retention. First, they allow self-discovery and exploration. Second, they usually involve the player’s identity (ie, the player identifies with a character). Third, games permit learning from failure and reward eventually overcoming a difficult task. Gee identifies other elements to good learning as well.
    The historian can take several things from this. Most obviously, we could incorporate more games in our classrooms, but this is logistically difficult and I, for one, am still working out how best to do this. More importantly and more easily, however, we can incorporate Gee’s game elements into our teaching: allow students to fail and then succeed more, allow students to explore more, and especially be sure that students identify in some fashion with the history.
    This last concept of identity is what I think you are getting at with your comment on bringing history to life. History matters only when it matters to the individual, otherwise it is relegated to trivia. We don’t want to teach trivia; we want to teach identity.
    What do you think?

  2. Hi Cassie!

    It is very much worthwhile talking to teens and other children about what is going on in the world today, but if you want them to think about it historically, you would have to ask them to think both ways, not only about what future people might think, but also about what people in the past might think. And a really important question for them to think about is the basis upon which they take a position in relation to things happening in the world (the assumptions and presuppositions they bring to that decision-making process).

    Histories are stories we tell ourselves about the past to help us make sense of the present. The _Child’s History of England_ was written for Victorian children to tell them about where they fit in the world. But the really important thing about history is that it isn’t a done deal. The “judgment of history” changes all the time, depending on what those doing the judging need from the past.

    I really want children to understand that about history. That said, trying to understand why people in the past did the things they did and thought the things they thought is really valuable (and has obvious modern applications). So good role-playing can work, but bad role-playing tends to reinforce presentism–judging the past by the standard of the present.

    Leah Shopkow

  3. Hello Andrew and Leah, thank you for the input.

    Academically, I’m interested in how kids learn generally, whether young or older, in all settings. More specifically, however, most of my experience and interaction is with fairly young children (say up to 10 years old or so) in informal settings.

    You’ve both given me a lot of food for thought, the idea of “identity” and what you describe, Leah, as “the basis upon which they take a position in relation to things happening in the world” … I need to think some more about this.

    Also the idea that role-playing is something one needs to be careful with is good to remember. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the American teacher who used to teach the children about racism by doing a two-day exercise where blue-eyed children and brown-eyed children were alternately treated preferentially and the opposite? It was really interesting, when I watched the program at first I thought it was a terrible idea and would do the kids more harm than good, but afterwards I could see that it had been successful. If you’re interested I think there might be part of the program on youtube.


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