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Teaching History With STE(A)M

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KomokoCole history STEAM.jpg

Julie Zaumer wrote an article in the Washington Post on April 12th about Americans' knowledge of the Holocaust. Her conclusion was that adults in this country have a frighteningly limited knowledge of the Holocaust. This conclusion was based upon interviews with 1,350 American adults. The interviewees were "recruited by telephone and an online non-probability sample". Although a small sample, conclusions about the Holocaust were, to us, astounding. 

Admittedly, one of us brings Jewish heritage to this perspective and the other brings years of experience as a history teacher. Baby boomers lived World War II and its aftermath. The stories were personal. Schools had veterans visit children's classrooms and generals like Patten and Eisenhower were heroes. And, we grew up wanting to ensure that such a thing could never happen again. Not just the war, itself, but the killing of 6 million Jews. So imagine our dismay, when we read two of Zaumer's conclusions about millennials. Here they are.

Two-thirds of American millennials surveyed in a recent poll cannot identify what Auschwitz is.

Twenty-two percent of millennials in the poll said they haven't heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they've heard of it -- twice the percentage of U.S. adults as a whole who said the same.

The study and the articles that followed its publication raise some interesting points. Whether the sample was too small, or biased, it does reveal there are some adults who went through our schools and did not learn or retain what was being taught. World History and American History are taught in all public schools as far as we know. Units on WWII are included and how can one teach those without teaching the Holocaust? The comments that followed the article defended education saying the topic was taught in high school. So why are the findings so disappointing? Why teach history if it isn't going to have some impact on the future?

Time Magazine's contributing author Katy Steinmetz offers this definition of the derivation of the word 'history'. 

The short version is that the term history has evolved from an ancient Greek verb that means "to know," says the Oxford English Dictionary's Philip Durkin. The Greek word historia originally meant inquiry, the act of seeking knowledge, as well as the knowledge that results from inquiry. And from there it's a short jump to the accounts of events that a person might put together from making inquiries -- what we might call stories.

How do we facilitate student learning and retention of the information we want them to acquire? Certainly, the dedicated work of history teachers is not to get students to pass a test revealing they memorized what was taught. Nor should that be the goal of the leaders who support them. How have so many younger Americans  lost hold of the certain horrific reality that was the Holocaust? Is reading that between 5 and 6 million Jewish people were 'exterminated' dwarfed by reading that (according to Brittanica.com) 8,528,831 people died or were killed in WWI? Unless the context and the story are told well, it will be. 

There are lessons in the history we teach... human lessons, lessons about what human beings are capable of accomplishing and are also capable of doing, what motivates us and what deters us from our highest actualizations. They are more than facts, more even than stories, they are life lessons. We know many found history classes boring and irrelevant. But, history isn't dead. It lives in us.  

Teaching With STE(A)M

We wonder if in teaching history as a story of facts, we have scrubbed it clean of the emotional story that carries the important messages. It may surprise you (or not) that we turn to STE(A)M here. The foundations of STE(A)M teaching and learning are in the ways subjects are related to each other, problem solving, projects based learning, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication.  We have written before about the integration of subjects but we cannot let history be the stand alone, isolated, representative of the past. No, it is too important and has too much offer if we are to survive and thrive, wisely and humanely as a nation. 

From a US perspective, entry into WWII was a response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.  How many can answer why Japan did that?  What was the value of the relationship built between Prime Minister Winston Churchill and FDR? How did that relationship affect the war?  What was the basis of the motivation of Adolph Hitler and his supporters? What are the values students hold about rights for all human beings and the respect for all human beings? For the Holocaust, we have the Shoah Testimonies on video to provoke questions and investigations. It is the questions and how the learning is designed that can take the string of facts that are history and turn them into a journey that touches and remains with the students.  For every history teacher who wants students to remember lessons as adults, we suggest looking to the STE(A)M world. The arts, mathematics, and the use of problems that provoke learning hold the key to helping history become personal lessons that can be felt and understood. We cannot afford to lose these lessons and we need them to reach all. 

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by KokomoCole courtesy of Pixabay

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