Teachers generally have two options for teaching history: they can take the "ball-of-string" approach or the "posthole" approach.
Teachers who take the ball-of-string approach make presentations that primarily unravel a string of historical information. A U.S. history teacher might, for example, begin at 1492 by providing a historical narrative of names, terms, and dates about the European exploration of the Americas and the establishment of overseas colonies. When finished with that unit of study the teacher then unravels a string of information about the thirteen British colonies and the events that led to the American Revolution. The teacher then follows that unit with information about the United States under the Articles of Confederation and the writing of the U.S. Constitution. And so on …
By the end of the course students will have been exposed to a considerable amount of historical information and will have memorized what they can from the textbook and teacher presentations.
A second way of teaching history is to take the posthole approach and present history as a series of topics or key concepts that are explored in depth. Rather than presenting the George Washington administration as a list of names, terms, and dates that need to be defined and memorized, a teacher taking the posthole approach focuses on a selected topic, such as the formation of political parties during Washington's presidency, and then explores that topic in depth.
A teacher might, for example, dig a “posthole” by asking students to explore the intellectual debate between two of the people in Washington's cabinet — Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. The teacher will ask students to examine primary and secondary source readings that explain the philosophical differences between Hamilton and Jefferson, as well as how those differences shaped historical events during the 1790s. Teachers will then ask students to generate questions about what they have read and use those questions to guide additional research. The teacher will also ask students to reach historical conclusions based upon what they have studied and defend those conclusions in writing by citing specific, accurate, and relevant information.
In the end, the posthole approach should lead to a more sophisticated understanding of the formation of political parties in the 1790s, as well as an understanding of the significance of political parties throughout the entirety of U.S. history. Rather than leaving class having simply memorized a string of information, students will have spent time using that information to develop analytical and historical thinking skills. Students will have been given an opportunity to sharpen those skills through the examination of primary and secondary source documents. Students will have also developed their writing skills by providing a written defense of the analytical conclusions they reached after a rigorous examination of the documents they examined.
The posthole approach takes time, but so does the ball-of-string approach. The difference can be found in looking at what each approach provides students. Students leave the ball-of-string approach knowing much historical information that might easily be forgotten after they leave the course.
Students should leave lessons based on the posthole approach, however, having spent enough time developing thinking and writing skills that those skills will stay with them forever. They should learn enough information about the key concepts of history that they are able to understand the bigger picture of the course of human events rather simply knowing a list of minutiae. In my experiences, students are less likely to forget those concepts because they have explored them in depth.
If taking the posthole approach and asking students to examine Hamilton, Jefferson, and the formation of political parties in depth requires so much class time that the teacher is forced to skip some information in the textbook, so be it. If the teacher does not have enough time to cover the Residence Act of 1790, students will be okay not knowing that information. A lot of smart, well-educated, successful people have gone far in their academic studies and then led perfectly happy, fulfilled lives knowing nothing about the Residence Act of 1790. Teachers will not be sacrificing their students' future if they don't teach it. On the other hand, students will probably not go far in their academic studies without the ability to read, write, and think at the highest levels, and those skills can best be developed by adopting the posthole approach to teaching history.
I once told a man at a pub near Peterborough, England, that I taught United States history. Without skipping a beat, he dismissively asked, “What bloody history?” I can understand an Englishman asking such a question. After all, a 1000-year-old Anglican cathedral stood only a few miles away from the pub where we sat. Compared to many other parts of the world, the United States is a low mileage nation regarding the years it has racked up.
I will say, however, that the historical topic does not matter as much as the need to teach students to thinking historically. It should make little difference whether students are studying American, European, Middle Eastern, or Asian history, or whether they are studying information from 25 years ago or 2500 years ago. No matter what historical information the curriculum requires, students should be given an opportunity to develop their thinking and writing skills at the highest levels, to develop the skills that will help them in any field of academics. The posthole approach is the best way to help students achieve that goal.
© 2014 James L. Smith