Principles for Teaching History
The following principles are intended to provide general advice concerning how to teach history effectively in a homeschool, or self-directed environment. They do not deal with specific content, or what, to teach, but are more philosophical in nature.
These principles pertain to attitudes, goals, methods, and expectations, rather than curriculum, but they assume as a starting point that students of history have access to a collection of story-based history books, such as can be found on the Heritage History website, or in our Classical Libraries. Some of these recommendations make no sense if students only have access to dull and cumbersome texts.
Although we are critical of many modern history books, there are some excellent recent-vintage books to be found, and the ability to distinguish worthwhile books from tedious ones, is one of the skills that we seek to encourage.
1. History should be an enjoyable subject.
Resist the modern temptation to turn history into a drudge. Keep interest alive by focusing on stories; and not over-emphasizing analysis, written work, and memorization.
2. History books should be engaging enough to hold your student's interest.
If they are not, then you need new books. Reading history should be a treat, not a chore.
3. History is a reading-based subject.
Students should spend most of their time reading; not memorizing dates, writing reports, cramming for tests, or working on projects. The more they read, the better. Some of the time spent answering written questions in order to "review" selected points, might be better spent just reading more history.
4. Stories are often remembered even when names and dates are forgotten.
Bright students with excellent memories can remember names and details that other students will forget. But almost all students can remember the basic outline of a story and sometimes that's enough for a first introduction. Do not panic if your child cannot remember specific details well after an initial reading. They probably still "got something". Students who do not have the ability to regurgitate and analyze exactly what they learned, are probably still learning to the best of their ability.
5. Read it again.
A particularly good history book may be worth reading more than once, especially after some time has elapsed. Likewise, reading several books that cover the same material can also be helpful. Enjoyable history stories are just as enjoyable the second (or third) time through, and retention is far better after more than one reading.
6. Learn history along with your students.
If you grew up during the era of social studies, you probably don't know many history stories yourself. Take advantage of this opportunity to learn it yourself—It is one of the most enjoyable aspects of homeschooling!
7. Read classical rather than modern history.
Much modern juvenile history is so dumbed down it conveys very little real information. Some books are reliant entirely on pictures and captions, and others are terribly dull and didactic. Classical stories from history, on the other hand, are often very enjoyable, and a better bet for holding a student's interest.
8. Be suspicious of anything written after 1970.
Approximately forty years ago, the quality of juvenile history books began to take a sharp, downward turn. There are of course, some very good books written in recent times, but they require serious "vetting". In order to evaluate modern books by any meaningful standard, one has to have some idea of what a high-quality juvenile history book from yesteryear might look like. Therefore, take the time to familiarize yourself with some of the older classics before attempting to evaluate modern books, so you will not be satisfied by merely the best of a bad lot.
9. Quality books are attractive to young and old.
The best way to tell if a book will be interesting to your students, is to determine if it is interesting to you. If a book holds your attention after the first few chapters it will likely appeal also to young people. There are some exceptions to this of course, especially taking into account boy-girl differences, but quality writing and good story-telling is attractive to people of all ages.
10. Comprehensive history books are not the only option.
Comprehensive Histories usually cover the history of a civilization, beginning to end, in a single volume. Well-written, story-based comprehensive history books are useful as core reading material, but they are rarely as interesting as more detailed, Episodic Histories, which can take more time to develop characters and interesting subplots. Biographies, Legends, Classical Literature, Historical Fiction, Military History, and Hero Storiescan all be considered "history" books. Think of history as encompassing many aspects of culture and civilization, and focus on those topics for which interesting books and stories are available.
11. Don't assign "challenging" history books.
Provide history books at or below a student's reading level, particularly for reluctant readers. Do not mistake modern dumbed-down children's books, which rely almost entirely on pictures and captions, with high quality history books written at a grammar school level. Excellent books exist, even at relatively easy reading levels, which are perfectly adequate for a basic introduction. Motivated, fluent readers, on the other hand, might seek out challenging works themselves. You don't need to do it for then.
12. Use Historical Maps.
The study of almost any country or period in history can benefit greatly from the use of Historical Maps. High resolution pictures of hundreds of historical maps have been provided by Heritage History. Consider printing and possibly laminating several maps that your students can use for reference that corresponds to books they are reading.
13. Don't overdo American History.
Studying the same fascinating characters year after year, renders them dull, and the stories from American history are only a fraction of the available material. We confine the study of American History to grammar school and high school, and leave the middle years for other topics. High-schoolers who have invested many years studying world history in depth, will approach American history with better insights, and more interest, than if they are already over-exposed.
14. If you find a good author, stick with them.
If your student particularly likes a book, make a note of the author and look for other similar books. Many young people are happy to read an entire series from an author that they enjoy.
15. Allow students to choose their reading from a selection of (pre-screened) worthwhile books.
It is very helpful to have a selection of pre-vetted, worthwhile history-related books on hand, and encourage "free" reading in addition to assigned reading. Start building up a home-library of classical older history books. Used book stores, yard sales, and used curriculum fairs are a good bet for low prices. The Heritage Classical Libraries are also an option worth considering.
16. Don't confine history to "Unit Studies".
Homeschoolers often try to combine subjects, and history is sometimes taught as part of a "unit study" approach, complete with writing, vocabulary, art, geography, and culture-studies. This is, in fact, the social studies approach, and it can be done well. It does, however, risk having the same diminishing effect on history that social studies does, by weighing it down it with too many complicated learning goals. History thrives best as an independent, reading-based subject; not as a vehicle for language arts and social science. Some "interdisciplinary" studies are helpful, but don't overdo.
17. Public libraries sometimes have a poor selection of juvenile history books.
Well-intentioned homeschoolers often take their students to libraries, allow them free reign to select history books of their choice, and still come home with a piles of mediocre books. Worthwhile books may exist, but the vast majority of history books in most libraries are of recent vintage, and many are poor quality, or focus primarily on recent history. Finding worthwhile books in modern libraries is possible, but it often takes considerable effort and can't necessarily be left to children.
18. Consider books in electronic or audio form.
The lack of wide-spread high quality juvenile history books is a serious problem. More publishers are starting to reprint some of these classics, but they are often unavailable in schools and libraries. In the meantime, the Heritage History online library was created as a resource to homeschoolers and self-learners. It contains hundreds of classic traditional histories at a variety of reading levels, all in electronic form. For those who prefer to read books offline, the Heritage Classical Libraries are now available which contain 40-50 books preselected by topic of interest and reading level. Each book in our collection is provided in three formats so that they can be printed on any printer, read on any e-reader.
These guidelines are set-forth as general principles, and we hope they are applied in a balanced and common-sense way. They are not intended to be taken to extremes. For example, we believe in emphasizing reading, but do not oppose review questions. We don't like to see history confined to unit studies, but don't object to unit studies themselves, etc.
These principles were intended to help people see history less as an itemized checklist of facts that must be learned, and more as an enjoyable life-time hobby. We hope they help homeschoolers enjoy history more, and that they make teaching and learning history easier, not more difficult.
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