In my early highschool years, I did everything I could to take as few history credits as possible and barely suffered through freshman Western Civ. So, it’s a little surprising that I became a History teacher.
What happened? How did I morph into a passionate History teacher?
I had an American History teacher who gave students context and helped us see how our history maps to our current reality. Instead of asking us to remember seemingly random facts and dates that were isolated, in our understanding, from anything familiar or relevant, she constructed a view of our lives within a larger timeline stretching into both the past and future.
Her teachings led to many ah-ha moments throughout the year as she turned random facts (Columbus “discovered” the Americas in 1492) into complex stories, where the lives and motivations of individual people are woven into the larger context of the economy and political situations of the time. She took isolated data points and made them into a full picture we could understand and remember.
The ah-ha moments happened when learning history changed from memorizing arbitrary things to learning meaningful things.
Don Norman notes that rote learning, while it is still the most dominant form of learning in many systems, is more difficult because the learning is arbitrary; when we try to remember it or if there is a problem, it’s hard for us because it lacks structure. But when the thing we are learning has meaningful structure it is easier for us to remember(Norman, p.98).
When students ask, “Who cares?” or “Why do I have to learn this,” the answer isn’t necessarily to come up with a reason why they will use this particular information later in life. Instead, I believe this is a plea for having greater context, for mapping this new information into their existing structure of knowledge. It’s not “Please tell me why knowing when Columbus arrived will help me get a job,” but “Please help me understand why and how this relates to other things I know.”
“When things make sense, they correspond to the knowledge that we already have, so the new material can be understood, interpreted, and integrated with previously acquired material” (Norman, p.99).
To make learning easier for students and get them to these powerful ah-ha moments every day, here are a few ideas:
- Always access prior knowledge first.
- If there is some rote learning to be done, find a way to add structure to it (like a song, or metaphor).
- Use storytelling as a teaching tool.
- Before introducing a new formula, term, or concept, ask students some questions that are related to the new topic but don’t require students to know the formula in order to begin thinking.
For example, before introducing the phrase “supply and demand,” ask students to consider how much lemonade they would purchase and prepare for their lemonade stand. Then ask how they came to that choice. Then introduce other complications, like what if another stand opened up across the street? Now when you talk about supply and demand they can relate it directly to a scenario they understand.
- Ask students how they came up with an answer or why their answer makes sense. Having to explain it puts the knowledge in a map of meaning. If a student can’t explain their answer, that’s a good indication that the learning is rote and will be more easily forgotten.
Imagine that look on a student’s face when they suddenly get it, when they make a connection. Their eyes get big, they suck in a breath of air, their mouths open in a smile. It’s just so exciting and invigorating when a new piece of information is assimilated — not just crammed in by sheer will, but fully grokked. These moments can become commonplace in our classrooms when we give the material structure that students can build on.
Norman, D (2013). The design of everyday things. New York, NY: Basic Books.