Teaching History as a Skill Not Knowledge

For many of us, our history education consisted of opening up the text book, reading the chapter, and answering the comprehension questions. This method, or some variation of it, is still a predominant, albeit a less impactful approach, to teaching history in some classrooms today.

History and social studies classes need to be transformed into skills-based classes, much like how math and English language arts classes have been. Skills, not knowledge, should be the end goal for each class, focusing on a bevy of historical skills. Through this lens, social studies teachers should plan to impart knowledge.

Is this more difficult? Absolutely, especially since state standards do not make the direct connection between standard and skill for the teacher. Yet teachers who take this approach will have students who will walk out of your class with a tangible skill, a love for the content, and hopefully will retain some knowledge that students struggle to maintain otherwise.

Social Studies Standards

Most state standards contain a skills section separate from the knowledge standards. Some common skills seen in grades 6-12 include:

• Understand and distinguish cause and effect, sequence, and correlation in historical events
• Distinguishing fact from opinion
• Assessing the credibility of a document
• Use maps to understand historical events (migration, economic changes, etc.)
• Make connections between the impact of people and the environment

Since they are not directly tied to a state standard, the teacher needs to connect the state standard to the skill. This might look like a lesson about explaining the women’s suffrage movement to include a lesson on cause and effect, sequence, and correlation in historical events.

Structuring a Lesson

The biggest hurdle for educators is transitioning from pure content to incorporating a skill. The content can be found in any textbook or website, but applying the skill will require a little digging or leveraging present materials found in the textbook or online.

Let’s say you are teaching about the famous Genghis Khan. Background knowledge might be required if your students have never heard of the fearless leader, which can be briefly imparted, before teaching the lesson as a skill. This skill can be map based, showing the silk road trading routes or can be a bias or credibility lesson looking at accounts of the Mongols from different perspectives. All are valid approaches and can be taught together or separately.

In the end, knowledge will be imparted and skills will be practiced during a lesson. Students will still have the opportunity to engage with meaningful texts, allowing students to develop content literacy skills. Likewise, all students will have the chance to practice writing to a prompt to develop that keystone skill.

Assessing Student Learning

The final piece of the puzzle is assessing student learning. Take time to incorporate the skills taught in the unit in the assessment. This might feel a little awkward in some cases, as you will feel like you are providing students with information rather than assessing it. This might include questions that ask students to explain the context around the event, as well as their apt analysis.

For example, if you have taught a lesson on the lead up to the American Civil War, you might have a map on the assessment portraying the Mason-Dixon Line. Students would then be asked to explain what the line was and how it was a precursor to the civil war.

In the Understanding by Design approach, teachers should backwards plan from the assessment to the lessons. Targeting certain skills over the course of the unit, you can ensure that students have ample practice before getting to the assessment.

Shifting your instruction to a more skill-based approach will transform your students and your classroom. Take the plunge, even if it is slowly. Add a skill focus, and hand the reins over to your students to discuss that primary source, a map, or an article. You will be happily surprised at the shift your class will make.

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