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Engaging youth in learning history may require innovation

After years, even decades, of school curricula changing with the times, strapped budgets in many places, and numerous outside influences, today’s focus on STEM (for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) through countless programs at all levels is an admirable thing. After all, studies show we have slipped behind many other nations when it comes to student performance in these areas and these fields of study are strongly desirable assets for a young person entering our increasingly technology-driven world.

However, studies demonstrate a notable lack of student knowledge of American history. An article last year in the Washington Post cited that only 8 percent of U.S. high school seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War; and only 44 percent of the students answered that slavery was legal in all colonies during the American Revolution.

While the cited study focused on education in the history of slavery, it is nonetheless one sign among many that adequate history education has been elusive. The 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report found that only 18 percent of 8th graders were proficient or above in U.S. History and only 23 percent in Civics.

The argument can and has been made that history is the basis of all education as it sets the context for so much other learning and for being an engaged member of society.

Perhaps the secret is in engaging students in a way that attracts their interest. STEM programs often do an excellent job because of the preponderance of technology around us prompting the interest of students.

It’s perhaps more challenging to engage students in history because some feel it simply doesn’t affect them. It is by definition, the past.

Yet when students are met with something that engages them, they can become surprisingly curious about a subject they perhaps once shunned. Ask most children a common trivia question about dinosaurs and they likely know more than an adult. Why? Because of both dinosaurs and the world in which they once lived having become pop culture fodder, and also because of student exposure to institutions such as the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck and other natural history and science museums. The latter empower students’ imagination and interest.

Visual or tactile experience are often explained as ways to enagage students. A recitation of dates and events to remember with little time for exposition or to set context is simply less likely to prompt real, long-term learning.

Minot Daily News praises the efforts of museums, their supporters and innovative educators who have learned to use student interest to engage with youngsters. From the teacher who role plays in costume our nation’s founders to entertain (and thus engage) students, to the school districts that emphasize field trips to sites of important significant events to bring them to life in the minds of students, there are many worth praise.

Just as STEM education appears to have positive results, perhaps a similar focus on history and how to best impart knowledge to students about it can reverse the disturbing trend of a people often with very little awareness of what came before them.

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