How to Improve History Classes?

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

Have you ever thought about how our history classes could be better? I know that teachers today are improving their ways of teaching by opening up topics that are considered controversial. Some are censoring topics that were offensive to certain groups of people. But how about how long history courses should be? What topics should we focus more on? Should we introduce "community civics" in history classes?

These questions were discussed at the University of Pennsylvania Conference during Schoolmen's Week from April 12-14th, 1917.

"The mission of the program was to have all administrators and teachers engaged in school education get together and update their expertise by attending lectures or exchanging views and ideas on a wide range of topics related to school work. The participants included superintendents and principals of the state, representatives of boards of education, and principals and teachers of normal schools and colleges. The program, which offered in the first year twenty-four meetings attended by two hundred people, grew to be a teachers’ institute offering over a hundred sessions with an attendance of over two thousand in the fifties and an attendance of thirty thousand in 1960."

- University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center

There were three history teachers and professors who attended the conference, and one of them was a history teacher from Ambler High School. His name was Jacob W. Fisher.

All three teachers were given a topic relating to their subjects, and discussed them. For Jacob W. Fisher, he discussed about the recent tendencies and practices in history teaching.


Analyzing Jacob W. Fisher's

"Recent Tendencies and Practices in History Teaching"

73 towns in Pennsylvania as well as in New Jersey and New York, with less than 50,000 people, participated in the questionnaire.

The first question he asked was,

"Has the amount of time given to the study of history in high school been increased or diminished within the last five years?"

In this question, it focused particularly in the history subjects of General, American, Ancient, Medieval, Modern, English, and Civics. Below were the results:

40% reported no change. 60% reported a change in length of time.

In the 60%, 45% increased the length of time. 15% decreased.

I'm not a history teacher myself, but I do remember, as a former Wissahickon student, the amount of time taken to talk about a particular topic. I think it depends on how the students understood the subject, or if they want to keep learning a particular topic. It would make a lot of sense that the time given to talk about history would increase because it's a subject everybody wants to learn from. For example, slavery has been the number one topic to discuss about in history classes. It's something we have to learn about so it won't repeat itself. Which leads me to the second question....

The second question he asked regarded to the introduction of Community Civics.

Over 75% of high schools had Community Civics as an addition to history courses.

Before we look at the responses, let's understand the definition and purpose of what "Community Civics" is and does:

According to the US Bureau of Education from 1915,

"The aim of community civics is to help the child to know his community--not merely a lot of facts about it, but the meaning of his community life, what it does for him and how it does it, what the community has a right to expect from him, and how he may fulfill his obligation, meanwhile cultivating in him the essential qualities and habits of good citizenship."

I never really thought about putting civic education into courses like history. I mean, as the saying goes, "Learn from the past, shape the future." I never thought about this until years ago I began watching this classic 90s show called Boy Meets World. For those who don't know the show, it's about a boy name Cory Matthews along with his friends, Shawn Hunter and Topanga Lawrence, who learned about everyday life from his family and from the beloved history teacher Mr. George Feeny. In Mr. Feeny's class, he was like every teacher: they teach the course, and gives out homework assignments. When students like Cory, Shawn, or Topanga face a difficult situation in their lives, Mr. Feeny would apply their situation in the course he was teaching.

Going back to the "Learn from the past, shape the future" quote, I think it's important to understand why we're learning these courses like history. Why do we learn history in school? Based on watching Boy Meets World, it seems that history is somehow parallel to our everyday lives, and that's because no one understood history and how to prevent history to repeat itself.

I think history teachers, and other teachers, should think about their students a lot more. Rather than just teach and go home, take the time to learn about your students, and how you can help them individually. I would like to see teachers try to apply community civics into their courses so their students can think about it and have a discussion.

To be honest, when I was a student at Wissahickon, I never really learned anything. I never had teachers like Mr. Feeny. All I remembered from my days in school was learning typical topics, do homework based on the topics I learned, and take tests to see how much I remembered the topics I learned.

Below were the responses from those schools as quoted here:

  • Community Civics takes the place of Ancient History and supplements the American History. We are making it a prominent part in our grade course of study

  • Planning to substitute Community Civics for some of the history now taught in the grades

  • Community Civics given in the first year, never had history in the first year of high school

The third question he asked was,

"Is more attention given to nineteenth century and less to ancient history?"

60 answers were received. 71% were in the affirmative.

Here were the responses as quoted:

  • This year ancient history will be completed in eight months instead of ten months. The last two months will be devoted to the study of the most important events from 800 to 1815, such as Feudalism, the Gilds, the Church, the Crusades, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the French Revolution.

  • Not less of ancient history with us, but more nineteenth century history

And then there's a question of whether to have the topic of English History as a separate course. 58 out of 67 high schools reported that they had English History as a separate course. 40 of which had the course in the third year, 7 had it the second year, and 5 in the first year and 5 in the fourth year.

On the question on changing the teaching of American History, there were different approaches on how to teach this course as quoted:

  1. Show cause and effect and to deal with problems in history instead of treating it chronologically

  2. The industrial development of the country and the lines of national development are traced

  3. European background is shown

  4. Less of war is taught and more of the philosophy of history is emphasized

  5. Students are led to give reasons for the policies and actions of our presidents and other public officials

  6. Careful study is made of the economic and civic conditions of the country

  7. It is more advanced in the quantity and quality of material and calls for more reasoning from facts and research work

Jacob W. Fisher quoted something that stood out when it comes to teaching history:

"The aim is not so much to fill the mind with facts as it is to develop the habit of forming judgements from the events and facts submitted."

And lastly, he provided answers from high schools he surveyed that corresponded to the question relating to American History.

"If merely a review, it is the fault of the teacher--and a grievous one it is. The philosophy of history should displace memorizing of facts. High school students should reason, not merely absorb.
"The evolution of political theory and party organization is emphasized. The development of great party issues, such as the following, are given considerable attention: (1) The conflict between the national and the state theory. (2) Slavery as a factor in politics."
"High school history is usually not so much a study of facts in chronological order as of causes and effects. Research work is encouraged. State and national political questions are given more attention. Recitations give way to discussion."

I absolutely agree with the responses from those high schools. It's not just having the students listen to the teacher teach history. There needs to be something more to keep the students engaged in the course.

I remembered in every history course I took in high school, my teachers gave us assignments that allowed our creativity to shine.

In 9th grade, we were given the opportunity to research about European monarchies, and present it to the class. I chose Peter the Great as my topic, and I've learned so much about him after doing independent research about him. He was my favorite monarch in history because he transformed Russia from a poor country into a modern country.

In 10th grade, I created a story book about two brothers who were separated after the Korean War.

In 11th grade, we researched and presented African Americans who made history in America. I researched and presented about Ruby Bridges, the first black child to desegregate an all-white school in Louisiana while US Marshals protected her from the protestors. And I learned about the Rosewood Massacre while doing independent research for a homework assignment about infamous events in African American history.



It amazed me that I found a piece like this by a teacher from Ambler High School!

It is important to think about how teachers, no matter what subject it is, rethink their way of teaching to the students, and how they can get students to engage in their classes. I like the approach from my 11th grade history teacher when we learned about the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights era, he didn't talk about the infamous events against African Americans. He mentioned them, and had us do the research ourselves and present our findings.

Having Community Civics in classes is very important. I am 100% for it! I would look into episodes from Boy Meets World and see how TV's most beloved teacher Mr. Feeny approached his students. He's the all-time best example of how the relationship between teachers and students should be. A teacher doesn't have to be your neighbor. But at least have a teacher support you and help you succeed.



Barnard, J. Lynn, F.W. Carrier, Arthur William Dunn, and Clarence D. Kingsley. "The Teaching of Community Civics." United States Bureau of Education Bulletin, no. 23 (1915): 11.

"Graduate School of Education. Educational Program Records." University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center. Accessed July 29, 2021.

"Reports from The Historical Field." The History Teacher's Magazine 8, no. 1 (1917): 166.

University of Pennsylvania Schoolmen's Week Proceedings April 12-14, 1917. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1917): 217-220.

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