HM - October 2019 - Book Review

Book Review​

Book Review: Future-Focused History Teaching: Restoring the Power of Historical Learning


by Mike Maxwell

Reviewed by Bruce Lesh

It has been several years since I picked up a book on history education and was struck by something new, something that forced me to consider my beliefs about what constitutes effective history teaching and learning.  Mike Maxwell’s Future-Focused History Teaching: Restoring the Power of Historical Learning is just that book. By echoing the question that many a student has bemoaned: “why do I need to learn this?,” Maxwell, a former teacher, attacks history instruction at its heart: relevancy. Future-Focused History Teaching wades into the connection between why history is important and how it should be taught. The answers posited are provocative though ultimately fall short of a panacea for what ails the profession.

Part One of Future Focused History argues that history teaching and learning is not just swimming, but drowning, in details. The book explores the relative influence of government dictates, the education industry, and the rise of historical thinking skills as potential sources for history as a “trivia game.” Maxwell outlines a confluence of factors, be it state standards or Advanced Placement course guides that push educators towards “teaching by mentioning” rather than something more critical and challenging. He makes a strong argument that the focus on history as trivia has aided in the marginalization of the discipline.
Unfortunately, Maxwell places too much of the burden for the instructional approach that dominates the teaching and learning of history on the backs of teachers. The institutional constructs around assessment and accountability that hamstring so many instructional decisions should not “rest squarely on the shoulders of history educators” as argues Maxwell. Teachers work within the confines of an assessment and accountability culture that emanates more from politicians than it does educators.  Politicians who encumber educators with unteachable standards bear the lion’s share of blame for fostering a culture of content bulimia that dominates history teaching and learning. Although the ability to close one’s door and teach may exist in some places, the age of accountability has severely limited the ability of teachers to determine what they teach or even how it is taught.

In Part Two, Future Focused History, suggests that the solution to the issues plaguing history teaching and learning is the identification of “general principles of history” and the utilization of these principles to filter important content from unimportant.  Only knowledge that is “relevant to the future,” argues Maxwell, should populate what is taught to students. Maxwell provides a list of these general principles that enable a teacher or district curriculum writer to filter knowledge that is “relevant to the future” from that which is not. The principles enable students to be able to pull from history principles that will inform their “future judgement, decision-making and action.” For example, the author argues that general principles outlined below, can serve as tools to filter important content from the trivial:
  • Three motives for war are fear, honor, and self-interest
  • Even superpowers experience limits to their power
  • Government actions tend to have winners and losers
Maxwell stops short of ascribing to these principles the status of scientific laws, but he gives weight to their ability to help students make sense of what they are learning and teachers to trim down the topics they teach. By filtering the content, Maxwell believes that students will be better equipped to transfer that knowledge to new situations. His discussion of five problems that plague the development of history curricula is important. The scale-detail, the importance, the purpose, and the irrelevance problems are principles well worth considering before developing any curriculum, syllabus, or course.

It is within the solutions outlined in Part Two that I depart ways with the author. As deeply as I feel that Maxwell understands and cogently presents many of the problems that plague the teaching and learning of history, his solution requires a leap that I am not willing to take. Maxwell seeks utility from the study of history that would make the discipline more akin to science than a humanities course.  The author argues that “If the knowledge is important from a historical standpoint, but it’s not relevant to the future, it’s not suitable for educational purposes.” To me this is too reductionist. It entertains the notion that what is important now should be the sole determinant of what is taught. I struggle with how these proposed principles would be used to organize a curriculum. Should these principles be used to organize a course that it is thematic with student’s studying random events that are purportedly unified by the principle, or, should the principles be woven in and revisited during a more chronological unfolding of the past. The notion is provocative, but not fleshed out in a manner that quiets my concerns about the impact of this filtering tool on a course.  Seeing a fully fleshed out curriculum guide for World and United States History courses that have applied Maxwell’s advice would go a long way towards solidifying the utility of his approach.

Yes, there is too much to teach and too little time to do it: Maxwell is absolutely correct in this argument.  Filtering content is an essential tool that teachers of history and curriculum writers employ poorly, if at all. We tend to “cover” as much as possible and end up with little student understanding, retention, or passion for the subject. But to make those curricular decisions solely based on the relevance of a topic to the future invites unintended consequences. History as deterministic enough to be seen as a series of identifiable patterns or principles makes the discipline deterministic. Humanities are not sciences. They cannot predict behavior, only open us to the humility that comes from examining the motivations, actions, and consequences of past events, people and ideas.

Despite my opposition to Maxwell’s proposed remedy for what ails history teaching and learning, Future-Focused History Teaching: Restoring the Power of Historical Learning is well worth a read.  The author is dead on with his analysis of the issues plaguing the discipline and provides great grist for the intellectual mill. Anytime teachers are forced to consider the why and how of their discipline they and their students benefit and Maxwell forces such thinking.