Academic Exchange Quarterly         Fall 2004: Volume 8, Issue 3


Student Co-Researchers

Maryann Byrne, Canton High School, Canton, Massachusetts




Byrne, M.Ed., is a high school World History teacher.


For this action research project, I invited students to join me as co-researchers inquiring into the relevance of the study of history.  The results have been improved student learning and classroom management outcomes.



“Why do I have to know this stuff?”  Without realizing it, my action research question was coming at me early and often as I began my teaching career in a ninth grade World History classroom in September 2003.  Readings from my Inquiry Seminar at Boston College suggested that my research question could be difficult to identify.  This turned out not to be the case, as my students’ clear and constant question inspired me to look closely into how students come to understand why we study history.


I responded to the students in a number of ways.  I told them that history can teach us how to be better citizens, how to appreciate diversity, how to develop critical thinking skills, how to construct an argument, and how to learn from the past.  Drawing on my education courses and from the advice of other teachers, I worked on making my classes “engaging,” “interesting” and “fun.”  My classes became more enjoyable, but still the question kept coming back. 


“Why do I have to know this stuff?”  I soon realized that it was easy to make history lessons entertaining, but if they held no relevance for students’ lives, they would not retain the crucial concepts I was trying to teach.  I was telling students why I thought they should know this stuff.  I wasn’t listening to the “I” of the question that represented each student, and how each individual student was asking why this stuff was important for them to know.  Not in the “need to know” sense of necessary for next week’s test or future MCAS exams, but as critical information essential to their lives.  My research question developed from this connection with the individual “I” of each student.


“How can I make the study of history relevant to my students?”


My question has a number of implications for classroom practice.  Before addressing relevance for students, I first need to define what makes history relevant for me, always remembering that my definition may be different from my students’.  In addition, for history to have relevance for students, they need to construct this understanding for themselves.  Finally, in an era of standards-based education, accountability and budget constraints,  why should students learn this stuff if we can’t help them distinguish for themselves that the habits of mind developed through the study of history are crucial skills necessary for enhancing their lives?


Literature Review

It quickly became apparent as I undertook my literature review that I was not the only educator dealing with the question of how to make history relevant for students.  In my readings, I found practical advice about how to implement instructional methods which promote relevancy alongside theories of history and practice.  It was encouraging to see that techniques I had already attempted, such as the use of controversy, narrative and role-plays, were recommended by some authors (Kennedy, 1998; Rosenzwieg, 2003; Stanley, 2003). 


One article directly confronted assumptions that I brought to the classroom.  Meyerson and Secules (2001, p. 267) note that “the first prerequisite to the creation of a meaningful and relevant social studies learning environment for students is to ensure that social studies learning is meaningful and relevant to its teachers.”  For the first time I realized that to help make history relevant for my students, I would first need to determine what made it relevant for me.


Despite differing approaches, two themes came through in almost every article I read.  First was a consensus on the value of constructivism – for history to be real for students, they must construct this reality for themselves.  Second was the understanding that for students to construct relevance, they must be active participants in authentic historical inquiry.  For students, “Involvement in historical study leads them to become ‘creators’ of history and to discover the power, potential, and excitement that the study of the past can engender” (Foster & Padgett: 1999, p. 364).


My Students

I teach ninth grade World History to honors and college-level students.  My students are mostly white; I have one African-American and three Asian-American students in my classes.  While my honors classes are more than three-quarters female, my college classes are more evenly balanced along gender lines.


Over the course of the year, I have come to know my students on a deeper level.  Many live in single-parent homes.  Most are comfortable discussing issues of sexuality, substance abuse, and other topics that would not have been open for discussion when I was a freshman.  Although in some ways these students may have lost some of the innocence my generation had, they are also more accepting of differences than my classmates were, including such areas as ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and the inclusion of special education students in general education classes.



Collaborating with my students was a natural development.  I had no first-hand knowledge of young adults in their age group and relied on my students to introduce me to their interests, their concerns and their thoughts about school and history in particular.  In addition, we were all new to Canton High School: I was anxious and excited about being a new teacher; they were anxious and excited about being freshmen.


This partnership deepened as inconsistencies confronted me.  Curriculum guidelines ask me to teach students to construct arguments based on evidence, enter into debate, and appreciate diverse perspectives; yet, most students are not encouraged to exercise these skills in the arena of classroom decision-making.  The school promotes collaboration with teachers and administrators, but not with those upon whom our actions have the greatest impact, our students.  Although I have been evaluated by a number of school administrators, my students have no input into this process.  Finally, if we want students to fully participate in class, we should then respect the knowledge, ideas, and suggestions that they bring to it.


Data Sources

1.       History teachers were surveyed to see how they responded to the question, “Why do I have to know this stuff?”

2.       Interest Inventories and Multiple Intelligences Surveys were used to design lessons that directly addressed student interests and learning styles.

3.       A brainstorming session was held with students to come to an agreement on how we would define relevance.

4.       Students were surveyed about which activities made history relevant or irrelevant.

5.       Student-driven discussions about the personal impact of historical events were documented to see if students were constructing their own understanding that history is a dynamic story in which they play a part. 

6.       History Progress Reports reflected our ongoing redefinition of the relevance of history.

7.       Students wrote a report about an event we had studied, explaining why it was significant both in history and for themselves, and suggesting a teaching method that would make the event interesting to freshmen.  Students made connections to their own lives, and reflected on what teaching methods helped make history relevant for them.

8.       Observational notes were reviewed to determine if collaboration with students promoted an understanding of historical relevance.

9.       Students responded in writing to a number of quotes from famous writers on whether the study of history is relevant. 

10.   In keeping with the spirit of collaboration, students were asked to anonymously evaluate my performance by writing me a letter of recommendation based on the categories that my university supervisor rated me on: Plans Curriculum and Instruction; Plans Effective Instruction; Manages Classroom Climate and Operations; Promotes Equity; and Maintains Professional Standards.  The intent was to determine whether the methods used had resulted in actual student learning outcomes.


Our data supports the notion that for students to feel that the study of history is relevant, they must build this knowledge themselves by actively doing history, engaging in authentic interactions that rely on the interpretation of evidence, appreciation of multiple perspectives, analysis of cause and effect relationships, and the examination of the assumptions we all hold about issues of historical importance.  Teachers can assist, but students must feel that they have ownership of the process or it will not be real to them. 


How do students do history?  Two examples follow.


One class that relied on the interpretation of evidence focused on the mysterious decline of the Mayan civilization.  Students groups were given pieces of evidence that pointed to one possible cause: either famine, war, disease or natural disaster.  Each group made a case based on their evidence, followed by a class discussion designed to determine the most likely circumstances.  Was there just one cause or could there have been a combination?  The discussion was guided into who has interpreted history in the past and what can be done to encourage more varied perspectives to be incorporated into accepted history.


In another project designed to promote the appreciation of multiple perspectives, students imagined that they were a famous director writing a proposal to a Hollywood studio for their movie, Crusades!  Based on a list of actual historical characters both male and female from Christian, Jewish and Muslim backgrounds, students needed to explain which actors they would cast and how they would help them understand their character’s motivations.  This necessitated that the students do history, trying to understand the mindset of people from that time by researching primary and secondary sources and examining historical maps and artifacts.  Many students went further, making connections between the Crusades and conflicts taking place in the Middle East today.



What is relevance?  We came up with the following definition of the relevance of the study of history.  To be relevant, it must be real, it must be beneficial to our lives, and we must feel connected with the topics we are studying.


Did our results show that our interactions had made history real?  There was agreement on activities that made history come alive for students, particularly role-plays and simulations, discussions focused on connections to current events, narratives based on the lives of historical figures, interactive hands-on activities, and games such as “Who Wants to be a Legionnaire?” and “Feudal Jeopardy.”  Students also commented on the activities which made history irrelevant. Receiving the greatest mention were activities that relied on the textbook, and lectures which did not include some level of student interaction.


Did our results show that our interactions helped us appreciate the study of history as beneficial?  Representative student comments which point to this conclusion include:

·         “Who we are is history.”

·         “Learning about the past has helped me understand the present.”

·         “History teaches us to make better decisions than people did many years ago.”


Did our results show that our interactions created a personal connection to the topics studied?  This appears to be the case, as students noted:

·         “I learned things about myself that I did not know.”

·         “Her teaching has depended on what we think about history.”

·         “Before I had you as a teacher I never had a good understanding of how the people who lived in the past felt.”


Finally, did our results show that our interactions helped students learn?  The overwhelming response was yes.

·         “She gets the job done by teaching us the content, but sometimes it happens in a different way.  It’s not busywork, it’s just plain learning and teaching.”

·         “The classwork is done in a way that we learn in new ways.  It’s more hands-on.  I don’t mind learning in that class.”

·         “Getting students involved makes the students pay attention and understand the topic more.”


Analysis and Interpretation

In retrospect, I can see how the collaborative environment my students and I established has transformed our classroom.  What began in an atmosphere of trepidation has become an honest, open space where the curriculum is actively explored.


At the start of the year, what did I see?  Students who were bored, students who were hesitant to participate, students who were classroom management issues, students who were unsure of what was expected of them, students who missed handing in assignments, students who underperformed on assessments and evaluations, and a teacher anxious to prove that she could teach them. 


What do I see now?  Students who come to class prepared to do history.  In an atmosphere of trust, the students challenge each other and me, probing statements that might go unquestioned elsewhere.  This sense of empowerment has proved infectious, slowly building as students have seen the benefits in both their grades and in their enjoyment of the class.  By encouraging students to become active participants in their learning, I have improved my students’ learning. 


An unforeseen benefit of these interactions has been their positive effect upon classroom management issues.  As students were given a greater say in classroom procedures, these challenges have lessened considerably.  The students know I respect their opinions and concerns, and they are reciprocating.  We have established that our purpose is to teach and learn from each other, and we enjoy tracking this process of discovery.  It is easy for me to point out when behaviors are not facilitating this, and often that is the only action I have to take to maintain order. 


There have been some disappointments.  Despite my efforts, there are still students who find history boring.  While continuing to explore ways to engage them, I realize that there are some students who will never have the passion for history that I have.  I believe I have at least fostered an appreciation of why the study of history is included in their curriculum, although it may never be a study which they enjoy.


Our classroom has become a site that embodies a number of the theories of why history is relevant.  Some students see the study of history as crucial in promoting democratic citizenship: 

·         “Without history, a nation would have no purpose; it would be impossible for a nation to exist without it.”

·         “History is important; you should know what happens where you live.”

·         “We need to know what went on years and years ago.  Many things that went on during our history affect us today because they relate to events that occur these days.”


Others see the study of history as essential for promoting social justice:

·         “There has been so much conflict.  When will we start taking care of each other?”

·         “I actually paid attention.  I had no idea women were treated so badly.”


Finally, the majority see history as an ongoing, unfinished story of the human condition in which we all play a role.

·         “I now see history is a cycle of recurring events, not just a bunch of facts.”

·         “Sometimes we are in the same place as people from the past.”

·         “Anything that happened in the past helps you move forward now.”


Recommendations for Practice

This action research project has been a wonderful experience.  I hope my students will continue to do history in all areas of their lives for the best reasons: to become active members of our democratic society, to strive to promote social justice, and to become life-long learners examining the world around them.


In future classes, I will have new students with different conceptions about history.  Most will probably think history is a boring bunch of facts about dead people with no relevance to their lives.  Drawing upon what I have learned this semester, I will try to replicate the experience while realizing that the dynamics will inevitably change with the introduction of new participants.  While success is not guaranteed, there are a number of factors that I can put in place to facilitate the process.  Acting on the definition we developed for relevance, I believe to make history real, I need to be real.  To help students connect with history, I need to connect with my students.  And finally, to make history beneficial, I need to be beneficial.


When I make it real, they remember it.  It is not enough to model collaborative constructivist teaching methods.  Students must perceive that I believe in them in my instructional methods.  In order to embrace this realism, it will be crucial to constantly reexamine my own beliefs and biases, and what works in my classes and what doesn’t and why.   


Second, I will need to connect with my students’ knowledge in order to access the information that they bring to class, adding value to my own and their classmates’ education.  Connecting students’ interests, needs and concerns with lives of the people we were studying made history relevant to my current students and I hope will do so for future classes. 


Finally, for true teacher-student collaboration to take place, students must feel that the classroom is a safe place for them to express their views and to take risks without fear of failure or ridicule.  I hope I can continue to establish a beneficial level of discourse and classroom structure, open to negotiation, that will allow all my students to feel empowered as active participants in their own education. 


At the start of the year, “Why do I need to know this stuff?” seemed like a challenge.  I now see it as an invitation to enter into authentic collaborations with my students, and am looking forward to continuing to do so in the future.



Foster, Stuart J., and Padgett, Charles S. (1999). Authentic historical inquiry in the social studies classroom.  The Clearing House, 72 (6): 357-364.

Kennedy, David M. (1998).  The Art of the tale: Story-telling and history teaching.  The History Teacher, 31 (3): 319-330.

Meyerson, Peter, & Secules, Teresa (2001).  Inquiry circles can make social studies meaningful.  The Social Studies, 92 (6): 267-272.

Rosenzweig, Roy (2003).  Interviews with exemplary teachers: Bill Bigelow and Michele Forman.  The History Teacher, 36 (3): 397-406.

Stanley, Gregory (2003).  Warts and All: Exposing history to high school students.  Educational Horizons, (Winter): 86-91.