The Perkins Perspective | Reviews | Winter 2013


Teaching What Really Happened

Teaching What Really Happened

By Rebecca Kuhn


Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History
James W. Loewen
Teachers College Press, 2009, 264 pp.


I want to teach history someday, and I want my students to question what I say ― making them more inclined to do research, actively engaging in their education.


Throughout Teaching What Really Happened, James W. Loewen argues that textbooks should not stand alone, but should be used in conjunction with other teaching methods. In this book, Loewen, author of the best-seller Lies My Teacher Told Me, writes that this approach should especially be used when teaching history to younger students. Schoolchildren, he writes, should understand how different perspectives might interpret an event ― rather than focus too much on the perspective of the majority or the victors.


If an event is presented single-mindedly, he argues, students will never be able to reconcile the past with the present. Yet textbooks tend to present a one-sided view that neglects important information, leaving out bad decisions to emphasize the good acts that Americans have performed (pg. 32). This is problematic because everything from the past also has an effect upon today’s society as a whole. Teaching What Really Happened shows teachers how they can present historical facts in a way that makes students want to learn more about applying the past to the present.


Loewen presents many different ways of teaching history in the book. Children are typically expected to learn a lot of knowledge in a short amount of time, he notes. But the more teachers cover, the less kids remember. Yet history should not be a dry subject that forces kids to memorize certain events and dates. Instead, Loewen advocates for the idea of teaching “twigs”: breaking down the curriculum into what the teacher thinks are the most important parts, while still following state standards (pg. 19).

Learning with "twigs"

The twigs should answer two questions: What are the implications of this topic for us today? What does it matter? And all of the twigs should relate to the present, showing students how the past affects what we do today. Ultimately, if these twigs tie into the state standards, students will be learning in a creative way that keeps them engaged.


In Loewen’s view, the textbook is not a tool to drive the content of a class. In fact, the textbook should be used as a secondary resource. Students need to learn that a textbook does not have the final say and that it is indeed acceptable to question a textbook. When children dig deeper than the textbook, they are expanding their own knowledge and finding out facts for themselves.


In fact, Teaching What Really Happened advocates presenting students with many different textbooks so that they can compare what is written in each book, allowing them to read between the lines of their textbooks and to explore the real history that the world has to offer.


Loewen also considers another theme throughout Teaching What Really Happened: expectations of the teacher. The achievement gap is something that is present in all areas of education, he writes, but it is especially present when teaching history.


History can be different to every person, depending on how they view that particular event in history. This book argues that minority students tend to be taught the majority side of history. Presenting history in a biased way that excludes the minority point of view creates an unequal learning opportunity and makes certain students feel inferior, which consequently helps widen the achievement gap. This is why students need to engage in their learning and look to different resources to get the whole picture, he writes. But students are not naturally going to question their textbooks or look to other resources to verify what their teacher is saying is correct; they need to be pushed to do so. This is where teacher expectations become increasingly important.


And the diversity of each student should add knowledge to the class and to the content. History is not here to make one group feel better than the other; history is here to help people in the present learn from their mistakes and successes in the past. Writes Loewen, “Americans need history courses that make us thoughtful ― that tell of our past honestly, warts and all” (pg. 80).


I want my future students to do historiography and to learn why an event happened the way it did. The knowledge of historiography allows my students to see why and how history changed, allowing reconciliation to start among open-minded learners.


With all that students can learn, I want to help them embark on a journey where the past becomes the present and influences their future.


Rebecca KuhnRebecca Kuhn is a sophomore at Seattle Pacific University majoring in history. Originally from Star, Idaho, she says she is excited to further her education and expand her horizons while leaning on God as her supporter.




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