Teaching Dates in History Class Isn’t a Bad Thing

“In the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein famously plays a high school teacher who drones on about the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act while his students slump at their desks in a collective stupor. For many kids, that’s history: an endless catalog of disconnected dates and names, passed down like scripture from the state textbook, seldom questioned and quickly forgotten.”

These are the words of Larry Cuban in a 2013 Washington Post piece titled “How to teach history (and how not to).” Any social studies teacher has heard something similar countless times. Dates and names and rote facts make history boring. Of course, there’s truth to that. Connecting dates to names and events, with no context, with no critical thinking, with no other skill development, is dull and students are less likely to achieve two of the most important educational goals: to promote retention and to promote transfer, which is the ability to use what was learned to solve new problems, answer new questions, or facilitate learning new subject matter (Mayer & Wittrock, 1996).

But perhaps we as social studies teachers are sometimes too reactive to this narrative folks have created about our profession.  We’re reminded of this when students ask if we were alive during the Civil War. We were reminded of this while watching Jay Leno’s street interviews.

I don’t want to outline a bunch of pedagogical methods for adding context and critical thinking to dates. I want to just highlight a few tips and tricks that I’ve found useful in my own teaching.

I always make today’s date matter, and connect it to my content. I start every class with a slide (PowerPoint, Promethean, Google Slide, etc), which includes, the date, learning objectives, agenda, homework, but also a “this day in history” section. This is an opportunity for me to quickly highlight some important dates in history, to not always teach in chronological order, to connect what happened on these dates to past or future learning, and to help students with thematic learning.  It’s also an opportunity for me to teach 30 seconds on something that might not be covered traditionally in the curriculum. (Please note Discovery Education has an extensive “On This Day” calendar on the My DE homepage. A red star indicates commemorative resources are available.) One of my favorite parts of this method is I include student birthdays in the “this day in history” section. Students love this, and it’s also a way for them to see themselves as a part of history.















Social studies educators have an obligation to make history relevant by connecting the past to today. We also have an obligation to allow students the opportunity to think critically about current events, and to feel safe and secure in sharing their identities and their experiences as they connect to social justice issues. When I began teaching 12 years ago, I would start every one of my government classes by holding up the front page of the Washington Post (I teach in Maryland), discussing current events with my students, connecting the content to the big concepts of the course: federalism, separation of powers, equal protection, etc, etc. Today, I have access to all this great multimedia. For example, Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook, no matter the chapter or content, has a little link in the upper right corner for “Global News,” which links to the “Global Wrap” series, a weekly current events video for students. So if I click on that link now, in the Great Depression chapter, my students will quickly access current events about Baltimore and Nepal.


global wrap














Social studies pedagogy is increasingly focusing on skills, not just on content. We use content to help condition skills, and some of these skills are so heavily connected to “dates.” I’m going to use two from the Advanced Placement U.S. History framework, contextualization and periodization. However, critical thinking and literacy skills are important at all levels of instruction. The College Board defines contextualization as “the ability to connect historical developments to specific circumstances in time and place, and to broader regional, national or global processes.” Periodization is defined as “…the ability to describe, analyze, evaluate, and construct models of historical periodization that historians use to categorize events into discrete blocks and to identify turning points, recognizing that the choice of specific dates favors one narrative, region or group over another narrative, region or group; therefore, changing the periodization can change a historical narrative. Moreover, the particular circumstances and contexts in which individual historians work and write shape their interpretations and models of past events.”

Students cannot build these skills, among others, without some understanding of dates and chronology. There are many ways to help build these skills in class. I can present my students with various primary sources, remove the dates, and ask them to use context clues to place them in order, and to justify their selections with evidence. I could have students watch various Discovery Streaming clips and complete a graphic organizer to help contextualize an era, like the “Sum of a Decade” activity in Social Studies Techbook. I also enjoy using a simple interactive continuum on my Promethean Board. I use equity sticks to call students to the Promethean Board and have them start arranging random events in chronological order aligned to a theme. The flipchart is programmed to allow students to slide the events on a horizontal axis only. This is a simple way to get kids thinking about sequence and chronology and periodization.














These are just a few quick tips to help teach dates in a more engaging, interactive, and higher order way than good old Mr. Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.