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21st-century skills and history are compatible

21st–century skills and history are compatible. The late British historian E.H. Carr, in his book What is History?, defined history as a continuous “process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” By this, he meant that we constantly reanalyze history and events with the understanding of the present and often draw different meanings through this reinterpretation. If one accepts Carr’s premise, then the new technologies of the 21st century provide multiple ways of knowing and learning.

In Principles for Learning: A Foundation for Transforming K–12 Education, the report’s authors note that “learning to make sense of information transforms it to knowledge.” And making sense of information in the 21st century means that students must able to “use and evaluate appropriate digital tools and resources.” Clearly this applies to the learning of history.

The affordances of technology have given students greater access to information. They can retrieve the full archives of The New York Times without the arduous task of going to the library and requesting microfilm or microfiche. The availability of online, non-text resources, ranging from political cartoons, to photographs, to historic maps, has opened up access to an incredible range of materials. The opportunity to make virtual visits to historic sites allows the student to “walk” battlefields, cathedrals, and historic ruins. And of course, the repositories of primary sources available through countless web libraries have made a vast array of documents—from the familiar to the obscure—readily accessible to students.

Today’s students are digital natives. They can navigate the internet with ease, they communicate in new ways over Facebook and Twitter, and they are plugged in to their iPods. And consequently, their comfort with 21st–century skills should make their learning of history even more exciting by opening the vast world of digital sources—a world unknown to their teachers when we were their age.

But we still need to teach our students to think critically. They still need to know how to find relevant and reliable sources and to use digital tools and resources efficiently. They still need to know how to differentiate between primary and secondary sources and how to assess the validity and reliability of these sources. And they still need to know how to analyze and interpret information, how to evaluate conflicting sources, and how to use historical thinking in order to make an argument or a thesis.

If anything, our ability to move “back and forth” in time between the present and the past may be easier today, but our desire to understand the past remains the same.