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Making A Difference

Teaching History in the Present Tense

David Moss

When Professor David Moss debuted his case-based class, History of American Democracy, he introduced a new way of thinking about the subject: “We’re looking at history as not just a series of things that happened, but as a series of things that are about to happen,” says Moss. “We get to see that people were making difficult decisions and put ourselves in those moments, which is the essence of the case method.”

The class—an atypical mix of Harvard undergraduates and MBA students—is consistently oversubscribed, and now Moss is taking his case approach to history into high school classrooms to reshape how teenagers learn about American democracy. In the fall of 2015, Moss and a small team launched a pilot program with 23 high school history and civics teachers in five states and Washington, DC. Results from the pilot—which reached upwards of 500 students—were strongly positive, and plans are under way to expand the program over the next three years.

“Sometimes we get an oversimplified view of history: these are the things that happened and they had to happen exactly that way,” says Moss. With the case method, students—in high school, college, or HBS—realize there’s more to the story. “People get more engaged with history.”

(Published July 2016)

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