What History Teachers Can Learn From the Karate Kid! 👊

how to make history interesting

Ever get the feeling some of your students are thinking, ‘why the heck should I care about history? This is pointless!’ I sure did. Until I learned a valuable lesson from Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid!

As a ‘90s kid, I grew up loving the Karate Kid movies. In the original one, Mr. Miyagi, the maintenance man where Daniel lives, agrees to teach Daniel karate since he was getting bullied by other students. 

Except, at first, Mr. Miyagi's lessons are just a bunch of chores for Daniel to do around the house.

Daniel-san paints the fence.
Daniel-san waxes the car.
Daniel-san sands the floor.
Daniel-san paints the house.

He saw no value in what he was doing and thought it was essentially busy work. This is the teacher equivalent of our students complaining that what they're learning is pointless, useless, and a waste of their time.

tips for history teachers

Finally, Mr. Miyagi demonstrates to Daniel-san that the chores he was having him do were developing the muscle memory and movements necessary for fundamental defense in karate.

Without knowing it, Daniel-san was learning karate.

And just like that, with one single lesson, Daniel-san understood the value in his teachings. All it took was one quick lesson to demonstrate the practicality of his teachings and Daniel-san was bought in!

And this got my history teacher's brain thinking. 🧐 

Because we often tell students, "We study history to better understand the world today" and, "We study history so we don't repeat the same mistakes as in the past."

how to make history relevant

While this is true, we rarely create opportunities and activities that get students to apply the lessons from the past to understand the world today. Or use what they learned from history to address current issues that impact their lives. Or have them reflect on how what they learned from history can help them live richer lives or be better people.

When I finally began implementing lessons that made history more relevant, I noticed engagement in my room change. "Bridges to the Present" activities get students to learn how a topic from history is impacting the world today.  

'Historical Connections Scavenger Hunts' challenges students to scour campus looking for real-world connections that relate to our unit. And simple discussions on 'whats the most important reason we need to from X to create a better future?' all help students find more value in history.

advice for history teachers


Imagine after studying the Cold War, you challenged students to develop a US foreign policy plan for responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine applying lessons from history in their plan.

Or after learning about child labor during the industrial revolution, they learn about child labor in the world today and develop a public awareness campaign based on reformers strategies in the nineteenth century. 

Do you think your students would find history class more meaningful? Do you think this could lead to greater engagement and buy-in into your lessons? I do and its what I noticed with my students when I began doing these activities more and more. 

If you’re interested in learning more, I do teach all about how to make history relevant in my course, “Make History Engaging, Exciting, and Empowering” and it is still open for new members! 

So lets take a lesson from the Karate Kid and Mr. Miyagi and help our students see the value in what they're learning! 

Happy teaching & learning,
Dan Lewer
History For Humans
2020 Hawai'i History Teacher of the Year

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