Working with facts in a history class

Well, after a long hiatus, I’m back to thinking about how to manage the content side of the perpetual tug of war between “coverage” and skills in history classes.

Representation of high precision and low accuracy.

“High precision and low accuracy”

I said in an earlier post that, while I am not a big fan of memorization, I am all in favor of throwing lots of facts at students. The key, I think, is that the facts be a point from which to start work, the medium, rather than the desired output. I wanted to think out loud a little more about that.

You can’t “do” history without facts; they are our evidence. Events and sources are to historians as clay is to a sculptor. They are fundamental to what we do, but one never hears a sculptor say, “Here, let me show you how much clay I have.” Far too often, when I talk about history with students and adults alike, their first inclination is to rattle off a list of facts without doing anything with them. To me as a historian, the date of George Washington’s inauguration, without context, is as uninteresting as a lump of clay. It isn’t history until you do something with it: tell a story, make an argument, explain its significance or compare it to something else. So how do we get from history as a thing you know to history as a thing you do?

Here are my ideas. So far.

World history timeline

1) When you give kids facts, give them lots of them.  I think of this like a balanced diet–if students have a short account pre-packaged in a textbook, their natural inclination is to take this as the last word.  When they are confronted with quantity and variety:  a shelf of textbooks all saying subtly different things, an archive of primary sources that will shed light on different aspects of a situation depending on where they choose to dip their toes, or a range of newspaper reports, the implicit message is that whatever we do today will inevitably describe only a piece of the elephant. That’s what history is really like.

2) Don’t digest the facts for them. Let students grapple with contradictory evidence and discover for themselves the holes in the evidentiary background. It’s honest, and it’s more interesting.

3) Teach skepticism and other meta skills for dealing with facts explicitly. There is great power in asking students, “Do you buy that? Why?” I think sometimes we forget that skepticism and evidence-based judgement are as much learned habits of mind as analysis of change over time or close reading.

4) Look at facts in the context of questions. They should need to know more in order to complete the task at hand, rather than trying to guess how much of the reading will be on the test.

5) Stand for accuracy and precision. Not emphasizing memorization doesn’t mean not emphasizing details. High school students have little practice worrying about intellectual precision–they tend to want to grab the big ideas and run with them. This is, I think, better than the alternative, but it makes it our job to point out sweeping generalizations, insist on concrete evidence to support even the best synthesis, and draw students’ attention to the exceptions to the rule.

That’s an idiosyncratic set of guidelines, but it’s the best I can do for now. I’d love to hear other ideas:  care to share your own philosophy when it comes to the role of historical facts in the classroom?

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The perils of generalizing

My favorite writers about teaching share a holy zeal for change. I’ve been noticing lately that they tend to share something else, as well–a tendency to make sweepingly negative statements about the current state of teaching in the U.S.

Whether it’s James Leowen’s cogent arguments about what gets left out of history textbooks (Most famously in Lies My Teacher Told Me) or Grant Wiggins’s recent post “Dereliction of Duty by HS Teachers” or the impassioned, if problematic, documentary “Waiting for Superman,” reforming teachers tend to give the impression that they alone have understood the problem they are pointing out and, further, that the reason for this is that the teaching establishment is otherwise populated with burnt out idiots.

Wiggins’s Understanding By Design is on my bookshelf of all-time great teaching books. I have given Leowen’s Teaching What Really Happened to more than one new teacher. These guys are my heroes. Nonetheless, I think we need a change in tone.

This is not only because of the old adage about flies and honey (though if I find that a blog post supporting something for which I’ve argued for years leaves me feeling testy and defensive, it doesn’t bode particularly well for convincing someone for whom agreeing with the root idea would mean a real change in practice!). Every historical movement toward change has been split between boundary pushers and bridge builders, and every movement needs both. My quarrel with this kind of language is deeper than that:  I think it has a bad effect on how we see each other and, therefore, on how we think about the field.

For some reason, we teachers have a tendency to attach moral values and assumptions about motives to debates about best practices in a way that I think happens less in other fields. Doctors seem (at least to an outsider) to be able to say pretty damning things about the comparative ineffectiveness of a widely used method of treatment without simultaneously suggesting that their colleagues who use it do so because they are conscienceless quacks. We, on the other hand, seem very quick to accuse each other of complacency, power trips, fear, or other nefarious motives. I don’t think that does justice to the nuance and precision we expect of ourselves in other parts of our academic lives.

I teach a lot of ninth graders, and one of the comments I find myself writing over and over in the margins of papers is “Be careful about overgeneralizing!”  Were all medieval monks saintly? Were all knights violent? Do you really mean that these were tendencies and, if so, how so strong were they? What evidence of counter-tendencies must be addressed? We all know those questions; the habits of careful thought they lead to are, I submit, among the greatest gifts of a good education.

They are easy habits to forget when in the heat of debate about the thing to which you have devoted your life. One of the things I had to learn when I started serving as a department chair and was forced to engage with everyone impartially was that the teachers with whom I had been feuding bitterly over curriculum had redeeming qualities. I still think I’m right and they’re wrong about certain things–I can be stubborn that way–but I’ve come to understand the reasons my colleagues think the way they do. As I’ve slugged it out toe-to-toe with some people I respect, it has become very clear to me that none of them hold those positions for venal, self-serving, or shallow reasons. Few of them are not highly intelligent. Ours is a philosophical dispute–one with high stakes, as all important academic questions are–not a clash between Good and Evil teachers. What should be the goal of an education in history, and what count as fair criteria for judging that?  What really does work in the classroom? (and will what worked for me and my students work for you and yours?) What can we safely accept as proof that something works?

I have always taught in strong independent schools. Maybe things are different on big city public schools, where teachers are working under far greater constraints of time and resources, but I rather doubt it. The public school teachers whose paths have crossed mine have tended to be, if anything, more altruistic than their private school counterparts, if almost universally wearier and more frustrated. In a lifetime spent mostly in schools of one description or another, I have met teachers who blew me away and teachers I thought were pretty darn bad, but only maybe one or two who I felt did not truly believe what they were doing was “putting the students first.”

Since I started teaching myself, I have never met a teacher who didn’t do something better than I do. I steal from other teachers constantly, as do most of the other good teachers I know:  that’s how good ideas travel. But none of that will happen if we start building high walls and consigning most of our colleagues to the other side of them.

If we do that, not only will change come harder, but the end result will be poorer. By labeling those on the other side of proposals to change the way we teach as definitionally bad teachers, we are free to ignore them. By acknowledging that there are genuine intellectual objections being raised and addressing them, we stand a chance of reaching an end result that is stronger, subtler, and more successful, as well as more intellectually honest. This is how the academic process works. This is what we are trying to teach our kids.

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Everything in the Book

I just took the written test to convert my long-held Maine driver’s license into a California one. It was not a terribly hard test in the grand scheme of tests I have taken over time, but it was a hard test for which to study, and that got me thinking about my students.image of roundabout from CA driver's handbook

As a new teacher, I was strongly opposed to study guides on the grounds that they encouraged a top-down, spoon-feeding approach rather than pushing students to figure out for themselves what was important. I distinctly remember telling worried freshmen that figuring out what to study was part of the task.

It was an easy thing to say, because, after 23-odd years of school, I know how to study for academic tests, generically, and have known for so long that it seems to me intuitive. Although an individual teacher might put an unexpected question on a test, I would be unlikely to be so far wrong in my estimation of what was important in a body of material as to do really badly on a test. If I were, I would be inclined to blame the teacher–I have, at this point, that much faith in the unspoken norms which I have absorbed over the years.

But I didn’t know how to study for the California driver’s test at all. The handbook issued by the DMV contained several quite disparate types of information: bureaucratic details about the license application process, concrete lists of laws governing driving, advice about strategies for safe driving under various circumstances, and statistics meant to drive home the need to avoid various unsafe practices, such as leaving children in parked cars. I didn’t know how to study this book, not because I struggled with the skill of prioritizing information (as we often say of students in the same boat), but because I didn’t know anything about the person writing the test. My sense of what was important was irrelevant until I knew whether the DMV conceived of the task as a test of practical knowledge or laws, whether California bureaucrats were more interested in making sure that I had paid enough attention to the hazards of driving while drowsy or that I had understood the colors that designated different parking categories. Without this information, my only viable strategy was to rule out the most unlikely information in the book–opening hours of DMV offices, for example–and memorize everything else impartially. This, I realized, is exactly what my students do.

I had already shifted my thinking on study guides: among other things, it seems to me that getting the endless Q and A about “what’s on the test?” out of the way winds up de-emphasizing the test and clearing the ground for us to concentrate on the real questions of the course. But my DMV experience served as a vivid reminder for me that, when I ask students to decide what to study, I am really asking them to decide, not what’s important, but what I will think is important–because I’m writing the test, what I think (or what the DMV thinks) will determine success or failure. Given that inescapable fact, I think it behooves teachers to be as transparent as possible about expectations.

That’s half of my take-away from this experience:  study guides (or other devices for clearly conveying what a test is really testing) are not pandering; they’re the most efficient way to be sure students are putting their efforts where we want them.

The other half, though, has to do with that intuitive sense of what to study I was talking about.  Sooner or later, my students will have tests, in college if not before, for which they have little or no guidance. So it’s worth it to help them understand those unspoken norms. I would submit that the best way to do that, also, is to be transparent about them, to make those patterns explicit rather than implicit until they become familiar to students. Simply making them guess until they get it right, while perfectly effective in the long run, is less efficient and more painful than talking about it upfront.

In the meantime, I’m heartily grateful that, having passed the California test, I will not have to develop further expertise in the norms of motor vehicle departments. Some sorts of knowledge are more fun to acquire than others.

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Taking risks: an experiment in letting go of the reins

I barely spoke in my new senior elective last week. When I came into class, I didn’t know what the students had read. I wasn’t sure what we’d be emphasizing in class.

'Revolution Rules' Sprayed on Police Truck

‘Revolution Rules’ Sprayed on Police Truck (Photo credit: Jonathan Rashad)

No, I’m not confessing to a mid-life crisis. I’m teaching an experiment. This is the hardest, scariest class I have ever taught and, I think, the best. My kids are running my class and, so far, they’re doing a wonderful job.

The class is on the Arab Spring, which makes it a challenge to begin with.  This is history that has not yet been digested and transformed from news to summary. There is no textbook (the number of published global summaries available when I was picking books was still in the single digits, and almost all of those were memoirs, policy analyses, or collections of articles, not straight historical narratives. I am using a collection of essays about twice a month to give students a little more concentrated background, but that’s it). There is no canon. There are lots of talking points, but not yet any conventional wisdom.

That’s why I picked it: I want this to be a chance for my students to think deeply about the process by which “things that happened” are transformed into “history” and the difference between the two. I wanted to give them a chance to get in on the ground floor.

Given that, I decided when I was designing the course to try to create a structure flexible enough that students could largely determine its direction.  I usually have students take some leadership–assigning students to lead primary source discussions, for example–but I wanted to make that an intrinsic part of the course, rather than an add-on.

Here’s what the course looks like. We’re covering four countries in 12 weeks: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Each country gets a little over two weeks (the rest of the time goes to an intro to the region, wrap up and a mock conference at the end, and work on term papers), and each country has a team of three or four student specialists. The first week is devoted to a broad overview–the kids read/view/explore a collection of web resources I put together, then an essay from the book, then three articles that they each choose and which we analyze comparatively. They also collect resources that they think are particularly useful on topics I’ve chosen (social media, Islamists, women, the military, etc) and post them to an evolving collection of links curated by the country team. We watch some videos and argue a lot about news coverage.  Our mission is to hammer out a rough narrative of key events on which we can all agree by the end of the week.

The second week is run by the country team. The class meets four days a week, and each day is devoted to one of the subtopics we collected materials on and run by one member of the team (she has the option of handing it off to me any time after the halfway mark, but so far they’ve been rather reluctant to do so). The reading is any three resources in the category (I keep saying resources, because lots of them are clips from TV news or live videos of events) other than the ones the student posted him or herself. This is the scariest part for me, because I never know until discussion starts who will have read what, but it also makes our discussions much deeper and more wide-ranging, because their choices cover a much wider gamut than I could assign in a single reading. Everybody blogs about the topic the night before, so the temptation to coast on other people’s reading is minimized, and the discussion leader draws from the blogs in shaping her discussion. I set the topics, but, already, they don’t always stay set–last week’s team detected an interesting emphasis on the intersection of women’s issues and class in the comments and didn’t hesitate to propose throwing out the discussion on the economy I had planned.  It was probably a smart teaching decision on their part.

In the third week, we have one last grand summative discussion, where I get to gently circle back if necessary, and then the students write an in-class essay, and then the whole thing starts again.

This is a scary class for me to teach. It’s scary because I’m trusting the kids an awful lot:  I worry that the ones not running the class will stop doing the readings–no chance for a pop quiz, because everyone read (or should have read) something different. I worry that the discussion leader will blow it and class will be horribly boring or superficial, or even lead students to poor conclusions. I worry that students will be unhappy at how much responsibility I’m asking them to take, and I’m worried that parents or colleagues may think that I’m not really “teaching.” It’s also scary because I have to give up a certain amount of authority–because the class is so unpredictable, it’s hard for me to be as thoroughly prepared for its twists and turns as I would usually be; I find myself saying, “Hm. I don’t know,” disconcertingly often. I think this is actually really valuable for students to see, but it does cut a teacher down to size.

I’ve structured the class as carefully as I can upfront to make sure that, once things start to roll, they roll well.  This class, ironically, has far more complex underpinnings than most of my classes–each night’s work is broken up into several tasks–reading, posting, commenting, etc.–I’ve set up a website wiki with separate areas for all the different sorts of posts, I’ve given them careful instructions on how to post, where to post, and how to decide what to post. I’ve had endless out of class conversations with country teams and answered midnight emails. But I also know that, once I’ve set the stage, I have to let it happen, and part of taking risks is being prepared for the occasional sub-optimal class. I think it’s worth it.

So far, the results have been everything I could ask for. The discussions have been lively and participation has been surprisingly even-handed.  The kids have gotten to some deep and complicated questions, even though they haven’t always seen the aspects of them I would have pointed out (I sneak some of those in later). The posts have been thoughtful and the work has been more than required. Everybody has been enthusiastic.

What makes me most excited, though, is what happened at our first debrief. On Friday, at the end of our first team-run week, I held a 15-minute debrief. I had meant to focus on the quality of the discussion and improving discussion skills, but they wanted to talk about the class as a whole, and they hardly let me get a word in edgewise.  They were excited, they were proud of themselves, and they had ideas to make it better. They thought they should comment on other people’s posts, rather than just writing their own, to get more online conversation going. They thought the country team ought to run something all together in addition to their solo turns. They wondered if I wouldn’t like to participate in the general conversations and promised that, if I did, they would treat me as just another voice. One of them suggested that, to assure that, I might try participating but only in question form. In other words, they have now, seamlessly, begun designing the course.

I’ve never had that before. I always check in with my students about how things are going, and I often get good suggestions, but those conversations tend to follow one of two patterns: usually, students are either cheerful and don’t want to change anything or they are (however tactfully) uncomfortable and want me to do something differently. This time, they were overwhelmingly positive but wanted to tinker with everything.

I loved it. I have been saying for years that my goal was to help students truly, authentically, see the class and their learning as something they owned and were responsible for. On Friday, for the first time, I felt as though I had fully reached that goal.


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Principles for teaching facts

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role–multiple roles really–that The Facts play in my history class, and I’ve evolved some principles for myself that I hope will make the myriad ad hoc decisions I make in the course of a year easier.


Memorization (Photo credit: Jesse Gardner)

1) It’s important to distinguish–for myself and for my students–between facts that need to be learned by heart, facts that need to be understood, and facts that need to be synthesized, organized and made accessible for the completion of other tasks.

2) For every piece of information I ask students to spend time memorizing, I should have some specific reason in mind.  The most common justification for memorization, I think, is utility: quick access to certain facts and ideas may be important to facilitate further inquiry, for example–we won’t get far in exploring Jefferson’s legacy if students have to stop and say, “Wait, who is Jefferson again?”

There are other sorts of justifications, though for memorization.  One is emphasis.  If chosen carefully, the things you ask students to memorize say something about the things you value. Here’s an example of that from Matt Rozell’s interesting blog on history teaching.  In asking students to memorize the preamble to the Constitution, he lays the groundwork for a shared awareness of it to which a class could return throughout the year.  He also makes it clear that these founding ideas are important.  If he asked students to memorize one passage a week, on the other hand, the effect might be different.

3) Memorization should be a small part of the things students do with facts in my class.  In itself, memorization is a fairly passive activity.  It works against the idea of inquiry, exploration, and argument by suggesting that there are a set of pat answers that can simply be absorbed without questioning. It puts all the power in the hands of the person providing the material to be memorized.

4) Technical understandings should be promptly assessed in another context. Understanding is not the same as memorizing. Too often in history, I see learning objectives that read, “Students should understand that X” coupled with lessons that seek to reach that goal by, essentially, saying “Tell students X.”  Some facts can be defined and memorized without explanation–students may need to know that Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican before embarking on a re-enactment of his campaign–and that’s fine, but complex understandings can’t.  To be sure they understand, students need to be able to test, transfer, and apply those understandings.

5) Memorization and transfer of technical understandings should be as efficient as possible.  These are tools, things we need to get on the table before the interesting stuff can happen.  As such, it makes sense for me to make them as easy to acquire as possible.  Making students guess about them just takes up time and makes them loom larger than they should.

Lebanon facts and numbers

Lebanon facts and numbers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6) In the synthesized/organized/familiarized category, more facts are good. Memorization leads to passivity.  Facts, qua facts, do not. If students are to argue with historians and each other, they need ammunition, and that ammunition is best drawn from a rich, deep, and varied pool of evidence.  It also seems to me useful if some of those facts are contradictory:  that is, after all, part of the nature of evidence, and artificially eliminating it makes it much harder for students to reach a conclusion that is truly theirs.

7) Sophisticated synthesis of information is a learned skill, and an important one. Students need to learn to summarize, prioritize, and classify material.  These are skills they will use in almost any pursuit.  We ask them to use these skills often in high school classes, but we rarely discuss them seriously as intellectual tasks.  To master them, students need both explicit guidance and independent practice:  filling out teacher-generated graphic organizers or study guides does relatively little to teach these skills.

8) The collection of information should be as goal driven as possible. When was the last time in your adult life that you needed to compile a measured amount (say 1 page) of facts about a subject without any particular purpose?  Even a simple goal–make the case for the best route from Constantinople to Xi’an or (here’s an example I borrowed from my colleague, David Neale) sell “your” battle as the most important of the Civil War–gives meaning to the collection of information and introduces an element of active thought that is missing if I simply give students a list of questions to answer.

Those are my rules.  What are yours?

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Why Do We Need to Know?

The vast majority of clashes between history teachers seem to me to go back to the

No substitute for memorization

question of “What do students need to know?”  There is broad general agreement on the skills students should acquire–critical reading, analysis of primary sources, argumentation, writing, speaking–and on habits of mind such as consideration of change over time, contextualization, and cause and effect.  We argue sometimes about the emphasis to put on one sort of narrative vs. another–should our junior U.S. History class be organized around patterns of social change or shifts in political power, economic determinism or cultural analysis?–but I rarely find myself arguing that a colleague in flat out wrong in his interpretation of a historical event. Where the daggers are drawn, however, is when we get down to our handling of that content. Ask any three teachers what students should know about U.S. History and you are likely to get answers that differ radically in scope. Should students memorize dates?  How many key terms are too many?  Should assessments emphasize narrative or argument? What can we leave out?

I would argue that the first step toward reaching a consensus on more of these questions is to spend a little less time asking what students need to know and a little more asking why they need to know it. Our answers to that second question will go a long way toward clarifying, I think, the different kinds of “knowing” that we have in mind and should offer a sort of litmus test for making decisions about the question of what to include and what to leave out. So here are my answers to the ‘why?’ question.  I’d love to hear yours.

So why do students need to learn historical facts by heart when they can find the basic narrative of virtually any event online or in a library in a matter of minutes?

1) Students need to remember ideas they might not otherwise know to look for. I want my students to have patterns they can apply to contemporary events (post-colonial India, for example, might offer a lens through which to consider the Arab Spring). I want my students to have a background against which to situate any new events they decide to read up on:  otherwise, history would be made up of purely isolated episodes.  I want my students to have enough context to be alert to historical oversimplifications.  Taken together, these might be called historical literacy:  a framework within which to process new knowledge.

The kind of knowledge I’m talking about here is made up of broad strokes:  these are the sorts of things around which I frame essential questions and unit goals. Ironically, although these are the elements of knowledge I hope students will remember 20 years from now, they are not the sorts of things I can usefully offer in a study guide to be memorized. “Knowing” history in this way requires that students explore it in enough depth to reach lasting, memorable, complex conclusions of their own.

2) Students need to understand aspects of events that are not self-evident. Sometimes, history is complicated, contradictory, or counter-intuitive.  While you can read about the development of an economic bubble by yourself, it is likely to make a lot more sense to you if someone sits down and explains it.

Technical understandings are much more directly transferable than broad thematic conclusions.  These are, usually, explanations that are not so much valuable in themselves as bridges that must be crossed before one can form a complex understanding of a bigger picture.  Teaching these may require us to be imaginative in the ways we get the ideas across:  we need to know not only that the student has memorized an explanation in the form we gave it but that he or she can apply it. Given that caveat, though, this is the sort of thing it may sometimes make sense to ask students to be able to reproduce from memory.  The litmus test, I would submit, would be again the question of why they need to understand this particular concept: it should not be an end in itself so much as a tool applied to some further inquiry.

3) Students need access to a critical mass of information. Without examples and details, there is no way for students to authentically arrive at their own analyses: evidence is essential to any historical argument. History classes need a lot of facts to provide a starting point for our discussions and this, I think, is the basis for many of our struggles.

Students need to be exposed to these facts.  They need the ability to understand them, organize them, and be comfortable putting them together in multiple ways.  These are, in themselves, important skills.  It is not clear to me, however, that they need to remember this sort of facts, as long as they are familiar enough with them to know where to find them again.

If we take this approach, we will be asking students to do something much more like what “real” historians do:  since my first year of grad school, I have spent no time at all memorizing sequences of events but lots of time quickly “getting up” the history of an era or region–reading, distilling, summarizing and organizing information to serve one specific purpose or another–and even more time thinking about their deeper meanings and implications.  In Making Learning Whole, David Perkins talks about the value of letting students “play the real game” as a way to create greater engagement and give learning real meaning; I find that a compelling argument.

Very often in high school history classes, though, we seem to be asking students to memorize a lot of facts in this third category.  Maybe that’s because they are the easiest to communicate and assess. Maybe it’s because we’ve agreed that they’re important without asking “important in what way?” Maybe it’s because that’s what we remember doing in high school ourselves.  Whatever the reason, I would argue that the key to getting ourselves out of the coverage vs. critical thinking tug of war is to be very, very clear about what needs to be memorized and what really only needs to be understood.

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Teaching and Learning

I’m just back from a technology conference, and I feel as though I should have something significant to say about technology. I did learn a lot at the conference, but most of what I learned has very little to do with computers.

I had a great conversation with an ethics teacher from a Catholic school about how to talk to students about cheating on tests (his advice was, essentially, to worry less about preventing cheating outright than about making it clear to kids that, if they cheated, that was conscious choice). I got some exciting new ideas about tinkering and putting kids to work with found objects. I heard a lot of anecdotes about how people review and how they generate energy in their classrooms. But I’m not quite sure how any of this fits into the picture of technology.

I did learn some new tricks for my computer–who knew that PhotoBooth could serve as a green screen? I played with various programs meant to facilitate group brainstorming, one of which I will probably put to use in my classroom. I didn’t, however, hear anything that fundamentally changes the way I’m going to use computers  or iPads or the Internet in my class this year.

I’m still really glad I went. The thing I’m going to take away from this conference is not anything about the tools I use, so much as it is the joy of spending two days with a group of teachers for whom it is axiomatic that we can all make our teaching better. That time just talking about teaching is what I really crave.

To often, when teachers talk at lunch or around the coffee machine, it’s about the logistical issues of our lives: the time taken up by assemblies, the work of grading, some student getting on everybody’s nerves. Too often, when we do talk about making teaching better, teachers jump to the conclusion that that means there’s something wrong.

I’ve been thinking about why that is. Some of it is that our lives are very, very busy during the school year: making time to think about teaching in the abstract can seem laughable when your immediate priority is to grade 15 essays before the start of F Block. I wonder if we can build conversations about teaching–how and why, not just what–into the day-to-day fabric of the school, so that the cost is not so high.

There’s another thing that keeps teachers from talking about the things closest to their heart, though, and that’s fear.  Teaching is an intensely personal thing, a relationship that grows between us and our students.  For most of us, it is a calling–something we do because we think it makes the world better, not just to earn a paycheck.  It is, in a strange way, a lonely thing:  although teachers spend all day interacting with students, colleagues, parents and administrators, we do the core of our work in isolation from our colleagues, alone in a room with our students. We rarely see each other work.  For all these reasons, criticism of one’s teaching can be painful, and, for the same reasons, it’s easy to be critical of each other.

I hear sweeping pronouncements about other people’s teaching all the time.  We say, “X is really good at classroom management,” or “Y is too positivist.”  It is rare to hear a teacher praised, not for what he is, but for what he is trying to do.  What would our schools be like if we spent more time saying “Y is thinking a lot this year about the way her students view discussion,” or “what I like about X is how thoughtful he has been lately about fact acquisition and retention.”

This should sound familiar to teachers:  it’s growth mindset, right?  But while we are all mindful these days of the way in which thinking of learning as a process that never ends and ourselves as able to control our travels on that path is good for our students, we seem to be forgetting all of that when we consider our own teaching. What would our schools be like if we truly all saw each other as constantly growing in the art of teaching?

It is this growth that makes  teaching exciting to me in the first place. I chose it because it is a challenge I think I will never reach the end of. To me, saying, “We’re all experienced teachers.  We don’t need to spend time talking about it,” makes about as much sense as Picasso saying, “I know how to control a paintbrush, so I don’t need to spend time thinking about the work of other artists.” We’re just getting to the fun part.


That is why I teach, because it is a field which I can never exhaust (although sometimes, like today, it exhausts me).

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Thinking about knowing

I find myself in a teaching situation this year that requires me to emphasize factual recall more than I have done for the past few years. This is forcing me to engage in some serious introspection about what I do, how I’m doing it, and whether it’s possible to have it all.

The balancing act between “facts” and “skills” is a particularly slippery one for historians, more so at this moment in time than for any other discipline except biology, I think.  In physics and math, the things students are asked to know by heart tend to be (a) fairly finite and (b) demonstrably necessary for the ability to do things–I need to know the formula for acceleration before I can calculate the meeting place of two trains. English teachers, on the other hand, have long been comfortable subordinating their “content” to skills: when an English teacher says it is important for students to “know” Shakespeare, she tends to mean something quite different in terms of experience, outcomes, and assessments than when a history teacher says a student should “know” American history.

As a matter of fact, I’m not sure we really know what we mean by “knowing” history, or, if we do, many of us in fact mean different things at different times.  That’s a huge problem for history teachers. Every history department I have ever been in has been split by debates between advocates of “content” or “narrative” and advocates of “skills” or “habits of mind.”

I find myself torn internally by this same debate, by the competing pressures to expose students to the sweeping story of centuries and to help them see history as I do, as a shifting debate in which they can participate rather than a static account of which they are the recipients. I find myself vacillating, in my planning, between these two poles and wondering why they seem so much in opposition in my discipline. English teachers are not driven in the same way to debate the importance of reading the book vs. analyzing it, nor do I hear physics teachers arguing about whether they should teach students to employ formulae or do experiments.  I may be wrong, and I know these disciplines have their own pedagogical challenges, but I feel as though our goals as history teachers more often seem to us to be in conflict than those of my colleagues in other departments.

There are genuine tensions between breadth and depth, between carving out a manageable area for student exploration and emphasizing the fundamental interconnectedness of history, between exposing students to the complexity of expert analysis and inviting them to offer their own interpretations. I think the bigger challenge, though, is to sort out what we mean by “knowing” history. Do we mean that they should have been exposed to it, should be familiar with it?  Do we mean that they should be able to make sense of it at some deeper level, explain or apply it? Do we mean that they should know it by heart and be able to repeat it without prompting?

Are there some historical facts that are so important that students should take them on faith and commit them to memory?  How do we decide what those are? Can we articulate why students need to know them and how they will use them?

Is understanding different from knowing? Can the two stand separately?  In other words, can there be certain things that a student may not be able to produce from memory but, when provided with a memory jogging prompt, can explain and analyze with some complexity?

How do we deal with historical details which may not individually have deep significance in and of themselves but which students will need to “know” (there’s that word again–maybe I mean something here like “have access to”) in order to derive the deeper truths that we do think are important?  How can I give students enough ownership and mastery of these details to let them independently explore the bigger picture without the time spent acquiring these details over-shadowing said big questions?

I propose to spend some time and space in this blog thinking about these questions over the next little while. They are questions without simple answers, but I think that, until we engage with them, we won’t be able to escape the sense that so many history teachers have of being pulled in two directions at once.

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The Power of Questions

Over the summer, I read Santana and Rothstein’s book, Make Just One Change:  Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.  I kind of wanted to dislike it–there’s a slight tone of just-follow-these-three-easy-steps-to-weight-loss-in-15-days which bugs me–but I have to say that, of all the books I read this summer, it has had the largest effect on my teaching.

Because student-driven discussions are an important piece of what I think I’m looking for, students asking questions is not new to me.  What is new is the idea that this is a learned skill.  That’s obvious once I say it, right?  But I have to confess that I never really spent much time in class teaching students to ask questions. I’m trying that this year and, so far, I’m loving it. I don’t follow the entire Question Formulating Technique (TM), but I do build the conscious generation of questions into my class regularly. I used questions as the focus for my first day of class this year like this:

1) Talked briefly about the importance of questions to scholars:  what’s the point of asking questions?  What’s the point of us, here in this class, asking questions?

2) Split students into groups of three to brainstorm as many questions about U.S. History, taken globally, as they could in 5 minutes.

3) Asked each group to choose the three questions from their list that would be most interesting to pursue this year, following any criteria they liked, and write those on the board. They ranged from broad, philosophical questions like “What does it mean to be American?” to narrow, factual ones like “Who were the presidents?”

4) Brought the class back together and asked them to group the questions in categories.  At first, the categories were all topical (questions about politics, questions about war, etc), but gradually students started to talk about facts vs. judgments, interpretation vs. events, and open- vs. closed-ended questions. By this time, we’d run out of time, so I let things sit there, but we’ve come back to the categories they established from time to time in the course of our discussions.

I decided the other day that it was time for a more formal return to the topic of questions, so the day before I had planned a no-intervention-from me discussion of the Declaration of Independence I asked them to brainstorm questions and choose a few to structure their discussion around.  I was really struck by the depth and variety of the questions, even in my weaker class.  Here’s what they came up with:

This is, to me at least, the sort of real thinking about the subject that I’m always looking for and so often falling short of.

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Approaches to Class Discussion

Well, the end of the semester hit me, and a few days turned into weeks, but now I’m back to thinking about discussions.

I spent awhile this spring systematically reading my way through other the descriptions other teachers have posted on the web of their approaches to discussion classes as a sort of informal professional development.  (There is a lot of more formally published material on discussion classes, of course, but a web survey seemed like an efficient way to get a grasp on actual practices).

There are several organizations out there working to raise the level of discussion teaching by presenting their own systematic approaches: the two best known are probably Exeter’s Harkness System and the National Paideia Center’s Paideia Seminars.  I thought it would be interesting to compare these, and other approaches to discussion, but what I found was that there was so much variation among teachers who characterize themselves as following one system or the other that clear lines of distinction are almost impossible to draw. It was, however, intriguing to see the ways in which they varied.

Neither Exeter nor Paideia offers much detail about its approach on its website, possibly because both raise funds by offering workshops, so I used the accounts of several teachers returning from workshops as a starting place.  The best Paideia description I found is here and the best Harkness description is here.  There is also an absolutely lovely description of one teacher’s first steps in implementing a Harkness approach here–I particularly like the idea of starting with the text itself, even before discussion is introduced.

What Harkness and Paideia (and most of the less systematized discussions of Socratic seminars) share are an emphasis on texts as a source of shared evidence for discussion, an idea that the physical arrangement of classrooms has a powerful effect on what happens in them, and an insistence on student ownership of the process of discussion.

Most everyone seems to agree that, to achieve student ownership, it is important that teachers take a big step back, figuratively and, sometimes, literally.  There seems to be a fair amount of disagreement out there about what that means.  Some argue for total silence no matter what, even to the point of avoiding eye contact, while others envision quite a bit of guiding, with the teacher posing well-crafted, open-ended questions at key junctures:  Socratic Seminars.

There’s also a lot of variation in grading. One of the perennial problems of discussion classes is what to do about the students who say little and coast on their peers’ efforts or, on the other hand, the students who dominate the discussion to the point where other, valuable contributions may not be heard.  One approach to that dilemma is to give the students a single shared grade for the discussion, making them in essence responsible for policing each other.  The drawback, of course, is that this may penalize some students for the failings of others.  Others choose to give individual grades, either daily or more infrequently. There’s the beginnings of a good discussion of those issues here.

One innovation of the Paideia people is the “fishbowl” approach, in which only some of the class participates in the discussion at any given time.  Many teachers use this as a way to critique the discussion, assigning each student in the outer circle the task of evaluating the contributions a student in the fishbowl and rotating them in and out.  In one interesting case I saw, the inner circle and outer circle students worked together, with “wingmen” passing information and suggestions to a speaker in the “fishbowl”:  this is, I think, an attempt to differentiate instruction and allow for greater reflection.

Teachers also seem to vary widely on the role discussion plays within their wider curriculum:  some have adopted a completely discussion-based approach, with discussion every day, while some save it for special occasions, such as every Friday, or for certain sorts of work.

What is one to make of all this variety? It seems to me that there are a number of equally good approaches to discussion teaching, some probably better for certain situations that others.  The important thing seems to me to make these decisions consciously and with one’s particular teaching conditions clearly in mind and to be prepared to revisit them when things change.

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