Getting the Facts out of the Way

As a history teacher, I have a stormy relationship with “the facts.” I deeply believe that my goal as a teacher is not to move a certain quantity of information from my head to the students’ heads but to help them become stronger, more complex thinkers about history.  On the other hand, historical analysis must be grounded in evidence to be meaningful. How do I get students enough context to form sophisticated analyses without getting so bogged down that we never truly get beyond explanations?  I have seen too many history classes start with broad questions of interpretation and end up “going over the reading,” perhaps the most deadening activity known to teachers.

Students tend to arrive in 9th grade with strong backgrounds in synthesis.  They know how to summarize a reading. The strong ones, at least, know how to separate the important information from the less so.  They particularly know how to fill out a study guide and memorize it by Monday.  These are hard-won skills.  It is frustrating for them to be told that that’s no longer enough.

As a scholar, my instinct is to transform “facts” into hypotheses:  could there be problems with the translation of Hammurabi’s laws?  how do we know Sargon actually made it to the sea? what if Charlemagne’s empire existed more on paper than on the ground?  My students, I find, are often striving to turn hypotheses into facts:  once they have won a pronouncement from me or found one in the textbook, they have a “safe” answer, even if it’s an answer to a question no one should ever claim to be able to settle for sure, such as “Were the Crusades a bad thing?”

I’ve tried it all.  I’ve taught wide-ranging discussion classes on the development of world religions in which we all kicked back and talked about our own understandings of ethics and the universe.  The students loved it, and the discussions were wonderful, but I was left with the uneasy sense that they had learned more about themselves than about the history I was charged with teaching them.  The next year, I overcompensated in the other direction and, although I had shaped each day’s discussion around an open-ended question, I found myself acceding to student requests for more information and delivering mini-lectures, after which the discussion was usually dead.  And so it went.  Through it all, I spent a lot of time exhorting students to concentrate on the big picture, and they spent a lot of time asking me what would be on the test.

This year (how many times have I said that before!) I think I’ve finally found a balance I like.  Oddly enough, the answer for me has been to give “the facts” more prominence, not less.  Let me explain.

The major thing I’ve done is move “going over the chapter” up front and out of class time.  We spend about 1 1/2-2 weeks on a chapter (this has meant cutting out a lot of things I wish I could cover, of course, but that’s another post!).  At the start of each chapter, I give students a one-page study guide and a 3-5 minute narrated power point for the coming chapter.  (Here’s an example, in case you’re curious: Meso ppt) They’re not high art, but I try to get the basics on the table. These are the ONLY things I expect students to know by heart, and we get them out of the way on the first day.

By getting the “what’s on the test” question off my chest on the first day, I’ve eliminated the game of hide-and-seek.  Because that pool of material is so small, however, it leaves us with time and brain power to spend on other things. Every unit has an essential question (the question for our first unit, for example, is “What components of a complex society are essential?”), and we spend most of our class time exploring that question.  For that, I give students a lot of additional information:  their textbook, online articles, primary sources, site reports, excerpts from scholarly monographs (I try to find ones that will disagree).

I make a sharp distinction between these two types of information:  the latter group, they should not try to memorize, but should organize, understand, and be capable of using in an argument.  We do a lot of that as we go along, and I assess it with an open-notebook essay section on each unit test.  This is much closer, I think, to the way a scholar actually uses information.

I worried that I might be dumbing down my class by paring down the material I required students to know up front, but the opposite has happened.  Because students have a simple, shared informational basis to start with, I’m hearing them call each other on points of fact in our discussions far more often than I ever have before.  I’m also seeing them turn much more readily to references to support their arguments.  I think it’s because they’re not sitting there wondering “Gee, was I supposed to know that?”


About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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