I have been blogging a lot about change and the need to teach our children differently in order to prepare them for the global economy. I thought I would share some examples from Tony Wagner’s book, Most Likely to Succeed, to assist you with understanding the changes necessary. Some of you who had outstanding teachers prior to the days of a test-driven curriculum will actually remember similar examples from your school days.
Here are a couple of history experiences to contrast and illustrate the differences between ineffective and inspiring history classes.
“Case Study #1.
In one middle-school class, students spend a week memorizing the capitals of the fifty U.S. states. Students cram for the test questions like “What is the capital of North Dakota?” Some get it right, others get it wrong, few remember it, and those that do derive no benefit as an adult from this retained trivia.
A second class goes back in time and reads newspapers, journals, and diaries from the year 1850, when the seat for the first Legislature of California was, believe it or not, Monterey. Students—at first alone, then in groups – are asked to take a position on where they would locate the capital of California, explain why, present their conclusions to classmates, and debate with peers. Then they analyze whether the choice California made I 1854 was a good one.
Case Study #2.
In this conventional high school class, the teacher lectures for two class periods on the history of the Vietnam War. Students take notes, cram on material (e.g., the year the first U.S. troops went to Vietnam), and are tested on factual (or near factual) recall. Kids develop some familiarity with the historical timeline around the Vietnam War, its outcome, and its consequences.
In a second high school class, students read a manageable number of primary documents (newspaper articles, essays, op-eds, excerpts from history texts) from 1964. They are presented with the fact that when the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution came to a vote in the U. S. Senate, only two senators opposed it. They work in teams on the following question: “Why do you think the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gained overwhelming support?” Each team presents its views to classmates and responds to questions. Students can use any available resource to support their work (we observe kids doing these types of challenges who resourcefully find people or classes all over the world and interview subjects via Skype as part of their research). They then explore whether the Gulf of Tonkin vote should have imparted lessons to our legislators in 2002 when the overwhelming majority of U.S. senators voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq.
In these case studies, the first class spends a week largely memorizing facts – any of which can be readily looked up. The second class spends a comparable amount of time on engaging issues that help them develop critical skills. The first class is characterized by boredom, irrelevance, and a lack of retention. With the second model (and Stanford’s Reading Like a Historian program has challenges like these), classrooms are bursting with energy, and the student learning is consequential. Teachers and peers give excellent feedback. Students assess their own work in a way that’s reflective. Achievements can be captured on digital portfolios.
But you can’t assign a student a precise score, or rank students on a national basis, on a nuanced argument about support for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. And that’s why our history classes are, in Joe Friday’s words, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
I hope these examples help explain the direction of education that we should be moving toward. My next blog, Teacher Spotlight, will give you another example of one of our own teacher’s creative lesson.