On Monday, I came across this article on The Atlantic website: “A Better Way to Teach History.” It should be required reading for all history teachers. The author describes an undergraduate class at Harvard taught by Professor David Moss, who does most of his teaching at the Harvard Business School.

In a spacious classroom in Aldrich Hall on the Harvard Business School campus, 100 students are passionately discussing a case called “Battle Over a Bank.” But these aren’t MBA students deliberating over how much the government should regulate the financial sector. This group of mostly undergraduates, guided by the award-winning Harvard Business School professor David Moss, is diving into the fierce 1791 debate over whether the Constitution could be interpreted to allow the fledgling U.S. government the power to form a bank at all.

This class, “History of American Democracy,” is no pedestrian historical survey course. It uses the case method—the business school’s signature teaching technique—to immerse undergraduates (as well as a limited number of HBS students) in critical episodes in the development of American democracy.

The article was a revelation. As someone who is committed to a more constructivist classroom, I am always looking for tools and techniques to add to my toolbox. The Harkness method forms the cornerstone of my pedagogical approach, but students (and I!) sometimes need a change of pace. The case study approach looks like a wonderful way to bring the concept of contingency alive for students–to illustrate the present is profoundly shaped by each decision made in the past. By extension, the decisions we make in the present will shape the future.

Along those lines, the case study method offers a way to engage students in the learning process and also, as the article states, “help students develop an instinct for how to respond even to problems—whether they be furor over same sex marriage or a massive financial crisis—that feel unprecedented. Through sheer repetitive exposure to problems and problem-solving, students learn the art of decision-making.” This is very much in keeping with my vision of history education as a key to civic preparation.

Last fall, I discovered the National History Center‘s Mock Policy Briefing Program, which has the potential to do much the same thing: illustrate for students for students how the study of the past can, in fact, have relevance in the present and influence the future in important ways.


I love it when things line up unexpectedly.

A significant portion of my students’ exam last semester was an entirely student-led Harkness discussion. Unfortunately, it didn’t go so well. They managed to sustain the conversation for the better part of 90 minutes, but it felt superficial and very competitive and, at times, downright rude. It was not at all reflective of what I’ve tried to teach them about how to have a discussion. (I suspect that’s because with such a high-profile grade attached, they reverted to instinct–but that’s another post altogether.)

At any rate, I started the new semester today with a reflection on that experience and tried to help the class move forward. We talked about the need to respect each other, and they talked about being “kind” and “friendly” and “not rolling your eyes”–all important ideas. But I took it a step farther, imploring them to actually value each other. As I told them, “Even if you disagree with someone–even if the two of you are completely opposed in every way–you can still learn from them. It won’t hurt you to listen to his ideas, and even if you come away still disagreeing with him, you’ll at least be forced to consider the merits of your own views and hopefully come away stronger. There’s value in that, so don’t waste that opportunity.”

We then moved into our regularly scheduled lesson, the beginning of a unit on virtue. One of my students pointed out that our school’s motto–emblazoned on the school seal (which I had placed on the course syllabus, which we had just discussed)–included the latin word Virtus. That was not part of my original lesson plan, but we ran with it. We talked a bit about why that might be. Why would a school want its students to be virtuous, and in what way(s)?

Later, after brainstorming a list of possible virtues, I offered an unexpected one: politeness. My students looked puzzled. Politeness? In his book A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville argues that politeness is in fact the foundation for all other virtues. I assigned that chapter of the book to my students for Thursday, and we will discuss it. Again, not part of my original plan when I chose the reading over the summer, but I’m hoping that the discussion on politeness might offer my students an opportunity to reflect on our exam discussion while practicing better (I daresay, more virtuous) discussion skills.

It’s getting pretty meta up in here, but I do love it when things line up unexpectedly.

Am I spreading myself too thin? More importantly, perhaps: Am I spreading my students too thin?

Lately, I’ve been giving some serious thought to this question. Beyond simple content coverage, there are so many things that I want to accomplish in my classroom, and every year, it seems, I add a new wrinkle or two. I come back from my summer adventures in professional development excited to try something I’ve learned, but I never seem to take anything off my plate.

In my American history classes, for instance, I now try (or have tried) to incorporate a year-long scholarly research project/paper, a class blog, (almost) daily Harkness discussions, explicit instruction in historical thinking, classroom community-building and experiential learning activities, project-/problem-based learning, and some form of public speaking.

I believe that all of these add to my students’ experience, and none of them has detracted significantly from my core commitments to critical exploration of the past and a focus on strong persuasive writing—at least not yet. I do fear, however, that I may be doing my students a slight disservice.

In some ways, my approach to educational methods runs counter to my approach to historical content. When it comes to content, I tend to favor a “less is more” approach, slowing down to explore smaller chunks of material but in much greater depth. As I reflect on all of the things I’ve added to my “pedagogical toolbox” over the years, though, it occurs to me that I have been emphasizing variety of experience over depth of engagement.

Would it not be better to pare down some of these things to give my students a clear, sustained focus and the opportunity to truly master one or two experiences? I’m not entirely sure yet, but I think it might.

The problem is, I find myself pulled in two directions at once: a somewhat traditional desire to focus on the things I do well—that is, historical thinking and clear written and verbal communication—and a nagging sense that education must evolve to keep pace with a rapidly changing world. To be sure, I believe that the things I do well are timeless in their importance, but that’s not to say they’re more important than the others.

These two roads are diverging in my proverbial yellow wood–which path should I choose? Again, I don’t know; I’ll have to keep wrestling with the question. (I suspect a lot of teachers are confronting similar concerns these days—at least, I hope they are.)

All of this said, I do think that this is one reason why Bo Adams’ exploration of “pedagogical master planning” is so attractive to me. I think all of my various approaches have merit, and I want my students to experience them all, so in the absence of a comprehensive master plan, I end up trying to do more than I can successfully handle. If I knew that students would encounter some of these things in other classes or in co-curricular/extra-curricular settings, I might feel less pressure to incorporate them into my class.

By establishing a master plan, then, schools could achieve a sort of “internal comparative advantage.” Teachers who are best equipped to provide students with Experience A are charged with doing so, while Experience B falls to those teachers who are best suited for that particular task. In the end, as I see it, the master plan would not be an exercise in administrative autocracy or classroom conformity, but rather an attempt to deploy a school’s resources–human, financial, natural, technological, etc.–in the most productive way possible. Students could enjoy a rich variety of educational experiences, and faculty would be freed up to focus on the things that they do best, all in pursuit of a cohesive common goal.

(Of course, it’s possible that I’ve totally misrepresented Bo’s ideas here, so I welcome his input. Either way, I look forward to reading Bo’s ideas on this topic as he continues to flesh them out.)

A couple of years ago, I read an article that has greatly impacted my teaching. Written by two history professors from Cal State-Northridge, the article–“What Does It Mean to Think Historically?”–explains what the authors refer to as the “five C’s of historical thinking.” They are:

  • Causality
  • Change over time
  • Context
  • Complexity, and
  • Contingency

As the authors state:

[The five C’s] stand at the heart of the questions historians seek to answer, the arguments we make, and the debates in which we engage. These ideas are hardly new to professional historians. But that is precisely their value: They make our implicit ways of thought explicit to the students and teachers whom we train. The five C’s do not encompass the universe of historical thinking, yet they do provide a remarkably useful tool for helping students at practically any level learn how to formulate and support arguments based on primary sources, as well as to understand and challenge historical interpretations related in secondary sources.

Since reading the article, these terms have become part of my classroom vernacular, and I ask my students to incorporate one or more of the five C’s into their questions and arguments, particularly in their major research paper.

Even if they don’t have the vocabulary yet, my students tend to come into my class relatively familiar with the first two concepts, and after some discussion, they tend to grasp context and complexity as well. For many, though, contingency remains elusive.

According to the authors:

Contingency may, in fact, be the most difficult of the C’s. To argue that history is contingent is to claim that every historical outcome depends upon a number of prior conditions; that each of these prior conditions depends, in turn, upon still other conditions; and so on. The core insight of contingency is that the world is a magnificently interconnected place. Change a single prior condition, and any historical outcome could have turned out differently.

Over the last week or so, though, the presidential campaign has offered an opportunity to explore the idea of historical contingency. Let’s examine.

A look at Gallup’s daily tracking poll gives a sense of the trajectory of the campaign.

To make sense of the graph, recall that Obama’s big lead came in late summer, when Romney’s campaign seemed to be making gaffes on an almost-daily basis, and many Republicans were lamenting what was sure to be an embarrassing loss. To Romney’s credit, though, he got things back on track, and after the first debate in Denver on October 3, the momentum swung decisively to the Romney campaign. (That’s where the graph starts to get messy.) Although Obama fought back in subsequent debates, it continued to look as if Romney would carry strong momentum into Election Day. As late as October 28–just over a week ago, remember–Gallup had Romney with a slight edge among likely voters, 51% to Obama’s 46%. So what happened? How might historians explain this in the future?

Well, in a nutshell, along came Sandy. Hurricane Sandy did not cause Americans to vote for President Obama. The storm did, however, alter the “frame of reference” for voters, forcing them to rethink the issues and their evaluations of the president. In the end, I would argue, it was a chain of events stemming from Hurricane Sandy that allowed Obama to recapture momentum and project leadership–and obvious advantage for any incumbent.

Hurricane Sandy came ashore in New Jersey on October 29, leaving a trail of destruction throughout the Northeast and even into the Midwest. Both campaigns shut down their partisan events and adopted a “Americans-first, partisans second” tone. While Romney struggled to stay in the spotlight (even a more muted spotlight), Obama raked in tons of free media. He visited the devastated areas, assured those affected of the government’s full support, and even received high praise from ultraconservative New Jersey governor Chris Christie. In essence, he continued campaigning as an effective leader simply by doing his job–and he didn’t have to spend a cent on ads.

On top of this, the aftermath of the storm also raised thorny questions for Romney on one of the central issues of the campaign: the role of government. It didn’t take long for media outlets to begin reporting Romney’s statements from one of last year’s Republican primary debates (in which he worked desperately to market himself to the party faithful as a true conservative). Romney’s comments, which suggested that he might consider cutting federal disaster relief funding, played quite poorly as Americans struggled to stay warm without power in the wake of a late season storm.

If Sandy had dissipated at sea, never making landfall, how different might this election have been? If it had struck a month earlier, how might the Romney campaign have worked to recover?

These are questions for which we’ll never have answers, and there are plenty of others. But Sandy struck when it did and where it did, and although the storm didn’t cause people to change their votes, it did shift the narrative of the election in Obama’s favor at the eleventh hour.

That’s contingency.


My students assigned themselves homework today. Over a four-day break.

Although I certainly assign my fair share of it, I have mixed emotions about homework. On the one hand, I believe that kids spend far too much of their childhoods indoors, toiling away on stuff that sometimes has dubious long-term value. On the other hand, I also have a hard time imagining what we would get done in class if students didn’t come in prepared for discussion. (Most nights, “homework” for my classes involves reading–ideally a couple of thought-provoking primary sources or perhaps an essay or book chapter by a professional historian.)

Anyway, when we return from Fall Break, my classes will embark on their first adventure (also my first adventure) in project-based learning. More on that later, perhaps. Today, though, we spend the last half-hour of class brainstorming (in a very rough way) “design thinking” and the issues associated with working as part of a team. Then they spent a few minutes in their groups, getting their ideas organized so that they could hit the ground running when they return next week.

When I checked in with both groups at the end of the period, I learned that they had already–and without prompting from me–assigned themselves the task of individually researching immigration issues over the break and reporting back to the group next week.

Is this how PBL works? I hope so. I could get used to this.

Last year, I almost totally revamped the way that I teach, striving to make my classes much more student-centered. Although it wasn’t the only change I made, the implementation of the Harkness method played a significant role in transformation. Given that the approach was completely new to my school community, I was asked to write about it for last spring’s issue of the school’s alumnae magazine. My article is below.

Educating young people for democratic participation has never been more important. That might sound hopelessly old-fashioned, but it is nevertheless true.  In an age of high-tech gadgetry, 24-hour global news coverage, and manipulative political advertising, it is easy to lose sight of the very foundations of democracy: a willingness to talk seriously with others (as opposed to talking at or over them), to listen to their ideas with an open mind, and to make sometimes difficult but always informed decisions. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that such skills may be in short supply these days.

In August [2011], The Washington Post published a story on the decline of political civility in America. It read, “The new basic unit of political discourse [in town hall meetings] is not the question or the comment, but the earful. Even legislators who say they enjoy a spirited give-and-take have had trouble getting the quiet required for such an exchange.” More recently, the bipartisan “Supercommittee” charged with reducing budget deficits failed to reach a compromise, much to the chagrin of Americans across the political spectrum.

It should come as no surprise, then, that as of this writing, more than eighty percent of Americans disapprove of the job that Congress is doing. Of course, when communication between citizens and their elected representatives breaks down, confidence in government is bound to falter. However, we should think twice before assigning all of the blame to our elected officials. As Abraham Lincoln famously stated, the American government is one “of the people, by the people, for the people.” If it’s not working, we must accept a considerable portion of the responsibility, and we must dedicate ourselves to preparing future generations for more productive political leadership.

How exactly to do that is something I’ve wrestled with since I began teaching at Saint Mary’s. This past June, though, I had the privilege of attending the Exeter Humanities Institute. Along with more than fifty other teachers from around the world, I spent a week at Phillips Exeter Academy learning and practicing a student-centered, discussion-based pedagogy that has become known as “the Harkness method.” I originally went to Exeter because I wanted to learn more about discussion-based teaching in general, but once I witnessed the true potential of the Harkness method, I was committed to transforming my classroom. It is without a doubt the best way I’ve found to prepare my students—in the limited time that I have with them—for participation in a democratic society.

My students have heard me say it so many times that they will tell you—in a mocking tone, most likely—that “disagreement is good for discussion.” It’s true, but that’s not to say that Harkness discussions are just open-ended arguments; they also require students to listen and think. The best discussions are those in which students question each other’s ideas, probe each other’s thinking, and ask for evidence of each other’s claims. Not coincidentally, these are all the makings of a strong and productive public discourse.

Quite often in our discussions, there is no “right answer,” but that’s not to say that opinions alone will suffice. Students find that their opinions rarely have enough weight to carry the conversation, so they are forced to examine their views and justify them to their peers. That is democracy writ small, and in this process, students begin to discover who they are and what they believe about the world.

They also discover that a frank and open exchange often leads to greater understanding and a better finished product. My eleventh grade American history students recently spent about a week writing an essay as a class. The prompt asked students to consider the extent to which American colonists were unified on the eve of the Revolution. As they began their discussions, there was almost unanimous agreement that the colonists had been unified, and even though I had allotted a week for the assignment, the students acted as if they might have the essay written in only a day or two. I just smiled and waited patiently as they began to grapple with the evidence.

Soon enough, one student challenged her classmates to account for a contradictory source. Within minutes, their thesis-in-progress evaporated, and ironically, as their confidence in the unity of the colonists waned, they became more divided themselves. Some students became frustrated that not everyone shared their opinions, and at times the conversations grew heated. I had to intervene once or twice, but they were mostly respectful of each other’s opinions, and I was proud of the fact that they were taking intellectual work so seriously.

Although many students found the exercise uncomfortable—they didn’t like confrontation, they said—they acknowledged that the essay ended up being much better for it. Having to account for contradictory evidence and differing viewpoints made them question and defend their original stance. In the process, ideas that didn’t pass muster fell by the wayside, and those that remained gained strength and clarity.

Reflecting on the experience, I realize that using the Harkness method helped me teach something much more valuable than any “fact” about the American Revolution. That week, my students learned that disagreement and conflict are (and always have been) at the heart of the democratic process, and they learned that making decisions in a democratic way takes time—just as the “Founding Fathers” intended. In today’s politically polarized society, that’s a lesson worth learning.

I am so incredibly proud right now. I am not a parent, but I imagine this is how parents feel when their children accomplish a goal.

In my American history classes, we’ve spent the past five months using the Harkness method pretty extensively, and my students’ discussion skills have improved by leaps and bounds. This is to say nothing of their comfort-level in a student-centered classroom.

Well, I was forced to miss class yesterday for a professional development workshop, and so I figured this was as good a time as any for them to show me what they could do. “I don’t really give tests,” I said to them, “but you might think of this as a different kind of test. There won’t be any particular grade for it, but it’s an opportunity for you as a class to show me what you’re capable of.”

I gave them a couple of readings (a chapter from David Halberstam’s The Fifties about the development of Levittown and other tract-home postwar suburbs, as well as a magazine article from the 1950s entitled “Homogenized Children of New Suburbia”), and told them that after the substitute took attendance, they should hold an entirely student-run discussion for about 40-45 minutes. I gave them a focus question (“To what extent did suburbs like Levittown represent the realization of the American Dream?”), but encouraged them to feel free to venture elsewhere in the discussion if they were interested, as long as their conversation stayed somehow related to our overarching theme of “American Dreams” or the issues of suburbia, prosperity, conformity, etc. I asked them to record the discussion so that I could listen to it.

The sub (a retired history teacher himself) reported that the discussion was “on task” for nearly the entire 85-minute block, and he seemed impressed by what they could do on their own. This made me happy. Unfortunately, we’ve had some technical difficulties with the recording, so I haven’t been able to listen to it, but I look forward to talking with those students tomorrow about their perceptions of the discussion.

This morning, I did essentially the same thing with my other section of American history. (The only difference was that I was actually in the room, but I refrained entirely from speaking and tried to make myself as inobtrusive as possible.) The students seemed a little unsure of how to get the ball rolling, but after about 90 seconds, they decided to just jump right into the focus question, and from there, they were off.

As they discussed, I took notes and tried valiantly to keep a huge smile off my face. Again, I was afraid that any reaction from me–positive or negative–might have the potential to shape the conversation, and so as best I could, I sat passively and tried to look almost as if I were ignoring them. As thoughts occurred to me–the things that I might normally ask if I were in the discussion–I just wrote them down. This wasn’t something I had planned to do, but it developed naturally as I was taking notes–mainly just a way for me to keep myself from screaming, “YES, BUT WHAT ABOUT THIS OTHER PERSPECTIVE ON THE ISSUE?!” I decided that when the discussion petered out, I would then use these questions to both probe their thinking more deeply and review the discussion as a whole.

Were there opportunities for deeper exploration that were missed by my not participating? Sure. Looking back over my notes, though, I realized that for many of the questions I noted, students eventually got to them in some fashion. This wasn’t true for all of my questions, and I did pose those questions at the end of class, mostly as “food for thought” as we go forward. We didn’t answer my questions in depth, but I’m learning to live with that. If they leave my classroom with even one of my questions stuck in their mind (an unlikely event, perhaps, given that they have to shift gears to take a Spanish/Calculus/Biology test in five minutes), I’ll consider it a success.

As I reflect on this experience, though, it occurs to me that my questions are sometimes a resistance to delayed gratification. Students will most likely get to the heart of the matter themselves if you give them time, but sometimes I lack the patience. It’s almost as if I’m asking, “What do you think about this NOW, not in five minutes?” In that context, it seems like a silly question. Who cares if they answer it now or in five minutes? And it’s probably better that they come to the question themselves. The answer–whatever it turns out to be–will certainly mean more to them if they do.

I really strive to let the students carry the weight of discussion on a daily basis, and I would estimate that I talk no more than a quarter of the time in any given class. That said, it was enlightening to muzzle myself completely for a change. I learned a lot about my students, to be sure, but I also learned a lot about myself.

Mainly because I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut any longer, I brought the discussion to a close after an hour (twenty minutes longer than I told them they “had to” talk), and I told them just how incredibly proud I was of them. I also told them that I hoped this proved to them that they were capable of taking charge of their own learning–that they didn’t need a teacher to simply “give them the answers.” More than anything, I hope they learned from this discussion that they are intelligent and thoughtful young people. They lack experience, but they don’t lack ideas, and if they are willing to put in the time and energy, they can find meaning in their “work.” They can also find joy.

Today, I certainly did.