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Curriculum

My new school has a regular “Talking About Teaching” professional development opportunity for teachers. Essentially, it’s a scheduled time for teachers to come and share thoughts and ideas about the craft of teaching. It’s one thing that drew me to the school. Today’s topic was “Student Motivation”—a topic I’ve thought a lot about.

The conversation was wide-ranging, but it left me thinking for much of the day about the interconnection of two topics that form the title of this post: intrinsic motivation and the relevance of history. We talked a lot about the role of grades and other extrinsic motivators in school, though there seemed to be general agreement that we’d like for our students to be more intrinsically motivated to learn—to play with ideas, to inquire and explore their interests.

I pointed out that, as Daniel Pink notes in his book Drive, we all tend to be more intrinsically motivated when we a) have some measure of autonomy in the task at hand; b) can observe ourselves progressing toward mastery of it; and c) appreciate its larger purpose. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of schools often serves to undermine autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

At this point, a colleague raised the concern that few students—and even some teachers—don’t necessarily understand the purpose of their studies in school. Why, for instance, do students need to know a particular equation in math class? Or (to reference one of my own lessons from today) why do they need to know the significance of itinerant preachers in the Great Awakening?

We batted that idea around for a while, and there were a variety of ideas. In the end, though, we seemed to reach a general consensus: at the end of the day, students probably don’t need to know all of those things. Many agreed that much of the “stuff” that we teach in our courses is not absolutely essential for students to learn. (This brought to mind my recent post on “The Siren Call of Coverage.”)

This has me reflecting on curriculum. Once we acknowledge that the sky would not fall if some things were cut, then paring back the content of the curriculum would seem to be a logical step toward remedying any perceived deficiencies. In our case, if we find that our students suffer from a lack of intrinsic motivation and don’t see the purpose of what they’re studying, we need to address that. Trimming the content covered would kill two birds with one stone:

  1. It would provide time for self-directed learning, in which students—under the supervision of teachers, to be sure—could pursue topics of interest to them, hopefully learning to ask questions, pursue their interests, and discover meaning for themselves. Even in a field that is not necessarily a student’s true passion, he or she may find a particular topic or question that is intriguing, perhaps sparking a lifelong hobby.
  2. By covering less material, teachers would have the opportunity to pursue deeper learning, which would helpfully hope students understand the value of their studies. For my part, I want my students to consider why history matters today—how historical narratives (even historically inaccurate ones) shape our contemporary worldview and how historical thinking skills can help us make sense of the time in which we live. When I feel pressure to get to chapter 15 by Christmas, though, that’s difficult to do.

It is admittedly something of a cliche, but I have nevertheless long appreciated Yeats’s famous adage that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Particularly in history, if the approach is just “one damn thing after another,” only the rare student will have their “fire” stoked. (We history teachers all know these kids—the ones who geek out over trivia while the other students slump in their seats and roll their eyes.) In the traditional coverage approach, everyone’s pails get filled… but most are unceremoniously dumped out later, after the extrinsic motivation (the test) is removed. Whatever small fires we managed to start along the way, most are extinguished in the deluge.

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This post has been brewing for a while now, since the heady days of summer when I was free to spend my time reading to my heart’s content: books, magazines, blog posts, random news articles, the newspaper… you name it. And while I was doing all of that reading and thinking, something occurred to me. It’s not a particularly original thought, but rather one of those simple ideas that hits you square between the eyes.

As I read article after article about the 2016 presidential campaign, I reflected on the fact that my professional raison d’etre—like many history teachers—centers on preparing my students for active and engaged citizenship. I would love for just one of my students to pursue a career as a historian (or history teacher), but I know that most of them won’t. All of them, however, will become citizens.

To that end, I try to teach them how to think historically—which is to say, how to think critically about social issues, mindful of matters like context, causation, change, complexity, and contingency. I also try to think them how to read sources—whether 400 year old primary sources or contemporary op-eds—with an eye for bias and to corroborate the information they gather.

As I found myself drowning in reading material this summer, though, it occurred to me how difficult it is to corroborate in this age of information overload. Once we teach students how to corroborate—and why it is so important—we set them loose into a world with an overwhelming surfeit of information. Moreover, our “sources” are simultaneously proliferating and becoming ideologically fixed (or, at the very least, they are coming to be labeled as such by parties which disagree with their conclusions).

This leaves us more open than ever to the problem of confirmation bias. Worse, we may even fool ourselves into thinking we have corroborated our information by locating it in several different sources. This is a serious problem in the age of information.

Sam Wineburg

As I ruminated about this and contemplated this post, I came across this article from Sam Wineburg of the Stanford History Education Group. (It is actually an excerpt from his keynote before the American Association for State and Local History last year.) As with just about everything Wineburg writes, it should be required reading for history teachers. Here are a few key quotations from the piece, along with my brief thoughts about each one:

It was obviously never the case that just because something was printed meant that it was true. At the same time, we often ceded authority to established publishers. We relied on them to make sure that what we read was accurate, that it had gone through rounds of criticism before it reached our eyes. . . . The Internet has obliterated authority. . . . We live in an age when you can practice historiography without a license.

I suspect Wineburg is playing to his audience here, but I love this notion of practicing historiography “without a license.” His point, of course, is about the decline of authority in the internet age, but in fact, Wineburg’s scholarship seeks just this outcome. If he had his way, all students would become adept at thinking like historians, which would make a “license” (by which I assume he means a formal credential) even less relevant.

The first thing that historical study teaches is that there is no such thing as free-floating information. Information comes from somewhere.

A simple but often overlooked point. Wineburg has a knack for the pithy phrase, and if we had to sum up the value of a history education in ten words or less (an absurd idea, of course), this last sentence would put us on the right path.

[We] are living in an age where technological changes of how information is disseminated and distributed far outpaces our ability to keep up with it. The tools we have invented are handling us—not us them.

Echoes of Thoreau here. We’ve built systems for developing content and making it readily available to the masses, but without tools for critically assessing that content, we risk losing sight of the idea that “Information comes from somewhere.”

As the journalist John H. McManus reminds us, in a democracy the ill-informed hold just as much power in the ballot box as the well-informed. The future of the republic hangs in the balance. Reliable information is to civic intelligence what clean air and clean water are to public health.

It may be semantic, but I would challenge Wineburg to go farther here. I would change “reliable information” to “an engaged and critical citizenry,” and where he writes of “civic intelligence,” I would use “civic health.” After all, the goal here goes far beyond simply “intelligence,” and as Wineburg himself makes clear, that doesn’t depend on reliable information so much as on citizens’ ability to assess the information they encounter.

The fact of the matter is that Wineburg advocates for serious reform of the way history is taught in this country, much in the same way that Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring) and others called for environmental reforms. To hope for “reliable information” is naive—akin to Rachel Carson asking pollution to clean itself up. Instead, what we need are mechanisms for dealing with all the information out there. Just as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act paid dividends for public health, teaching students how to navigate the rising tide of information will improve civic health.

The new school year is underway, and so far, I’m really enjoying my new school. My colleagues have been welcoming and supportive, my students inquisitive and hard-working, and there is a strong culture of learning that aligns nicely with my own approach to education. All in all, I’ve felt very good about my decision to come to Tampa.

That said, as one might expect, there have been a few things that have required some adjustment. This being a much larger school than my previous two (more than double the size of my last school, for instance), it marks the first time in my career that I’m not solely responsible for the courses I’m teaching. In fact, in both my preparations (World History I in the 9th grade and U.S. History in the 11th grade), I’m one of three people who teach the course. Though we’re not required to be in lockstep, there is an expectation of general alignment across sections.

I’ve grown accustomed to having near complete control over what and how I teach (within reason, of course), but this year, I’ve had to recalibrate to the fact that my colleagues have different approaches than I do. For the most part, I think this will benefit me. The opportunity to get back to the classroom and continue honing my craft as a teacher was a major motivation for me to pursue this position, and collaborative planning and informal conversations with colleagues about what works and what don’t will only make me better. I’ve already noticed this in small ways.

However, in my last few years of teaching U.S. history (prior to this year, I hadn’t taught it since 2013-2014) I had adopted a thematic approach. I could write a post—or several—on why I now favor themes over chronological units, but my colleagues here were less enthusiastic. After some conversation, we settled on what I believe is a completely reasonable compromise: interspersing more traditional chronological coverage with intensive “modules” which consider some historical issue in greater depth. (For example, after lectures/textbook readings covering prehistoric America through the Puritan migration, we’re now considering the question of why history matters. By considering various portrayals of Columbus, Pocahontas, and John Winthrop, we’re examining the relationship between past and present and the ways in which history shapes—and is shaped by—our contemporary worldview.)

Of course, making room in the curriculum for these intensive mini-units requires sacrificing some coverage, and this brings me to the crux of my post. What has challenged me most this year is not the collaboration, as new as that experience is. It is, rather, the gravitational pull of the coverage model. In other words, by adopting a “textbook” (we’re using The American Yawp) and working through it chronologically, I find myself tempted to try to assign the entire thing. I volunteered to plan our first unit, which spans prehistory through the Revolution, and it was a constant battle with myself as I decided what content to pare back in order to make more room for the “deep dive” sections.

When I adopted the thematic approach around 2011 or 2012, I essentially dispensed with any semblance of coverage—and I was completely OK with that. The reality is that, even in American history (which is among the briefest of national histories), we can’t possibly cover everything that might be deemed significant. History is just too big, and if we try to cram it all in, we run the risk of turning history into “one damn thing after another,” which is exactly what led me to hate history as a high school student. In choosing a thematic approach over a chronological one, I abandoned the notion that I could cover it all, which was incredibly liberating. My students didn’t learn everything—they certainly would not have earned a 5 on the APUSH exam, for instance—but they definitely learned how to think about important ideas in American history and draw connections across vast spans of time. And they did learn a fair amount of “content” along the way. I felt good about it.

This year, though, as I’ve compiled lists of “Key Terms” for my students, I’ve found myself identifying many people and events that would never have seen the light of day in my thematic course (or come up only in passing). So how “Key” are they, really? And more importantly, why am I finding this so difficult? Is it the textbook? The chronological organization? I’m not sure, but this struggle has me reflecting on how the most seemingly basic decisions about curricular design can profoundly shape our conception–not to mention our students’ conception–of the discipline.

Note: This post is an attempt to hash through an experience I had alongside my students earlier this semester. I’m attempting to make sense of some big ideas for myself, and I find that I think better through writing, so here goes. What follows may or may not come out in a clear, coherent form. (It should also be noted that this piece was written in dribs and drabs over a period of almost two months.)

I teach in a school that has an ambitious vision for education, which is one of the things that drew me to it in the first place. While many schools talk of an “integrated curriculum” or “place-based education,” this place comes the closest I’ve seen to backing that up, with scaffolded themes and essential questions for each grade level (progressing from a local emphasis in the 9th grade to a global emphasis in the 12th). Each grade level also has a unique three-day “immersion trip” designed to bring these themes to life in an experiential way. Also incorporated throughout the curriculum is a “triple bottom line” approach to sustainability, though the degree of incorporation varies by teacher.

triple-bottom-line

For a sense of what this looks like in practice, I served on the 9th grade team for my first two years here, so I spent some time paddling a canoe around one of the most ecologically significant ecosystems in the entire Chesapeake Bay region, visiting one of the earliest and largest tobacco plantations in the area, talking with an elder of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, and thinking about the ways in which the Rappahannock River watershed might impact culture and economy (both historically and in the 21st century).

This year, I served on the 12th grade team, so the focus was much broader. In theory, our students are prepared by the 12th grade to address complex questions on a more abstract level, and so in early April, we spent a long weekend in the DC area, exploring questions of global significance. (Because I recently accepted a position at another school, this was also my last immersion trip, so it was very bittersweet for me personally—but what a privilege to be able to witness the entire progression of the program from 9th grade to 12th grade before I leave!)

The trip spanned Thursday morning to Saturday afternoon, and we spent the first day hiking along the Potomac River in Great Falls Park and in Old Town Alexandria. The hike was a bit more strenuous than I expected—a lot of rock scrambling which tested my balance and ankle strength—but the views of the river were worth it. I had heard of Great Falls but never imagined that there was something of such impressive natural beauty and power in such close proximity to the nation’s capital. And that was the point. The trip was designed to take students—and first-time faculty, like me—from a place of relatively unspoiled natural wonder (unspoiled to the naked eye, at least) just a few miles into the city to demonstrate just how much our “built environment” affects the natural environment. After dinner and some time for exploration in Old Town, we ended up along the banks of the Potomac just downriver from its confluence with the Anacostia—a heavily-polluted and long-neglected waterway. We were also about two miles due south of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, almost in a direct line with its north-south runways, which meant that there was a constant flow of planes overhead. I marked them at about one every 90 seconds. Except for the noise, it was hard to imagine a better setting in which to talk about global development and the triple bottom line. Not only was it literal the confluence of two rivers, it was the figurative confluence of people, environment, and economics—all very tangible for students in that moment.

One of the highlights of the trip for me was a visit to the headquarters of the National Geographic Society and its well-known magazine, where we visited with Robert Kunzig, Senior Environmental Editor. kunzig_port2_tnKunzig gave a brief presentation on climate change and the challenges we face, and I was pleased to learn that he is basically optimistic about our prospects. Without downplaying the reality of climate change at all, he acknowledged that there is a lot of scary, out-of-context information out there, and that meaningful improvement is within our reach… if we act. He offered a quote from E.L. Doctorow, which I found quite poignant: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Doctorow, of course, was referring to the process of writing a novel, but Kunzig applied the same principle to reversing climate change: We can’t necessarily see the destination right now, and we certainly can’t reverse climate change in one fell swoop, but that doesn’t mean we can get there.
The best part of the visit, however, was not Kunzig’s presentation; it was the Q&A that followed. The big question of the weekend for me—the question that kept playing in my head, as if on a loop—was “Where does culture fit into the ‘triple bottom line’?” If you’re familiar with the concept, you know that “triple bottom line” companies seek to achieve sustainability, which is defined not strictly as environmental protection, but as a balance of environment, equity, and economy (e.g., profit). But what about culture? Perhaps it fits into the equity (people) category, but that doesn’t feel quite right, as my understanding of equity is structured more around issues of fairness, etc. A company which seeks to profit but do so equitably may nevertheless destroy or change a culture in the process.

Nevertheless, this question of culture arose in my mind on the first night of the trip as we discussed the sustainability of Old Town Alexandria, and affluent community with many historic row houses and other buildings. In a discussion with students about urban planning, I suggested that the preservation of older buildings was one element of sustainability; by not tearing down old buildings to construct new, modern ones, fewer resources were consumed. One student rightly countered, though, that many of those old buildings leak energy, which led to a broader conversation about the “energy cost” of tearing down a building, removing the old materials, the environmental cost of disposing of them, etc. It was a good conversation, and the students were doing their best to consider the different elements of the “triple bottom line,” but I was struck by how quickly the conversation became about economics and ecology. For all of its flaws, one of the things I appreciate about Old Town Alexandria is its charming historical character, and this was barely a consideration.

ngm_november_2015_cvr
The question really came to life for me later that same night, as I lay in my sleeping bag on the floor of the church where we were staying. Preparing for our meeting with Mr. Kunzig the following day, I read his article, “Germany Could Be a Model for How We’ll Get Power in the Future” (in National Geographic’s recent “Cool It.” issue).  In it, he connects Germany’s environmentalism to its culture:

The Germans have an origin myth: It says they came from the dark and impenetrable heart of the forest. It dates back to the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about the Teutonic hordes who massacred Roman legions, and it was embellished by German Romantics in the 19th century. Through the upheavals of the 20th century, according to ethnographer Albrecht Lehmann, the myth remained a stable source of German identity. The forest became the place where Germans go to restore their souls—a habit that predisposed them to care about the environment.

As I read that, I began to think more about American culture. One “grand narrative” of American history involves manifest destiny: “Go west, young man.” Strike out for the frontier. Conquer the land. Bend nature to your will. Having grown up with this narrative likely gives us Americans a very different perspective on the environment. (I recognize that I’m oversimplifying here, but I do think the principle holds.)

During our conversation with Kunzig the following day, a student asked a question about climate change deniers, and Kunzig (who was surprisingly even-handed throughout) came the closest I saw to being dismissive. He basically said that those who deny the science of climate change aren’t worth wasting our time our breath on. While he was talking, though, it hit me: Why not use culture to “sell” action on climate change? It seems to me that many of the people who deny the science are the same ones who might actually be persuaded by a a more visceral cultural argument in favor of environmental sustainability. (Kunzig pointed out that there is a small evangelical movement focused on climate issues, and in response to a student question about the viability of living off the grid, he posited that he could see a rancher in Wyoming choosing to do so because he wanted to be “independent.”)

Yes!, I thought, when he said this. A rancher in Wyoming who installs wind turbines, solar panels, and a cistern for harvesting rainwater? This is rugged individualism. This is bending nature to your will for the 21st century. Of course, when thinking about the triple bottom line, we need to take into account the upfront costs of these technologies: what is the break-even point for recouping one’s investment? And, as the residents of Cape Cod could tell you, wind turbines may affect my neighbor’s business, property values, or  quality of life, so there are equity issues to consider as well. But culture has a role to play, too.

The triple bottom line model—useful though it is—is insufficient to address this. Perhaps it’s time to explore a quadruple bottom line.

qbl_well-being_diagram_28ver429

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.)