Sunday, January 19, 2014

History Ed Blog Circle: January

When Joe Taraborrelli tweeted me about his idea about doing a history educators blog circle, I was immediately intrigued. When I read his blog post about it - and read the topic for January (teaching students a list of facts about the past versus teaching them to think historically) - I was more intrigued. Because I've spent some time thinking about this topic.


My starting point for this discussion is one that I imagine some history teachers would find heretical: I'm not interested in assessing any student in my room ever on a fact they can find on Google. Yes, that means no tests. And I'm okay with that.


So clearly I won't be siding with the teaching students a list of facts side.


This leaves teaching students to think historically. I was lucky enough to get to get take the curriculum and instruction part of my masters degree studying with Sam Wineburg. Sam is a pioneer in being explicit about the mindset that we as historians approach documents with. We source documents. We place them in their proper context. We read for bias. Historians look for omissions or over-emphasized parts of the story. We compare versions of stories, looking to corroborate information between documents.


It's a deeper reading of primary and secondary sources. And one my ninth graders aren't used to doing as they enter my room in August of their freshmen year. This ability to do real historical thinking - and add layers of complexity to these initial skills listed in the previous paragraph - is spiraled throughout the two years in my classroom.


However.


I'm not convinced that students can do this historical thinking - the parts of my class that occupy the upper levels of Bloom's - without at least a little bit of contextual knowledge. Yeah. That means facts.
(I'm way more than willing to listen to dissenting opinions on this though.)


This belief has guided my approach this year in my classroom. My room is 1:1 with Chromebooks for the first time. I firmly believe that students should be using devices to create, not consume. However, I don't think you can ask students to go out out create without a little bit of contextual knowledge.


I've worked really hard this year on paring down just how much contextual knowledge students need to go out and think historically. Some units I've gone too far and my kids haven't had enough contextual knowledge to head out and be as successful as they and I would like them to be in their inquiry within units.


It's really a delicate balance to try to strike. If I'm not going to be assessing my students on their factual knowledge, I want to waste as little class time as possible dealing with factual sets that aren't relevant to the thinking that they'll be doing within a unit.


This means that my students are going to leave my class with some conceptual holes. Which I'm okay with. Hopefully they'll leave my class engaged in the bigger ideas of history. And the fact that history is a story, not a set of facts to be memorized.


Hopefully they'll leave my class better able to parse through conflicting accounts of news stories. Better able to pull bias from a source - any source, print or more likely digital - that is put in front of them.

So there are my two cents: history classes should focus on historical thinking and not on memorizing a list of facts. Yes, some factual knowledge is needed to go out and do that historical thinking. However, this should be pared down as much as possible to just prepare students for the more difficult work that I believe a history class should focus on.