Friday, May 13, 2005

Expanding horizons

Recent reports on the dismal state of knowledge of history and geography among pupils again calls attention to so-called "social studies" education.

The Fordham Foundation released a collection of essays on the subject called Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? that examines the different aspects of the malaise. It would make superb reading in ed schools.

This brief excerpt discusses an entrenched dogma that goes by such names as "expanding environments," "expanding horizons," "expanding communities," "widening horizons," "expanding interests," "widening interests" that invariably leaves pupils ignorant of history and geography.

The same is true in education, and specifically in the social studies: you have to possess some basic skills and knowledge before you can begin to tackle the higher tasks of analysis and critical thinking. Content knowledge is also the backbone of good teaching. To be effective, pedagogy must begin by identifying the specific knowledge a teacher expects students to learn and establishing clear assessment procedures. Only then can teachers begin to determine how to teach content to their students.

Unfortunately, the delivery of content in elementary social studies is frequently hampered by two popular but misguided theories— "expanding environments" and "constructivism." Both are ineffective because they focus on how social studies should be taught in elementary classrooms rather than on the content knowledge that should be the centerpiece for teaching and learning.

Expanding environments is the basic curriculum that most states, textbook companies, and curriculum leaders use to organize elementary (K-6) social studies, and it has dominated elementary school social studies for nearly 75 years. The basic premise is that at each grade level, each year, students are exposed to a slowly widening social environment that takes up, in turn, self/home (kindergarten), families (1st grade), neighborhoods (2nd), communities (3rd), state (4th), country (5th), and world (6th). While this approach appears to provide an organized curricular sequence, it lacks substantial content, especially in the early elementary grades, and children tend to find its narrow focus deeply boring. In fact, expanding environments actually impedes content knowledge because of its trivial and repetitious sequence. For example, students in grades K-3 are taught about "community helpers" like mail carriers, milkmen, and fire fighters. Such lessons are superfluous (what kindergartener does not know about firefighters?) but more damagingly do not even begin to lay the groundwork for later study of history, heroes, struggles, victories, and defeats. Instead, they limit children's instruction to persons and institutions with which children are already familiar.

Constructivism is a theory that holds that humans learn when they analyze, interpret, create, and construct meaning from experience and knowledge. At its root is a belief that only self-discovered knowledge is understood and remembered. Constructivists believe that students must be self-directed while learning in order to create their own meaningful experiences that will be retained when moving forward in life. While there is no doubt that some worthwhile learning may occur this way, it is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve self-created meaning unless specific content knowledge is a prerequisite.

Proponents of both approaches—expanding environments and constructivism—stress the importance of active learning over content knowledge as a necessary component of historical or geographical understanding. Yet just as the chess player needs to know how to move the pieces before he or she can begin the process of mastering chess, the elementary student needs content knowledge as the basis of thinking critically about history, civics, geography, economics, and all the other disciplines that make up the social studies. Content knowledge, we argue, must come first when making teaching and learning decisions.


Anonymous said...

I was a victim of of constructivist social studies teaching practices and am now an historian (amateur, albeit). I read whatever I can get my hands on about Stalin because I find him fascinating, repugnant, and- as Hannah Arendt would have it- banal. ALL WE ARE SAYING IS GIVE SMALL CLASS SIZE A CHANCE!

Carolyn said...

This is interesting: my son is doing Core Knowledge, and he has definitely gotten a heck of a lot of social studies content. I wish his school were halfway as sane about their choice of math curriculum (it's Everyday Math).

But even in his CK classroom, there's a reluctance to ever cast judgment on the practices of other cultures -- unless it was a western culture. And so, for example, we have to mourn the destruction of the Aztec culture by the wicked, greedy conquistadores.

Frankly, I'm glad they are gone...

Anonymous said...

Yet another example of polarizing thinking in education. Yawn. When will we go beyond labels like "constructivism" vs "expanding horizons" vs "content" and realize that high quality teaching in any subject area involves a thoughtful balance of experience and content.