Saturday, September 10, 2005

Polski3's complaint

Teacher and fellow blogger Polski3 left an interesting comment here on the vast amounts of history that need to be crammed into one year according to the California framework. This necessarily leads to the most suferficial treatment of history topics.

"....Teach the subject matter in depth".

This would be nice. But, here in California (and I am sure many teachers in other states are subjected to this), I have to teach what is mandated by our State Dept. of Ed. via their frameworks.

I am currently teaching Grade 7 History, which, according to the framework, includes the end of the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, European Middle Ages (including the history and influence of the Christian Church, Medieval life and institutions, the Crusades, the Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution, Age of Reason, Age of Discovery, Age of Revolutions), Survey of Islam and development of Islamic Empire and its Contributions, 'Medieval' African Empires and Cultures, 'Medieval' China and Japan and the major PreColumbian Native cultures of Middle and South America.

This is a ton of material to try to cover with my 175 mostly 11-13 year olds, most of whom did not study early US History in Grade 5 or Ancient History in Grade 6 (also as per State framework) because "they are not tested on social studies" while in grade school. BUT, they are tested on this material in Grade 8.

It would be great to teach some of the above in depth.....especially such personally interesting topics as the Crusades, Black Death, Vikings, Chinese Inventions and Discoveries, the Mongols and their Empire, etc. But I can't teach any of this in depth. I have to 'get through the standards'. They have to be ready for THE TEST.
A much better approach would be to spread out the teaching of history over many grades, beginning in the early grades. But this would run smack into one of the most sacred and pervasive dogmas of progressive/constructivist ideology: the dogma known as expanding horizons and any number of other names. As a result, the early grades are a content-free wasteland as far as the teaching of history (and geography for that matter) is concerned.

This problem is compounded by the lack of history testing in earlier grades.
As Polski3 points out, although the framework requires history in earlier grades it doesn't get taught because "they are not tested on social studies." No tests, no teaching. This points up the need for testing on the one hand and explains educationist hostility to testing on the other. Hostility because it would force educationists to do something they don't want to do: teach content. (Educationist is my shorthand for followers of the progressive/constructivist faith).

From the Fordham Foundation's study called Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?:

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.

1 comment:

Allison said...

I could rant about social studies, but the real question is:

how can the academic theorists NOT GET that you need actual GROUNDING of KNOWLEDGE in order to understand abstractions above that grounding?

that if you don't KNOW, with certainty, certain dates, events, properties, truths, then there's nothing to build an abstraction on?

How can they NOT KNOW THAT when it's so obvious?