Down with history textbooks

Long, fact-laden history textbooks are “boring and intimidating,” writes teacher David Cutler in The Atlantic.

Textbooks present history as unchanging, but as time passes, our understanding and interpretation of the past constantly evolves.

Textbooks are one-sided, offering a top-down, often white-male-centric view of history.

Without a thesis or any semblance or argument, textbooks don’t accurately reflect how most scholars (at least good ones) write and present history. Teachers should assign readings that model effective historical writing.

Teachers “who don’t know history or the historian’s craft” use textbooks as a crutch, Cutler writes. “Teachers who depend on textbooks are likely to test what is in the textbooks: long lists of facts.” Students memorize, then forget.  

“Kids don’t study history to ‘learn the historian’s craft’,” responds Robert Pondiscio on Facebook. “They study history so that they have some context in place and time for their own lives, and cease laboring under the misconception that the world was handed down to them in present form as they find it.”

And it’s just not true that teachers or textbooks present history as “a long list of facts,” writes Pondiscio. 

Fluent on facts, weak on abstraction

Fluency in addition and multiplication isn’t everything, writes Education Realist.

. . . plenty of solid math students don’t have fluency and—here is the important part—many exceptionally weak math students have strong fact fluency.

Ed Realist’s “math support” students, who are trying to pass the exit exam and graduate from high school, tend to be very literal and easily thrown by symbols. Ed Realist  asked students to read a simple equation as a sentence. When a student turned x + 6 = 14 into “what number do I add to six to get 14?” the answer was clear to most of the class.

One student, Gerry, still didn’t get it.  He said he could only do math if it doesn’t have letters.

 “You need to look at these problems from a different part of your brain.”

. . . “X + 6 = 14. This is when you have to do stuff to both sides, right? I can’t do that.”

“Read it again. But instead of saying x, say ‘what’.”

“What plus 6 = 14? 8.”

Gerry said he couldn’t do fractions. But when he turned x/5 = 9 into “what divided by 5 is 9?” he got 45 right away.  “I feel like a math genius,” he said.

“You know a lot more math than you think you do,” the teacher said. ” You just have to figure out how to ask the question in a way your brain understands.”

Not everyone is capable of understanding abstractions to the same degree, Education Realist concludes.

Some people do better learning the names of capitals and Presidents and the planets in the solar system. They’d learn confidence and competence through interesting, concrete math word problems and situations, and enjoy reading and writing about specific historic events, news, or scientific inventions that helped society. Instead, we shovel them into algebra, chemistry and literature analysis and make them feel stupid.

She quotes psychologist James Flynn on why IQ’s have risen steadily and significantly since the start of the 20th century (the “Flynn effect”).

Modern people . . .  are the first of our species to live in a world dominated by categories, hypotheticals, nonverbal symbols and visual images that paint alternative realities.

. . . A century ago, people mostly used their minds to manipulate the concrete world for advantage. They wore what I call “utilitarian spectacles.” Our minds now tend toward logical analysis of abstract symbols—what I call “scientific spectacles.” Today we tend to classify things rather than to be obsessed with their differences. We take the hypothetical seriously and easily discern symbolic relationships.

Well, some of us do. Flynn has a new book out, Are We Getting Smarter?

Learning ‘myths’ — or not

Answer Sheet’s Valerie Strauss lists Seven misconceptions about how students learn, which she links to “standardized test-based public school reform.”  The list, which came from the Independent Curriculum Group web site, is based on “21st-century science,” Strauss alleges.

First comes the “myth” that “Basic Facts Come Before Deep Learning.”

This one translates roughly as, “Students must do the boring stuff before they can do the interesting stuff.” Or, “Students must memorize before they can be allowed to think.” In truth, students are most likely to achieve long-term mastery of basic facts in the context of engaging, student-directed learning.

I don’t think anyone argues that students shouldn’t think till they’ve memorized a bunch of facts. People do argue that students think more intelligently — more deeply or critically, if you prefer — if they have a base of knowledge.

Perhaps Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist, will take it up on his new blog.

Some of the other myths are straw men, such as “Rigorous Education Means a Teacher Talking” or  “Covering It Means Teaching It”  or “A Quiet Classroom Means Good Learning.”

But it’s possible fogies think “Teaching to Student Interests Means Dumbing It Down” or “Acceleration Means Rigor.”  The devil is in the details.

“Traditional Schooling Prepares Students for Life” is her final myth/straw man.

Listening to teachers and studying for tests has little to do with life in the world of work. People in the work world create, manage, evaluate, communicate, and collaborate.

My traditional schooling in the mid-20th century  included a lot more than listening to teachers and studying for tests. I did a lot of reading, writing, discussing and even some collaborating. I learned workforce skills too, such as meeting deadlines, adapting to authority figures, dealing with boredom, typing. At more progressive schools, would I have spent more time “engaged” and less time reading under my desk?

Vice President Bin Laden

Lunch Scholars, a video by two Olympia High (Washington) journalism students spotlights ignorance. Asked the state capital, students guess Seattle, even though they live in the capital city, Olympia What countries border the U.S.?  “Canada?” says a girl. “That’s a state. Never mind.” In what war did the U.S. gain its independence? “That war,” the Civil War and the Korean War  get as many votes as the Revolutionary War.  Who’s the vice president? George Bush, Bill Clinton or “someone named Bin Laden.”

In a statement on Olympia High’s student newspaper site, filmmaker Evan Ricks admits the editing included the “funniest responses.”

“Though there were many correct answers to these pop questions, the comments in national forums concentrate on the negative, and, as usual, do not take into consideration the amount of editing it took to get these funny, incorrect answers. So, we are taking down our video.”

Taken down on Vimeo, the video was reposted on YouTube.

Olympia High ranks as one of the best in the state in graduation rates, AP test results and SAT scores,” reports KXLY. The high school is the defending state champion in the Knowledge Bowl.

What social studies teachers think and do

Social studies teachers share the values of ordinary Americans, concludes High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do, a new American Enterprise Institute study.

Eighty-three percent of high school teachers surveyed believe that the United States is a “unique country that stands for something special in the world,” and 82 percent say high school students should “respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings.” This tracks closely with surveys of the general public.

Only 36 percent say it is absolutely essential to teach high school students “facts (e.g., location of the fifty states) and dates (e.g., Pearl Harbor).” Factual knowledge ranks last on list of 12 items. Knowing what’s guaranteed by the Bill of Rights ranks first. (One could argue that’s factual knowledge.)

Only 56 percent of teachers agree that “by graduation, virtually all students in my high school have carefully read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

Teachers split on whether their school districts sees social studies as “an absolutely essential subject area.”

  • Seven in ten (70 percent) say social studies classes are a lower priority because of pressure to show progress on statewide math and language arts tests.
  • Yet social studies teachers want to hop on the testing bandwagon: 93 percent say “social studies should be part of every state’s set of standards and testing.”
  • Teachers stress things that embody a certain spirit of America,” such as the Bill of Rights, “but not about how that spirit is translated into governance” through concepts like federalism and the separation of powers, writes Rick Hess.  Only 24 percent of teachers are “very confident” their students can identify the protections in the Bill of Rights by the end of high school; 15 percent think their students understand federalism and the separation of powers, and 11 percent believe their pupils understand the basic precepts of the free market.

    If teachers with “some confidence” are factored in, half say their students are graduating with an adequate understanding of civics and citizenship.

    Hip-hop as old-school teaching tool

    Hip-hop is going to school as a teaching tool, reports Teacher Magazine.

    “Pencil and paper and worksheets and reading from a book isn’t going to cut it now days,” said Kelli Charles, a fifth-grade teacher at Irwin Intermediate School on Fort Bragg. “Especially with all the technology, Xboxes and video games.”

    Charles worked for months to bring FMA Live!, a NASA endorsed hip-hop based science show to her school last week. The five-year-old show taught fifth- and sixth-grade students Newton’s three laws of motion using high energy stunts, songs, dances and MTV-like videos.

    A company called Flocabulary boasts that its vocabulary rhymes helped raise state reading scores in New York, Alabama, California and other states, according to a University of Indiana study.

    New York University hosts the Hip-Hop Education Center for Research, Evaluation and Professional Development, which is cataloging and evaluating hip-hop learning materials.

    “While hip-hop rhymes are considered 21st century,” the story says, “the idea of using rhyming and music to help kids remember facts and learn vocabulary is old school.”

    No kidding. In fact, the idea that kids should remember facts and learn vocabulary is very old school.