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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

History is taught as texts without context

Who’s that man? Why is the crowd gathered? Teachers aren’t supposed to say.

Studying texts, without context, is no way to learn history, writes Will Fitzhugh on Diane Ravitch’s blog. But it’s the Common Core way.

A notorious lesson called for teaching the Gettysburg Address without discussing the Civil War. Teachers were told:

Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading—that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.

Fitzhugh created The Concord Review, which publishes historical essays by high school students. Increasingly, he sees history being taught as a literacy exercise, often  by English teachers who don’t know much history.

Sandra Stotsky recently spoke to California English teachers, who were frustrated by the Common Core requirement to teach historical documents. They didn’t think they had the background to do it well. Meanwhile, history teachers are asked to teach informational texts that aren’t historical, writes Stotsky.

In the comments, Bill Honig, former superintendent of public instruction in California, praises the state’s history framework.

Another commenter, “Ponderosa,” disagrees, calling the framework “an indigestible mishmash of high-falutin’ gobbledygook” that “most teachers probably ignore.”

From the county-sponsored training workshop I’ve been to, it seems the dominant interpretation is have kids do “inquiry.” What this boils down to is: sage off the stage. Give kids a question and have them try to answer it using texts you give them. Gaining historical knowledge is not the object. The aim is to have kids “grapple” (this word was used over and over) with the text. The aim is to have kids talk to each other (the presenter called student talk “sacred”). Somehow all this grappling and talking is supposed to be beneficial, and of course there is probably some benefit. But I can tell you that if the aim is to get kids to learn history, this is not the best approach. Nothing beats lucid direct instruction for that. I guarantee you that this approach will LOWER the already low level of historical literacy among our students.

I remember learning in Sunday school that the Israelites were forced by Pharoah to make bricks, but not given straw. You need straw to hold the bricks together. Our text-grappling students, unprivileged by background knowledge, are going to have trouble building anything with those soggy lumps of clay.

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