Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Teaching History

I happened to notice something today.  It's not new to me, but it is still surprising.  Many of today's sixth graders were born after 9/11.  Very few students in the higher grades have any working memory of that event, and soon it will be a historical fact that occurred before the student existed.  Its presence in schools is almost non-existent already, and soon it will be nothing more than a multiple choice question (which may or not appear on a test) that a student can answer incorrectly with little consequence.  

That is, of course, assuming it remains at all.  I took Global in New York 14 years ago, in the far distant time of the year 2000.  Apart from not being impressed with the class, the one thing that really sticks out in my mind is how far short of the then "current" time period we had managed to cover.  14 years of history have been created since then, and yet most world history courses are still lucky to get through the fall of the Soviet Union.  

But we still manage to cover Mansa Musa.  

I've not been shy about my intense dislike for standardized tests in the field of Social Studies.  There are subjects that lend themselves to such assessments, like mathematics, where you either know and can apply the operating principle or you cannot.  Social Studies is not an objective field like that, and it should not be treated as such.  You can come up with a trivia test on historical facts, but that will never gauge a students understanding of human interaction, which is what Social Studies is really supposed to be about. 

I'm currently working through Jal Mehta's The Allure of Order, which outlines the history of educational reform in the United States.  Such objective testing has become increasingly popular in the United States due to a reasonable demand for higher quality education and a lack of any better idea of how to determine whether we're getting it or not.  Very few people will actually argue that standardized tests in history really have any value in assessing student knowledge of history, but teachers have failed to offer a better alternative.   It's impossible to weed out the good teachers who want to be free of the government mandated curriculum from the teachers who want a sinecure.  

Or it is as things stand, anyway.  Accountability of teachers and schools has been handed over to the state.  Like any other government agency, they're good at crunching numbers and data but not particularly good at determining what is going on classroom 203 in X district.  The state lacks the flexibility to both see what is going on in the classroom and make judgement based on those particular students, that particular teacher, and absolutely cannot handle differences in curriculum. 

In order for a far away agency to measure the going ons of far away places, they need one curriculum to rule them all, one curriculum to bind them.  And if you look for student interest, in the darkness you will find them. 

This is the path we are heading down.  In the lower grades, lessons are literally written by the state, leaving teachers to be little more than automatons.  We shall all learn the same, and Washington shall tell us what we shall learn.  Soon, every school in America will be teaching the same thing on the same day.

But there is another way.  

If centralization leads to stagnant Social Studies, it stands to reason that decentralization would allow flexibility to teach different aspects not on the approved curriculum.  I would love to have an educational system that allows a teacher to spend a week on a current event, rather than quickly dismissing it because the test was written last year and the events of this week will not be on it.

In fact, the more I think on it, the more I think we should teach history backwards.  We spend so much time in class explaining to students that the long-past events will be important later to understanding the things they want to know, and half the time we never arrive at that point. 

And students do, in fact, want to know, but we have gone way out of our way to train them into thinking history has no more value than a correct multiple choice response on a test they have to pass to graduate.  Some historical events are inherently interesting in and of themselves, in particular wars. Current events, an aspect of Social Studies that is covered incidentally at best under the present regime, is actually one of the best hooks we have on their attention.  Students want to know what is going on with Putin and why the Palestinians and the Israelis can't seem to live together.  Rather than dealing with the Golden Horde or Peter the Great, talk about Putin and work your way back to the Soviet system.  Rather than being a boring factoid about the world preexisting them (and in some cases, preexisting their teachers), the Soviet Union suddenly becomes relevant in understanding the world around them.  

The exact same thing can be accomplished with Afghanistan.  We're there now.  Students know people who are there or who have been there.  Often I'm asked, why are we there?  Heavens above, what a great question!  They should be asking that, and they should be getting an answer.  Based on that question alone, you can bring in 9/11, the Soviet Union and their conflict, the meaning of communism, discussion on guerrilla warfare, arguments for and against our continued presence, and the morality of the conflict (basic just war theory, jus ad bellum and jus in bello).

It would be an organic conversation.  The teacher can direct the discussion towards certain topics, but the new questions about "why" and "how" are going to come from the students.  John Dewey certainly had his faults, but he knew that students who are told "you need to learn this because I said so" or, worse, "the state says so", are unlikely to retain that information.  But give them the chance to learn the things they want to learn, and they will fly with it.  

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this is that it gives us an idea of what is worth teaching and what isn't.  History is huge; a lifetime is not sufficient to know it all.  We have to pick and choose what material to teach.  In the state's method, Italian Unification will certainly come up; it's on the test.  I can't promise Garibaldi will come up in my method.  The state can make an objection to that and say it is absolutely necessary every student be presented with the Red Shirts, but I am well in my rights to demand a justification for that. 

I would also like to see some proof that after taking the Global Regents in 10th grade that students remember the Red Shirts when they graduate.  So much that is presented is forgotten so quickly because it just is not relevant to a 15 year old from the sticks or the projects. 

Such a method just cannot be prescribed by a state curriculum.  A discussion on Afghanistan could last for a day or a week, depending on the students, current events as they happen, and the teacher.  Albany cannot issue lesson plans saying "you shall have an organic conversation for ten minutes on this topic, then move on to this other activity" because Albany cannot tell when the conversation has reached its natural end.  Albany cannot foresee what other worthy avenues of discussion will pop up.  If we're to have actual Social Studies, the far away bureaucrats have to get out of the way.  

Before I get too carried away here, no, I don't believe for a second that the bureaucrats getting out of the way is sufficient.  It is necessary, but they are not the only thing that would have to change.  Such a class would require a teacher of considerable knowledge who could handle an active conversation on the fly.  In my time, I've come across far too many history teachers who haven't picked up a history book beyond the class textbook since college.  I know of the principal's nephew who wants summers off and the professional coach who teaches on the side.  I don't believe for a second they would survive, especially when placed next to the amazing teachers I know who are shackled by state curriculum.  

But who would make sure the teachers are doing a good job if not Albany or, maybe someday soon, DC?  The same answer applies here: decentralized control must mean decentralized accountability.  It would be up to the local community, those who would actually know the teacher, to say "yes, this woman is doing an excellent job and should stay" or "no, she's in it for the summer vacations, send her on her way." 

I know today is not the day in which this magical transformation takes place.  I know we are making yet another effort to improve student performance via increased test and tighter controls on content from a far away agency.  And I know, like every program to centralize and quantify education before it, this latest push will fall far short of expectations average people have and that folks will continue to grumble about the quality of education in America.  

But maybe, just maybe, Common Core will be too quick on the heels of No Child Left Behind.  Maybe, just maybe, people are coming to their senses about the inadequacy of standardized testing in measuring a qualitative subject like education (in particular Social Studies).  Maybe the Liberals will finally admit their failure to improve education in poorly performing districts via centralization; maybe Conservatives will admit their hypocrisy in demanding less centralized government control in everything but education, the sham that is standardized test accountability, and the abdication of their own role in society when they choose to have the far away capital determine teacher ability rather than making an appointment to meet the teacher in person. 

Maybe teachers of quality will make a point of demanding only the best join their ranks, replacing union protection of the lowest with a high standard that admits no low person.

And maybe pigs will fly.  But unlike the pig, these changes or the lack thereof are a matter of choice that we are responsible for.