One of the greatest struggles we have as history teachers is deciding what content to include and what to leave out. How can anyone tell a Civil War buff that teaching certain intricacies of the war are not necessary in a K-12 classroom? The truth is that history teachers, as most teachers, are passionate about their subject and find our curriculum growing on a daily basis despite a static amount of class time. We are beginning to find a need to make difficult decisions about what content is “more” important regardless of the personal connection that we have with it.
This only becomes more difficult in classes such as AP History where students are responsible for taking a test in May based on 500 years of history. If a teacher cuts out the “wrong” content then the students are not aptly prepared. Scores will then suffer and create a potential loss of the program. The question becomes clear: what strides can history teachers, the College Board or other governing body, and districts make to ensure that students are gaining an accurate representation of history without sacrificing teaching important skills in the social sciences like critical thinking?
Normally with this type of exercise we would start with discussing amendments that can be made to policy and passed to ameliorate the problem. Let’s be honest, the different special interest groups that have a stake in social studies curriculum will never agree on how much, or how little, of their content needs to be taught. That’s part of the reason that I marvel at the standards created by the National Council for the Social Studies. I can’t blame these groups. Advocates of each of the special interests (geography, economics, history, etc.) have a very valid point. Kids do need to know the intricacies of each of them, but the problem is, as stated above, we have limited time and an expanding curriculum. (This is also part of the reason why it is so difficult for Social Studies to be standardized tested as there is minimal agreement as to which components should make up what percentage of the test.)
So now what can we do as classroom teachers? The first point is pretty obvious. We need to begin to prioritize our scope and sequence. When beginning a new unit, the first question always has to be, “what do I want my students to know at the end of _________?” This directly follows the Understanding by Design mentality where the assessment exists prior to teaching the unit. I start every unit with a list of topics and specifics that would be labeled “critical” by most historians. For instance, my Civil War unit must contain discussion of Bull Run, Vicksburg, Antietam, Gettysburg, differences between the Confederate and United States Constitutions, etc. The problem is when people begin units with the intention of amending the topics based on the time they find themselves to have. This is when important content from the end of units ends up being eliminated. This is where people realize that they don’t have a lot of time left so they teach the Gettysburg address but fail to emphasize that Gettysburg was Lee’s last offensive and the major turning point in the war. To use the coined phrase: learn to think backwards.
Rather than providing straightforward answers, I hope this post has gotten you thinking about what we teach in history class and how we make those decisions. Hopefully, the idea above allows you to have an easier time planning. But the most important outcome of this post is that we start this discussion now before our students are graduating from our schools with a ton of meaningless content and without a full appreciation of the social sciences or a well-developed critical thinking capacity.
This Post written by Aaron Eyler
for more information about Aaron, visit his "21st Century Education" blog at http://stretchourminds.blogspot.com/