So many standards!

When I started teaching in Florida, I used the standards as I was given. “Used” is a generous word though as I did what many new teachers do, used the textbook as my curriculum and mixed in various activities, simulations, etc. into the lessons to spice things up. The standards were what I pulled out during the first week of teacher planning or during a PD, and then, only to make sure there had been no changes. In short, I did not use them as real standards.

It was a new experience for me to get to help choose the standards that the social studies department at my first international school would use to transition to standards-based grading. Some of the teachers who were there before me were already unhappy with the adopted standards (AERO Framework) and I tested them myself for a year with standards-based grading as an early adopter. It became fairly clear to us that AERO would not work. Ultimately, we decided to adopt the Historical Thinking Standards put together by the National Center for History in Schools. This was a significant turning point in not only how I began to actually use standards, but how my teaching significantly improved. I wanted to briefly review both the AERO and NCHS standards to take a look at why we made the choice the did. There are many other sets of standards out there though that offer other possibilities to guide instruction.

AERO Social Studies FrameworkLINK

What I like about the AERO standards is that they vertically align kindergarten all the way through high school; my elementary colleagues in particular appreciated the thematic focus of grade-level bands K-5. The curriculum writers also did a lot of work to align the standards with literacy support and to find ways to connect to inquiry, particularly the C3 model. They also have excellent enduring understandings and essential questions aligned to each standard.

What I did not like is that the standards at the high school level are basically content standards repackaged within a thematic framework. Not to argue that what AERO selects as a standard is not important, for example:

Most social studies teachers will likely agree that this is an important concept. But, it is still a concept that is intrinsically linked to content, not a skill. It allows the teacher to choose the content that is used to meet the standard, it even allows for easier inquiry as the students explore the essential questions and enduring understandings attached to the standard. But, its a standard about what a student knows and not what a student can do.

Now, good teaching can still happen with this standard. A variety of historical thinking skills can be taught and learned as a part of studying systems of government. However, if the skill is not at the forefront, then assessment can become knowledge based, and a numerical 0-100 score becomes an assessment of how much a student knows, how much work they did, or some other criteria that was put into a project rubric. (Maybe 10 points for artistic creativity? – I always hated that part of a rubric as a student). Admittedly, AERO has some skill based standards at the end of their framework. However, they are all focused on literacy.

It’s not that these are bad standards. However, historical thinking and historical skills are not prominent enough. The thematic approach is more creative than most state standards I have looked at and is an attempt to do more than teach facts. However, they did not quite meet our vision.

NCHS Historical Thinking SkillsLINK

These standards are some of the more comprehensive that I have seen. They include BOTH skill and content standards. The skill standards are, in my opinion the star of the show. I will keep this short so it does not seem like too much of an unabashed advertisement.

Selecting these standards allowed our department to put skills at the front and center of both instruction and assessment. The NCHS standards identify five skill categories which are subdivided into smaller standards. My favorite one, which includes many common skills also recognizeable from College Board’s AP curriculum, is below.

After unpacking these standards and prioritizing them between our courses and grade levels we were able to discuss scaffolding. This is where I think these standards are better than others. It is far easier to differentiate levels of student proficiency with a skill such as comparison, contextualization, causation, etc. It creates powerful lessons and gives the teacher the opportunity to reflect on what they are teaching. Is it content or is it something more? When we ask students to analyze causes and effects, are we actually teaching them what analysis of causation is and how to do it, or are we just expecting them to write a paragraph that explains multiple causes that they memorized from the lecture? I used to do the latter, now I am excited to do the former.

Of course, a standard alone does not make the classroom successful. There are a lot of other variables at play. Content does still matter since students must use content to show proficiency with the skill. But, I am running long. I will finish with a screenshot of one of the proficiency scales/ student friendly rubrics that we developed. These were always live documents that evolved as we expanded our own understanding of the standards. The format of the rubric itself came from a book on standards-based grading I read by Danelle Elder. It had some great ideas in it about making the philosophical practical. Also, she responds to teachers who email her with questions, which I very much appreciated.

Our rubrics are by no means exhaustive, and there are doubtless ways to improve them. But, they started us down the path of really teaching and assessing skills. I believe that focusing on skills in this way is more relevant for students and lets them see that social studies is more than memorizing information they tend to think is useless or merely mildly interesting.

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