Fighting against “Kitchen Sink-ism”

If your students are anything like mine (and I’m sure they are), then you have likely been frustrated by “kitchen sink-ism.”

Maybe you assigned an essay on the World Wars as a turning point, or maybe you have been working on a DBQ that analyzes the extent to which the Roman Republic was democratic; no matter the topic, the student turns in an assignment that ignores the skill embedded in the prompt or ignores the documents in the DBQ. Instead, you are given an assignment, most likely a mish-mash (is that a word or did I make it up?) of internet sources, that seeks to overwhelm the reader with content. The student hopes the sheer quantity of detail will save them.

Or…maybe you are doing a project or assignment that involves the role of key individuals. What you want is an insightful and contextual overview of a individual’s background, philosophy, or experiences that relates to the topic under investigation. Instead, what you get is biographical information that in no way relates to the assignment. I have finally started ending any student presentation that goes off in this direction.

I think I have seen these problems become more common teaching internationally, where many of my students are ELLs. I say “I think” because the fact that I specifically look for it and teach about how to avoid it could mean I notice it more than now than in the past. Either way, it is frustrating hurdle to overcome, and every school year gives me a new crop of students who need to learn the skill of historical significance.

The historical thinking skill standards from the National Center for History in Schools does not have a single category for historical significance. Instead, pieces of it can be found woven into nearly all the standards. In his book, The Big Six, Peter Seixas devotes on entire chapter to historical significance. I don’t think its a mistake that historical significance is his first chapter. He identifies four “guideposts” or key concepts for teachers and students who are working with it. Allow me to paraphrase his work.

  1. Historical significance can be determined by whether or not something resulted in change.
  2. Historical significance can be determined by whether or not it reveals insight about contemporary issues or life.
  3. Historical significance is constructed. What is significant must be shown to occupy a meaningful place in the narrative.
  4. Historical significance varies over time and between groups of people.

Philosophically, I appreciate these guideposts for my own teaching. However, it is a struggle to instruct significance in a vacuum since it is a part of every other skill that we teach.

When I started teaching, and was using the textbook as my curriculum, it was easy to respond to a student that if a topic is in the textbook then it is significant. After all, a survey history textbook must limit itself to the most significant of historical content. However, this reliance does not meet the needs of a skills-based, inquiry, modern, (choose your buzzword), classroom. With research possibilities using internet sources, flipped classrooms, and an ever growing amount of information at the fingertips of students, they need a way of determining historical significance. This is a similar conundrum to the idea of secondary source reliability which English teachers do so much work to instruct. Likewise, as we expect students to think critically, and act as historians themselves, we must build their skills related to identifying and analyzing issues of significance.

So how can we do it?

Because it is embedded in so much of what history teachers do, I think historical significance needs to be introduced early and often. My day one activity is usually the Ordeal by Cheque mystery that has been floating around for quite some time. If you have never heard about it, google it. It’s fun, interesting, and is something different than the dozen or so ice-breakers students will do that first day in their other classes…after all, death by ice breaker is no better than death by teacher PD grounding activities.

Basically, Ordeal by Cheque is a mystery about a fictional person’s life that uses a series of cheques as evidence. The students look for clues and build a narrative. I like this activity because it starts the year off by getting students working with and questioning sources. They have to make connections, construct a narrative, and question what is and is not significant; the 3rd guidepost put into practice.

Another way to introduce the concept is to use a historical significance checklist. Mine is rather basic, creating artistically impressive resources or posters has never been my strength.

In AP World, I use it to do a tournament of historical significance for a few topics. In the past I’ve done it with historical leaders, empires, etc. I want students making arguments for historical significance using the concepts embedded in the guideposts of the Big Six. I have seen that doing this explicitly yields results when the thinking appears in student discussions and writing.

There are other ways to fight against “kitchen sink-ism.” After all, there are other reasons students do it. In general, its coping strategy when students lack the skills to actually respond to a prompt or just don’t know what to do. Luckily, there are plenty of remedies that are all about scaffolding thinking!

How do you teach historical significance or fight against “kitchen sink-ism”?

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