Breaking the “Content Trap”

Today’s Coffee Shop

Maan Coffee, Jinqiao (金桥) Shanghai

Maan Coffee is a chain, but one I like because of their flavored drinks, food, and desserts. Today, I noticed they had a red velvet latte on the menu. I decided to order that along with a piece of black Forrest cake. I felt more like a sweet afternoon treat rather than what some might call “real coffee.” There is nothing particularly special about the beans Maan Coffee uses, so nothing is really missed by indulging in a “frou frou” latte.

I also like this chain because of their interior. Spacious rooms and comfy chairs make it a good choice for getting out a laptop and getting some work done.

Breaking the “Content Trap”

I was speaking with a colleague at my old school yesterday about the transition some history teachers struggle with when they begin to focus on teaching skills instead of just content. It takes some time to get used to scaffolding a skill like causation or continuity and change over time instead of just diving into content. It’s even harder when your students are English language learners! Understandable. After all, history teachers are passionate about history. It’s hard to find a good history teacher that is not a good story teller and who doesn’t enjoy getting off on a tangent about their favorite topic. Its in our being and our passion is how we awaken our students’ passion.

Ask a history teacher what their favorite topic to teach is, and you will get a range of answers from the traditional to the eccentric and unorthodox. Planning curriculum in this context is difficult since teachers often disagree on which content is necessary and which can be “courageously deleted.” In the AP World History world (my favorite course to teach) there are many teachers who insist on instructing content outside the 1200 CE to present scope of the course. They often do so because it provides context to the required curriculum, because they believe it gives the students a better AP World experience, or just because they like the content and they want to teach it. More power to them! My point is that if you get a room of history teachers together, the conversation about what content is most critical for students can provide hours of rigorous discussion. Curriculum then tends to become a survey of whatever group of legislators or historians writing the standards judges as significant or important.

I am also consciously guilty (and will continue to be) of emphasizing certain topics. Sometimes it’s because I find the topic interesting, sometimes because it provides for an activity I really want to do, and sometimes because students want to discuss it (you know…student driven inquiry and all that). However, I think I have successfully broken the “content trap.” By that term I mean the mindset that believes students need to learn a certain amount of significant content in my course to be successful students, responsible citizens, and generally good humans. History provides some of the best opportunities for humanizing students. It gives them a clear place of themselves in time and offers limitless insights about life, morality & ethics, and identity. However, memorizing facts is not what does this nor is it the best part of history. I believe in teaching historical thinking skills first and foremost. Content merely provides the roadmap.

At the risk of being accused of not caring about content, I really do! However, the nature of history is that there is too much content for students (or teachers) to master in its entirety. Instead of arguing over what is most or least important, which is an argument that can never be won, we should refocus on what the purpose of historical education is.

In his book Historical Thinking and other Unnatural Acts, Sam Wineburg references a study from 1917 that tested students knowledge of foundational facts of American history (Chapter 2). The test revealed an average score of 33% for high school students and 49% for college students, scores so low no school would be proud of them. The test was repeated in later years by other researchers who demonstrated similar results. Besides revealing as a sham the contemporary armchair educator’s claims that contemporary schools no longer teach proper history and that we have lost some mythical golden age of civic education, these statistics suggest that when schools simply try to teach content, they fail. Today, these low scores would need to be “calibrated” so that local and state politicians would not have to face the reality of such failure. This calibration continues to happen with nearly all standardized testing.

If schools have been failing to teach historical facts for the last century, then maybe teachers should take it on themselves to try another strategy. Content and historical fact is not purpose of historical education.

Essentially, historical content is cool, interesting, surprising, scary, humbling, inspiring, and funny; sometimes all of those things. But, learning or memorizing content is not in itself and education. It does not train the brain to think critically, analyze, investigate, nor infer. It is the best part of the journey of historical education, but should not also be final destination for students. There are many adults who enjoy reading history just for the interest and fun of it. I want my students to be those adults, and I want them to have the skills to be critical consumers of the history who see more than just a good story. To get to that point students deserve to be taught more than just fact and narrative. I believe more teachers need to break the content trap and realize that they should stress less over what content to teach, what content they ran out of time for, or whether their students will fail as adults because they did not have a lesson on the Roman Republic, The causes of the Crusades, Heian period court life, Great Zimbabwe, Zheng He, The Byzantine Empire, etc. etc. etc… I have stopped engaging in these discussions with some teachers because they go nowhere. In a perfect world, it would be great if the students learned it all, but they can’t, and they will be fine.

The Big Six Historical Thinking Skills

Many state standards require certain content. Teachers do not always have the ability to choose the content they teach with a complete blank slate. Curriculum resources also tend to focus on more traditional topics and a teacher who wants to chart a new path for students can find themselves doing a lot of research, resource creation, and planning. In World History this can be a particular problem when trying not be too eurocentric or simply teach a western civ course. However, teachers should not stress over running out of time for certain content or making a “courageous deletion”and thereby choosing depth over breadth. It is more important that a student leave a history class with both the skills and the desire to be a lifelong consumer of history. After all, if they forget a fact from the textbook or the lecture, they can google it.

This is a mindset that a teacher needs to discover for themselves. I discovered it amidst the frustration of trying to transition to a standards-based grading system. By the end of six years at my first international school in Dalian, China I think I succeeded. However, a standards-based grading system is not required to decide to specifically teach historical thinking.

The course that allowed me to make this transition was US History. Teaching US History in China was an interesting challenge. The majority of my students were Chinese nationals with a smattering of other international students. They often took the course because the counseling department recommended it and US colleges tended to expect it on a high school transcript. My principal at the time gave me complete freedom to design the course, although this was mainly because there was 0 curriculum and resources for me to start with…other than a textbook…

Anyway, I decided to create a thematic course. This was something that I was interested in trying, but had not done before. Teaching history thematically is interesting and challenging. I don’t think I would do it this way with World History, but “modern” American History is short enough to make it work. My six units were:

  1. The American Character and Ideology
  2. Immigration
  3. The Struggle for Equality
  4. Boom & Bust: Economics and Development
  5. The Power of Culture: Change, Reform, and Identity
  6. War, Peace, and Global Leadership

Because the students were not Americans, and because the majority of them were applying for colleges in the United States, I treated the course as a cultural studies course that would prepare the students for living in and understanding the US. I selected content based on this starting point as well as my own interests and student interests. Units three and six were designed as inquiry units where students would drive their own learning.

Year-to-year some of my content changed, and sometimes I ran out of time. In one year, the immigration unit emphasized Native Americans because that class had a few students who were really intrigued by it and they drummed up support from other students for doing some extra in-depth enrichment. As a result, I ran out of time to do post-WWII immigration in the unit. Likewise, when I originally planned the culture unit I had lessons that went back to Andrew Jackson and the political and cultural changes of the 1820s. This was too much and was not exactly relevant for my students. The next year I cut it and began the unit with the progressive era. Ultimately, I enjoyed the way it became a constantly evolving course where I had freedom to pull new resources, adjust content to student interest, and make connections in every unit to contemporary events. It was more fun for all of us.

If I showed a complete list of content that I taught to another US History teacher, I guarantee they would disagree with something. In general, I taught less content over the year than when I taught US History in Florida. We spent more time investigating primary sources, evaluating other historians, exploring historiography, and working on thinking skills that students can apply outside the history classroom. A healthy dose of inquiry and student-driven topic selection also helped.

This transition was neither easy nor quick. The students who took my course the last three years got a better and more effective education experience than those in the first three years. But, I was able to see clearly that for the first half of my career I was focused on the wrong thing. No one is going to stop a student in the middle of the street, and say “I will give you a million dollars if you can tell me what year the Franco-Prussian War occurred.” At the end of the day content can be easily acquired independently of schools and teachers. Students are not best served when the teacher is merely the purveyor of information. Instead, the teacher should use content selectively, model passion for history, and teach students how to think like a historian.

If you are still not convinced, consider it from a different perspective. Effectively teaching skills and showing parents and the public why technology can’t replicate good teaching is one of the best job security strategies.

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