Skill-based Enduring Understandings

It’s been a busy week of orientation at my new school. However, I have been pleasantly surprised at the work and planning time that was embedded into the schedule. No useless meetings!

Starting at a new school can bring out a touch of anxiety. Reputation has to be rebuilt, new colleagues and curriculum changes can offer new opportunities for growth (growth being both rewarding but challenging), and new systems and ways of doing things have to be learned. Ultimately, it’ll all work out and I love the decision I made.

As I plan the start of my courses I have been reviewing some of my skill-based enduring understandings. Many of these have been drafted or adapted from what I have learned from working with the National Center for History in Schools curriculum and many of the books and authors I have read on teaching historical thinking skills. They are not uniquely mine.

How I use them

I use these enduring understandings to design my lesson activities, create and tune assessments, and plan my units so that they are aligned and have strong progression of skills. Within a unit of instruction I may only reference a handful of them, but over the course of a year I cover nearly all of them. Tracking them helps me reflect on what I have done well and where I can make improvements.

History teachers who already teach skills will not find all of these new nor incredibly insightful. It’s how you use the enduring understandings that can be transformative in the classroom.

  • Create a scaffolded activity to let students unpack and practice all parts of a skill. Teach students how to analyze and think critically in a clear, demonstrable, and measurable way. Students get frustrated when teachers expect high order thinking but don’t show a a pathway t achieving that. Worse, when they are told they received a poor grade because they forgot to include a piece of content, or simply did not write enough or did not write what the teacher wanted to see.
  • Create an assessment that can be used to understand a student’s proficiency on all parts of a skill instead of just content acquisition. I also like using these to reflect on my assessments and ensure that I am actually assessing student thinking.
  • Ensure that a unit of study is driven by skills and not content. Help students see that the purpose of class is to acquire skills and not memorize content. Units within a course should be aligned in some way with a skills-progression that makes sense. Unless the teacher unpacks the skills and how they are teaching them it can be difficult to do this well.
  • Track which skills you actually teach. Use student data to reflect on your own practice and grow as a professional. I think skills-based learning allows for more powerful reflection than content based learning.
  • Use these enduring understandings to provide stronger student feedback on writing and thinking. I have found students respond better to feedback that targets their thinking, argumentation, skills, etc. than common alternatives. You can use these to create a strong “bank” of comments for common student problems on assignments or tasks that you use regularly.
  • Use these to review or audit curriculum or to tune assessments and expectations within a department. Teachers may disagree over how these are applied, which skills should predominate at what grade level, or what this looks like in classroom instruction. Having these discussions as a department pushes teaching forward and can be excellent department PD.

Below, I have included some of my more frequent enduring understandings as they apply to a the skills that are commonly found in survey courses. Forgive the lack of parallel grammatical structure in some of them, they are always works in progress.

Continuity & Change over Time

  • Continuity and change are interwoven; both can exist together.
  • Progress and decline are broad evaluations of change over time.  Depending on the impacts of change, progress for one people may be decline for another.
  • Change is a process, with varying paces and patterns. Turning points are moments when the process of change shifts in direction or pace.
  • Periodization helps us organize our thinking about continuity and change. It is a process of interpretation, by which we decide which events or developments determine a period of history.

Causation

  • Change is driven by multiple causes, and results in multiple effects. These create a complex web of connected short-term and long-term causes and effects.
  • Events result from historical actors who make decisions and take actions, and the social, political, economic, and cultural conditions in which the actors operate.
  • The causes that lead to a particular historical event vary in their influence, with some being more important than others.
  • Historical actors cannot always predict the effect of their actions, others’ actions, or conditions. This leads to unforeseen and unintended consequences.
  • The events of history were not inevitable, any more than those of the future are.

Comparison

  • Complex historical comparisons include the reasons for similarities and differences.
  • When making comparisons, a historian should be careful not to avoid the unique context of events, actors, and developments.
  • Historical comparisons help reveal both patterns of human interaction and larger systems and conditions in which humans act.

Working with Evidence/Sources

  • History is interpretation based on inferences made form primary sources.
  • Questioning sources reveals evidence and insight.
  • Inferences from a source can never stand alone. They should always be checked against other sources.
  • A source should be analyzed in relation to the context of its historical setting: the conditions and worldviews prevalent at the time in question.
  • The point-of-view and perspective of the creator of a source affects its meaning and interpretation.
  • It is important to avoid presentism – the imposition of present ideas on events and people of the past.

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