In my last post I discussed my desire to stop using the term ‘Units’ in my history class, replacing it with the word investigation. This choice, I think, captures the essence of the epistemological transformation that I am seeking to cultivate, both in myself and in my students. The burden now rests on me to explain and explore what a historical investigation is and how it will be different from a unit. History teaches, after all, that it is quite common to attach new labels to old products. How will my so called historical investigations, in practice, differ from what I have always done in my classes?
What will my historical investigations look like? How will they be different than traditional units? And, most importantly, what constraints do I need to acknowledge?
An investigation, at least as they will occur in my class, will have to be structured so that I can serve two masters, both the curriculum and the demands of teaching historical thinking skills. I have to expose students to the content that they are responsible for on their department tests, and I have to genuinely involve them in meaningful historical inquiry.
For the past few years, I have allowed common tests, which generally demand that students are able to recall enough facts to write definitions, answer multiple choice questions, and explain causes and consequences of events, to turn me into a stereotypical history teacher, the kind who uses lots of powerpoints, handouts, and activities that demand little more than student regurgitation of facts.
If there is one factor that has me pushed me to where I am now in my thinking, it is how far I have strayed from my core beliefs about what students ought to be doing in a history class. While I do not think I have ever consistently put into practice my beliefs about what students ought to be doing in a history class, I have always tried to embrace the ambiguity of knowing the past. Increasingly, I have allowed myself to move further and further from that perspective. From time to time, two books I read over a decade ago kept popping up in my thoughts: Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise and William Glasser’s Quality School.
The department tests that I referred to above are not all multiple choice, but they do not include source work, nor do they require students to construct historical interpretations. My students also need to be prepared for a mid-term and a final exam that together consist of close to 140 multiple choice questions.
The biggest constraint that I see, then, is that it is essential for me to start planning my historical investigations with an eye on the department tests. The department tests are a work in progress. When I return to school in September, especially after the reflection and research I have been doing this summer, I plan on preaching the importance of placing more Beyond the Bubble style prompts on our tests.
So my historical investigations will NOT be so open ended that students have free reign to go anywhere they want with a topic. After all, I am charged with teaching a curriculum and giving students various common tests, which weigh heavily on their course grades....more soon!