Thursday, July 11, 2013

Step 1: I am no longer using the term 'Unit'.

     The term itself, 'unit', appears innocuous. After all, it simply means a chunk of material that is grouped or unified. It is a term that most of us have been hearing since our first day of kindergarten. Why, then, am I choosing to focus on the concept of a unit, as I begin transforming my classroom approach to history?  

     I am not sure when the term unit was first used in an educational setting, but the word instantly makes me think of textbooks. Textbooks, in many ways, immediately reduce the chances that a history teacher will create a classroom environment where inquiry is valued over regurgitation history (RH).  

     What do textbooks do? A text breaks information down into discrete packages. A text often consists of two dozen units. And each unit is broken down further into a dozen or so sections.

     As soon as we allow ourselves to embrace a textbook approach to history, we begin a process that inevitably moves us far away from creating meaningful history classes that embrace the thinking skills and epistemological attitudes that are associated with the discipline of history. 

    Throughout my career, I have thought of the courses I teach in terms of units. In my Western Civ class, for example, I teach 6 or 7 units, including units on the Industrial Revolution, French Revoltuon, and World War I. 

    By embracing a textbook, unit-centric approach to history teaching, I have allowed myself to fall into the trap of viewing content as something that is delivered to students in a variety of ways, such as through lectures, powerpoints, worksheets, and video clips.

     Teaching for regurgitation creates a learning environment where students are passive, intellectually detached receivers of content. In this setting, content often appears to students as inert and without meaning.

     Thinking of content as units that I deliver to students is a mistake, likely a fatal one if my overarching goal is to cultivate historical thinking skills among my students.

     Units, in regurgitation history classes, often end with a test that attempts to measure student acquisition of factual knowledge. A looming end of unit test creates pressure on a teacher to teach all of 'the facts' to students so that they can have success on the end of unit test.

     Well intentioned teachers, often obsessively, consider the following question: "How can I ensure that all of my students learn the facts that they are going to be tested on ?" 

     We need to reconsider this approach to teaching and testing.  And, beginning in Sept, I am going to stop using the term unit, replacing it with the term investigation. 

     Obviously, replacing the word unit with investigation means nothing if this change is not accompanied by numerous other changes. Nevertheless, I think this change captures something important about the change in philosophy that I am embracing. In the coming days and weeks, I will connect other, more substantive, changes to the concept of an investigation. 

UNIT= Usually Not Inquiry Teaching

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