Sunday, August 11, 2013

Planning, Standards, and Teaching for Understanding

When you sit down to 'plan a lesson', what goes through your head? In some of my posts this week, I want to unpack the idea of 'planning a lesson'. The idea that one person, a teacher, can deliberately direct another person, a student, to learn something is complicated enough. Multiply this complexity by the number of students we teach and all of a sudden planning a lesson seems next to impossible, yet we do it every day. How?

I often see a disconnect between the complex nature of teaching and learning and the casual way we talk about the two. To a degree, this makes sense. If we let this complexity silence us, what good would that do? After all, we are teachers. It is important that we talk, a lot, about teaching and learning. The label itself, teacher, suggests that we, more than most, have a firm grasp of the complexities associated with teaching and learning.

Given the inherent complexities associated with directing the learning of a classroom of twenty five or thirty students, how should we, as social studies teachers, think about the teaching and learning process?

To begin, we must consider what we are trying to teach. Obviously, the easy answer is that we are trying to teach our students the school's curriculum, which, hopefully, overlaps with state standards. Easy answers, though, are usually not the best answers. After all, one look at curriculum documents and state standards reveals that the language of these texts is often tremendously ambiguous. Here are some standards pulled from the state of Virginia:

Era VI: Age of Revolutions, 1650 to 1914 a.d. (c.e.)

WHII.6   The student will demonstrate knowledge of scientific, political, economic, and religious changes during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries by

a)   describing the Scientific Revolution and its effects;

b)   describing the Age of Absolutism, including the monarchies of Louis XIV and Peter the Great;

c)   assessing the impacts of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution on democracy;

d)   explaining the political, religious, and social ideas of the Enlightenment and the ways in which they influenced the founders of the United States;

e)   describing the French Revolution;

f)   describing the expansion of the arts, philosophy, literature, and new technology.

What does it mean to describe the French Revolution? A narrow view of this standard suggests that students can simply state a few facts about the French Revolution and they have described it. A much broader view of this standard might include students spitting back tons of textbook and teacher presented facts about the French Revolution. Is this better than just a few facts? If so, why?

It appears, by the way that this standard is constructed/written, that if students are able to do (do?) a-f, whether narrowly or broadly, then they have demonstrated knowledge of scientific, political, economic, and religious changes during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Should we be satisfied with this? And is it even reasonable to say that being able to do (what are students being asked to do?) items a-f = a knowledge of the aforementioned changes?

Virginia does include some language about historical thinking:

WHII.1 The student will improve skills in historical research and geographical analysis by
a) identifying, analyzing, and interpreting primary and secondary sources to make               generalizations about events and life in world history since 1500 A.D. (C.E.);

In practice, I suspect, many teachers will toss in a few primary sources and feel satisfied with the results. And it appears, according to the state standards, they have done their job.

I want to take a closer look at the released assessment questions to see how the state of Virginia tries to measure these standards. Do they measure the standards using a narrow or a broad interpretation? Regardless of the answer, how are teachers to know how the state will interpret these standards when writing assessment questions?

1 comment:

  1. One of the most frustrating things about content standards is realizing that they're typically written by people who don't really understand history - people who feel it can be neatly packed into a box and taught in little isolated tidbits. I tend not to read too much into them in order not to frustrate myself.

    Often, they'll throw out something vague and then they'll test on something very specific, and often, maybe the one thing I didn't emphasize. What's the use?