This week my seven year old son brought home a list of definitions of geographic landforms that had to be learned for a quiz that he was having two days later. On the handout, the quality of the pictures of the landforms varied a bit. Overall, the images were what you would expect to see on a photocopied black and white sheet of paper. My wife repeatedly quizzed my son, trying to ensure that he was prepared for this Friday’s assessment. And I kept telling my wife to show him the pictures on the worksheet, so that he could see the landforms as he was trying to learn them. My wife was quite confident that the quiz he would receive would be definitions only, and she was concerned the pictures would only end up confusing him, especially since some of the pictures copied poorly. If the test was going to be definitions only, why should we clutter his mind with barely visible pictures, especially since the test was only two days away?
Turned out my wife was correct, at least about what the test looked like. The quiz my son received consisted of terms and definitions, no visuals. I kept thinking about all of the different ways a teacher could teach these concepts and all of the creative ways that student learning could be gauged. As a social studies teacher and a parent, I care deeply about how this discipline is taught and how my son learns to learn. I am sure most parents feel the same way. As a teacher, watching my son enter the school system has allowed me to appreciate better the experiences many of my high school students likely had when they were in the early grades. By the time they reach high school, a tremendous amount of conditioning has occurred regarding learning and tests.
At the same time this was going on in my house, I was also prepping my ninth grade students for their French Revolution test, a test which similarly required students to learn large amounts of information so that they could answer multiple choice and short answer questions. My department gives common tests, and, as you might expect, it is quite a challenge to get history teachers to find common ground about what and how students should be assessed. As compromise breeds concessions, we all give a little (and some a lot) in order to create a product. And this product is supposed to capture a large amount of student learning. Does it?
As a parent, I feel like I have a responsibility to make sure that my son is not conditioned to think that knowledge is only about taking tests. As a teacher, I feel the same way. In both respects, it is a challenge to fulfill this desire. In fact, I am quite sure my son and my students often receive exactly the opposite message.What is the most meaningful way that we can teach social studies to our students? What does effective social studies instruction look like? Ineffective instruction? When planning, more of our interactions ought to begin with these big questions before we start constructing assessments .