Saturday, February 22, 2014

Planning for Historical Thinking

Blog of Month February- Planning for Historical Thinking

Since the summer, I have spent many hours thinking about and discussing what I want to do more of in my history class. After thousands of tweets and many blog posts, now is the time for me to focus on specifics, to focus on what exactly I want to do in my classroom that is different from what I have done in the past. The History Blog Circle is an attempt to collaborate with others who are at various stages of a similar process, a process that at its core focuses on teaching students how to think like historians.

Starting last month and continuing indefinitely, I will continue to dig deeper as I explore what it means to think like an historian and how to set up a classroom that emphasizes this approach to teaching students about the past, present, and, I suppose, even the future.   

When I try to imagine change, I have found that sometimes it is helpful for me to start by defining what I don’t want to see. From there, I am often in a better position to conceptualize and articulate my vision, where I want to go and how I am going to get there. For the time being, that is going to be my approach with historical thinking. What are classrooms like where historical thinking is not occurring or only rarely occurs? And what can I do to avoid creating a classroom like this?

Students are quiet. Lots of teacher talk. 

I start with a basic assumption: When students are not writing or talking, I am severely limiting my opportunities to get them thinking about the past, to teach them specific historical thinking skills, and, in time, to assess their thinking, providing the feedback that is essential to help students become historical thinkers.

That is not to say that when I lecture students are not thinking. What, though, are they thinking about? I suspect that more often than not when we are talking, or ‘lecturing’, the chances that students are actually thinking about the topics we are discussing are often quite small.  If we cannot get students thinking aloud or on paper, then we cannot do much teaching. The best we can say that we are doing is talking; we are not teaching.

Assignments need to emphasize more than regurgitating content

Even a student with exceptional memory is not really learning much of value if all she can do is repeat what her teacher or her textbook says. As Grant Wiggins repeatedly reminds us, remembering is not understanding. Expecting and accepting recall of information as the main evidence of learning signals to students that the learning we value is primarily the learning associated with remembering, as opposed to understanding.

If superficial learning is the goal, then, indeed, little understanding is needed for students to demonstrate that they can remember content well enough to spit it back on a test. Knowing this, it is essential for me to consciously get students thinking on paper or out loud in class. Only then, can I push students to evaluate their thinking, the thinking of their classmates, their teacher, and all of the texts, written and unwritten, that we encounter in class.

Units and Lessons Need to Revolve around Questions

The Stanford Historical Education Group (SHEG) does this well. @William ABerry11 also discussed this in his post. I am still learning the best way to incorporate the SHEG model of lesson planning into my routine since the vast majority of the existing SHEG lessons do not connect to my Western Civ course.  When examining the SHEG lessons, you will notice that every lesson has a central question at the top the lesson plan. This approach, I think, is superior to structuring a lesson around a series of learning objectives, as many of us were taught in college when we first learned how to lesson plan.

I have noticed that the SHEG questions are usually fairly limited. They do not carry over into multiple lessons, the way that one of Grant Wiggins’ Essential Questions (EQs) does. I am also pretty sure that many of SHEGs questions revolve around why and how questions, as opposed to should or would questions.

As long as you are not attempting to build a lesson around a closed ended question, then this approach should work for you.  The bottom line here is that we set students up to construct a response to the lesson’s central question, requiring them to defend their position and support it with evidence derived from their analysis of primary and secondary sources.

How I have typically planned

Throughout my career, I have never planned my units and lessons in ways that are aligned with the best practices spelled out by Grant Wiggins and SHEG.

I like that Wiggins focuses on student understanding and transfer. He is eloquent in his articulation about why teaching discrete facts and isolated details is not meaningful. When I think about my history class, I have generally been content with teaching students information. When planning, I have typically started by making decisions about what I want to tell, or ‘teach’, students in class.

 In recent years, with the advent of department tests, my planning has revolved almost completely around the department tests. I have decided what to tell students by looking at the test. This is not what a good history teacher does. In fact, this is not what a good teacher does. What, then, do good history teachers do?

I have to decide what big ideas and essential understandings I am going to focus on in class.

I have been reading Grant Wiggins’ text Understanding by Design, where he discusses how teachers can teach students in a meaningful way, as opposed to providing them with superficial instruction that for all intents and purposes is a waste of time.

Wiggins emphasizes teaching for transfer, teaching students to use the concepts and skills they learn in your class in new and varied situations. Wiggins asserts, and I agree, that this type of deeper, lasting learning is not common.

Why? Wiggins premise is that it is not common because of how teachers teach. And, to tie these comments back to this month’s topic, how teachers teach is connected with how they plan their units and lessons.

If I am honest, I do not plan to teach for understanding, in the manner discussed by Wiggins. What do teachers who plan and teach using UbD principles do? What do they do that I do not do?

More to come…