Thursday, August 14, 2014

Understanding in the Social Studies Classroom

Over the past few months, for the first time, I read Grant Wiggins' book Understanding by Design.

Reading about understanding, obviously, is quite different than writing about it. What does it mean to teach for understanding in the social studies classroom?

I start with an assumption that social studies and history are two different entities, a point I've blogged about. One of the implications of this difference, I think, is that we must always go out of our way to keep an eye on the present day when teaching.

We are not teaching the past for the sake of teaching the past. In fact, I am not even sure we are teaching the past. What, then, are we doing?

My position is that we are using events from the present and past to help students think more deeply about society and the human condition.

As we pursue this goal, the past will occupy much of our time. After all, what alternative do we have? A course focused solely on the day to day news would quite quickly suffer from a lack of context and depth.

We need to start with some big questions: What does it mean to understand society more deeply? How does history help us do this? What does it mean to understand an event? or a person?

Many of us and the curriculum docs that underpin our courses assert that understanding is a major goal. Are we serious when we say this? If we are, we need to consider carefully what we mean and how we can assess whether we are achieving our stated goal.

Social studies teachers will often say they teach topics, such as the French Rev, WWI, or the Cold war. Whether intentional or not, when used in this context, these topics are discussed as if they exist as tangible objects or processes, as if they can be taught the same way you might tell a person about the plot of a tv show or book or how you might show a person how to change a tire or patch drywall.

When a teacher says he teaches World War I, what does that even mean?

We do not teach topics. We teach ideas.

Ok, we teach ideas...

Isn't that just another way of saying we teach facts, true information about past people and events? If that's all we do, can't a book do that much better, or at least similarly well? What do you, the teacher do, that a book cannot?

(As always, more to come...)


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