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How NOT to teach World History in the 21st century


You’re kidding, right? This is the way we want to teach high school World History?

A recent article in the Washington Post describes the current thinking of history teachers at Westfield High School in Fairfax, Virginia. Titled “Curiosity is banned at Westfield High,” the article highlights one of the documents given to students called “Expectations of Integrity.” The document instructs students:

Students are only allowed to use your OWN knowledge, your OWN class notes, class handouts, your OWN class homework, or The Earth and Its Peoples textbook to complete assignments and assessments UNLESS specifically informed otherwise by your instructor.

That’s not all. Students can not use anything they find on the Internet. They are not permitted to discuss their assignments with friends, classmates, neighbors, parents, relatives or siblings.

Well . . . what about people you’ve never met? The instructors have that covered:

You may not discuss/mention/chat/hand signal/smoke signal/Facebook/IM/text/email to a complete stranger ANY answers/ideas/questions/thoughts/opinions/hints/instructions.

Violations of the “Expectations” will result in the proverbial death penalty – a zero on the assignment.


Yeah . . . I get it. Kids can plagiarize and text answers and go to Shmoop and do all sorts of “devious” things by taking advantage of current technology. And, yes, some sort of updated AUP and plagiarism policy is appropriate in any high school class. But there is so much wrong with this particular kind of thinking and teaching that I’m not really sure where to begin.

How about we start with just one?

Collaborative learning improves divergent thinking, encourages innovative thought and generates new questions / solutions. I’m no rocket scientist but I’m going to suggest that the opposite of collaborative learning – the atmosphere that apparently exists in World History classes in Fairfax – ruins divergent thinking, discourages innovative thought and generates no new questions / solutions.

In his recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, author Steven Johnson discusses the seven “patterns” that can be used to develop great ideas. Almost all of the patterns involve some sort of collaboration and sharing of resources. Johnson gave a brief overview during a recent TED talk as well as in a much shorter tease that’s making the internet rounds:

Robert Marzano’s research on what works in schools documents the effectiveness of cooperation and collaboration on learning.

cooperative learning has an effect size of .78 when compared with instructional strategies in which students work on tasks individually without competing with one another (individual student tasks).

That’s the equivalent of a percentile gain of 28. Not .28. Not 2.8. That’s 28 as in 14 times two.

Sir Ken Robinson has spent quite a bit of time researching and discussing the ways that education in general and teachers in particular can improve. Much of it has to do with allowing students to be creative and learn from each another and from outsiders. In a recent short talk, Robinson describes what’s really going on at Westfield:

Our children are living in the most intensively stimulating period in the history of the earth . . . and we’re penalizing them now for getting distracted. From what? Boring stuff at school, for the most part.

And I’m half a continent away from Virginia (both physically and apparently pedagogically as well), so I don’t have the complete story. Maybe the teachers have a very good reason for locking down how kids interact with content and others. Maybe there’s a purpose behind working so hard to control access to information, control thinking, control behavior.

But I just have to ask – do we really want to teach like this?

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. The title of your post should just be: How not to teach…

    October 22, 2010
    • glennw #


      Guess I shouldn’t just pick on World History Teachers!

      I’m curious if this is something that is discussed in your district – what’s the buzz (if there is any) in Virginia about this specific instance in Fairfax and in your district in general?


      October 22, 2010
    • glennw #

      You sorta talk about the idea of using outside resources in your recent Wikipedia post. Was there any reaction within your district about that?


      October 22, 2010
  2. I think you’re the only one that noticed Fairfax- at least in Virginia. That news may have been overshadowed in VA b/c of a textbook some schools adopted: That’s been the buzz. That’s actually been an amazing story to see behind the scences.

    I got very little response to Wikipedia. One person commented about using it elementary schools as I mentioned it. Teachers are still skeptical, which amazes me in the context that I write about and the crappiness of current textbooks.

    October 27, 2010
    • glennw #

      I actually have a post on that issue sitting in my draft folder based on a Washington Post article. Not sure how to approach it – blame textbook editor? Review committee? Admin types who created the committee of three elementary teacher and no historians or content specialist? The actual author who failed (or perhaps didn’t!) to evaluate her internet sources?

      Probably all of the above. Sigh.


      October 27, 2010
  3. This is shocking. I can’t even comprehend why a school would want to stifle students’ curiosity. I celebrate curiosity because it indicates that my students are motivated to learn. It’s hard enough to get them to open their books in the classroom, let alone read enough to learn anything! If they showed any inclination toward thinking about social studies outside school, I would jump for joy.

    October 30, 2010

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