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How to get smart again

We’re not stupid, we’re ignorant.

Current US history and civic knowledge among American citizens is not good. And worse, it seems as if the extremists are the only ones who care about that stuff. Moderates are choosing to “tune out” from the political process – making it more difficult for consensus to happen.

So what? What’s our role as social studies teachers?

A few suggestions:

1. Teach the idea and process of something called deliberative democracy –  developed by James Fishkin, communications professor at Stanford.

The premise is simple: poll citizens on a major issue, blind; then see how their opinions evolve when they’re forced to confront the facts. What Fishkin has found is that while people start out with deep value disagreements over, say, government spending, they tend to agree on rational policy responses once they learn the ins and outs of the budget.

2. Replace large, expensive, boring textbooks with well-written, engaging, smaller ones. Niall Ferguson calls these 10 pound history books

an encyclopedia without the convenience of alphabetical order.

And design them to be web-friendly . . . connected to web sites and primary sources and photos and video clips and live news reports and outside experts. Build in social media connections. Not just the same old textbooks put online or in some sort of iPad app format that reads exactly the same. (Though that format would at least allow anywhere, anytime access.) We need a true e-book with true interactive features.

Very few of us have the time, tech skills and history content knowledge to do this on our own. But we can be a bit more picky when selecting classroom materials. Textbooks like Joy Hakim’s The History of US and web sites like NARA’s DocsTeach give us more flexibility then traditional textbooks.

New tools like iPads with installed apps such as Shmoop’s American Revolution and Early Jamestown provide access to materials and resources in ways not possible even two years ago.

3. Use more video games and simulations. More and more companies are designing awesome games specifically for the educational market.

A couple of my favorites? Making History: The Calm and the Storm and You Are the Historian.

4. We need to ask better questions. We need to make history and government more of a mystery. What many kids get out of textbooks and traditional instruction is what author Philip Roth calls “the sense of inevitability.”

Do we know what’s going to happen in Libya and in middle eastern countries? Will China actually become a superpower? In the moment, no one really knows what’s going to happen but we teach history as if what actually happened was “inevitable.”

The American Revolution was not a done deal in 1776. The Confederacy was one victory away from gaining a possible ally in England. The Depression didn’t have to happen the way it did. Roth says that

the terror of the unseen is what the science of history hides.

We lose the “unseen” when we don’t ask good questions and encourage kids to solve interesting problems

We can do better. And based on the results of Newsweek’s research, we probably need to.

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6 Comments Post a comment
  1. What you wrote is sad but true. In a poll during the Presidential race more people said they would vote for Sarah Palin than those that thought she was qualified. Pretty scary

    April 14, 2011
    • glennw #

      We are a divided country in a lot of ways – and it seems as if facts don’t seem to make much of a difference. Donald Trump is polling at the top among potential Republicans voters!?

      That’s my point. The extremists are the ones who both run for office and who vote. We need to do a better job of teaching kids to be open-minded and critical thinkers.

      Thanks for the comment!


      April 14, 2011
  2. Great post, Glenn. Great lessons for us as educators and for us as citizens.

    To add to your examples of games/simulations that teacher about history and government, a great game is iCivics created by the smart folks at filament games:

    Worth checking out.

    April 19, 2011

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Tip of the Week – Civil War Interactives « History Tech
  2. We’re not stupid. We’re ignorant. « History Tech
  3. We’re not stupid. We’re ignorant. | History Tech

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