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What’s our job?

Next spring, the Kansas Department of Education will roll out a pilot version of the Social Studies State Assessment. The test is designed to measure how well classroom instruction is aligned to the one-year old state standards by focusing on document analysis and addressing a specific writing prompt. It will be interesting.

For quite some time, the Kansas state standards – like many across the country – focused on the collection and memorization of content. The test aligned to those standards was 60 multiple choice questions that measured the ability of a kid to memorize data. It’s not hard to figure out what happened next.

We know that tests drive instruction and so what happened over time in Kansas – like many states across the country – was that teachers focused on finding the best way to make sure that students could regurgitate specific content knowledge.

So instead of making sure kids could process information and solve realistic problems, the goal in many schools was to find a way to game the system. We knew which specific content indicators were on the test (and because the questions never changed most of us knew what exactly what would be asked) and so class content became focused just on those things. Teachers drilled and killed on specific indicators without context. Kids memorized data in no particular order.

All in the name of test scores and the exalted Standard of Excellence that indicated the majority of your students were at the “proficient” level. And, of course, most schools eventually achieved the Standard of Excellence. Kids and teachers got good at playing the game.

Except we were all playing the wrong game.

We don’t need kids who are able to memorize 60 specific facts about 30 specific content indicators. We need kids who ask good questions. Analyze evidence. Work with others. Make mistakes. Learn from their mistakes. Solve problems. Communicate solutions.

Which brings me to last weekend.

Last weekend was a bit rough. My wife and I drove 8 hours to Northfield, Minnesota to drop my daughter off for her first year at St. Olaf College. Exciting to see her in a great place but still an emotional few days for the old people in the family.

And we attended the typical parent seminars and listened to the typical college spin. But later in the day it got interesting. Cause it seemed like St. Olaf Provost Marci Sortor was reading my mind. During a short session on what students can expect academically, she shared this little nugget:

What is our job? The main task of every class at St. Olaf is to train kids to collect and analyze information, identify and solve problems, and communicate the solutions.

She continued a bit about why these sorts of activities are important. I was having trouble keeping up on my phone’s Notes app with my stubby fingers but an earlier post might give you a flavor of what Sortor shared.

A quick summary?

Life is more complicated than simple job training. More than specific skills. More than memorizing. Life is nuanced. We need citizens who are nuanced and deep and rich and complex. Social studies instruction aligned to rote memorization does not create these sorts of citizens.

And while she was talking, I was seriously flashing back to the Kansas state assessment and standards. What is our job? As social studies teachers, what’s the goal? I’m gonna paraphrase Marcia and suggest that

the main task of every social studies teacher in Kansas (and around the country) is to train kids to collect and analyze information, identify and solve problems, and communicate the solutions.

For some of us, this might mean some adjustments are needed. Whether your students are planning a traditional college career, a job, vocational training, or some combination of all the above, they need you to concentrate on different things than what the old standards and old assessments supported.

Many of you, I know, already understand this and have for some time. But I think it’s a good idea to have a clear, singular focus. A mission statement of sorts. So that even if you’re deep into teaching the historical thinking process (and especially if you’re not yet) everything you do – lesson design, decisions about materials, activities – comes back to the same thing.

So that when kids leave your room, not only can they pass the state assessment they also leave ready to thrive in a complex, nuanced world.

(Need a starting point? Browse through this article about the National Council for the Social Studies Inquiry Arc.)


One Comment Post a comment
  1. Preach it!

    September 3, 2014

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