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What should your kids know?

It really is the ultimate question, isn’t it?

What do our kids need to know and be able to do? Our Kansas state social studies standards and the NCSS national framework provide some great guidelines. Both of those documents emphasize a balance between process and content, trying to move people away from a simple checklist of people, places, and dates.

But our state ed guy continues to use the phrase:

We don’t care what you teach. Your kids will not be tested on specific content. Your kids will be tested on their ability to make sense of and use evidence. You and your district need to decide the content.

He does qualify that by saying that the content needs to fit the state’s broad K-12 scope and sequence. So an US History 8th grade class needs to focus on the period between 1800 – 1900, for example. But within that 100 years? Do what you want. But that can sometimes be a bit scary for classroom teachers.

We’ve trained our teachers over the last ten years or so to focus on very specific bits of social studies data. So when we tell them that they can teach whatever they want with a focus on social studies process skills, they start to freak out:

Just tell me what I’m supposed to teach!

If I could teach whatever I wanted to 8th graders? I’d ditch the War of 1812 to spend more time on Reconstruction and Populism.

That’s the question for today. What should you teach? What is so important that every kid absolutely has to know it and be able to do it? And maybe just as important, do we all need to work together to find a common set of important stuff?

The Aspen Institute recently addressed all of those questions when they flipped them into a statement:

What Every American Should Know.

and then . . . they crowd-sourced it.

We live in an age when growing diversity, demographic flux, and social changes are pushing out the prominent American identity of the past . . . We are seeing unprecedented inequality because of a concentration of wealth and opportunity.

Americans, both new and old, are faced with a challenge. We must make a common culture that mirrors our new America — an America where “us” is no longer “white” by default, where the population has never been more diverse, where our role in the world is shifting rapidly.

Eric Liu, executive director of the Citizenship and American Identity Program has said, we need a common culture “that’s greater than the sum of our increasingly diverse parts.” Our diversity should be our strength, not our fragility, but we need the binding force of common knowledge in order to bring millions of identities together to become a unified America. Failing to build this common knowledge is failing to activate our diversity, and condemning ourselves to fall short of our full potential as Americans.

Indeed, in this age of economic and civic inequality, understanding what it means to be American has never been more important. That’s why we created an initiative called What Every American Should Know. We are crowdsourcing ideas from a wide range of Americans about what we all need to know to be aware, effective, and engaged citizens.

In many ways, this sort of conversation is at the heart of what we do. Our state standards document starts by suggesting that our job is to “prepare students to be informed, thoughtful, engaged citizens as they enrich their communities, state, nation, world, and themselves.” Pretty much what the Aspen folks are saying.

Our task is to prepare our kids to do amazing things . . . with perhaps the most important and difficult thing being to simply become an American in its fullest sense.

And I think the Aspen Institute is on to something. Can we use a crowd-sourced list to generate and sustain a conversation about what we should all know? So. Head over to their list. Post your ideas. Look at what’s been developed so far.

Then come back here and share your thoughts.

Because I’m curious . . . War of 1812? Or Reconstruction?

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. MaDawn #

    In Texas I teach both–the War of 1812 and Reconstruction. The War of 1812 sets us up for the Industrial Revolution. All content builds up to Reconstruction. Go to the Texas Education Agency Website to to see the 8th grade history standards and released test.

    January 29, 2016
    • glennw #


      So is there some content more important than the rest? If you had to choose (or had the opportunity to choose) between the War of 1812 and the Industrial Revolution because of time, what would leave out? And in Texas, like many states, there are specific things that you are required to teach. But more and more states, like Kansas, are leaving that decision up to local districts. And I am convinced that we need to have conversations about what to leave out – thus giving our students more time to dig deeper and practice process skills rather than simply memorizing a lot of data that they will forget later.

      If we try to cover everything, our students will forget most of it. It’s not that I believe that the War of 1812 isn’t important. It’s just not as important as other things that I want my kids to focus on instead.

      (And World History folks have even tougher decisions to make! Much more content to filter.)

      Thanks for the comment and being part of the conversation!


      January 29, 2016
  2. Dirtbag #

    That’s just it, when I started into the profession 20 years ago, I was like a kid in a candy store in regards to U.S. History, go where you want to go, stay as long as you like and students saw passion for history. Now the state (minus our legislature) has gone back to teach your passion. If Glenn has a passion for reconstruction, his kids are going to see it, his lessons are going to be engaging and ideas will be shared from teacher to student, student to teacher, student to student.

    January 29, 2016
    • glennw #


      I love your description of the good old days! It is a bit like that – and I agree, it’s all about being passionate about what you’re teaching.

      Thanks for the quick comment!


      January 29, 2016

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