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Okay, Google. Teach my class

ok-google

I just got off the phone with a former social studies teacher and current building admin. She’s working with several of her teachers as they develop standards-based lessons and units.

Part of the problem that they’re running into, of course, is that the state standards here in Kansas are not your typical standards. Our document does list some suggested people, places, events, and ideas for each grade level. But that list is not mandated or assessed at the state level. The social studies standards in Kansas is made up of a simple bulleted list:

  • Choices have consequences
  • Citizens have rights and responsibilities
  • Societies are shaped by beliefs, ideas, and diversity
  • Societies experience continuity and change over time
  • Relationships among people, places, ideas, and environments are dynamic

The purpose behind this “simple” list is to encourage classroom instruction that ties social studies content to these big ideas. We used the term mental velcro a lot – why teach the aftermath of the Civil War? Why teach about the Army of Amazons in southeast Kansas? Why teach redlining in Chicago during the 1930s?

Because choices of consequences. Things, good and bad, happen based on what individual people decide. Because as citizens of both the US and the world, people have rights that need protected and have responsibilities that they need to fulfill. Because even though things are different than they were in 1872 and 1921 and 1932, other things remain the same. Because current relationships between groups of people and place and ideas impact present and future generations.

And because brain research is telling us that if we want students to make the connection between past events and contemporary issues, they need to really grapple with these ideas and topics – not just memorize them.

So.

Say you’re a new teacher or even an experienced teacher who has been moved into the middle social studies department because of budget cuts and your license says “qualified.” What does a social studies lesson plan aligned to Kansas state standards look like?

I get it. There’s no checklist of stuff that you have to cover in the next nine months. No secret number code that aligns to the 6th grade standard for Asia in the 12th century. During my phone conversation with the building admin, I flashed back to an older post I wrote several years ago. And so, among other stuff, we talked about the idea of using good questions and prompts as part of quality lesson design. As in:

A social studies teacher’s job is not to give kids the answers. Their job is to give students great problems to solve.

The ideas in the older post were helpful to the building admin and her teachers. So I’ve edited it and pasted some of it below. Maybe it can help someone else.

———-

Much of our phone conversation – and that of teachers around Kansas and the country – has been about finding the balance between content and the historical thinking process. If you’ve followed the epic tale of how the new standards were created, you’re well aware that the state document encourages the importance of the historical thinking process. The old standards paid lip service to the idea of process:

compares contrasting descriptions of the same event in United States history to understand how people differ in their interpretations of historical events.

but in a lot of ways, that old document focused on all of the things that kids grow up hating about history – long lists of people, places, and events. So as the new standards have rolled out, we’ve talked about what content, how much content, what processes, how can we teach the processes without ignoring foundational knowledge, you get the idea. And during a professional learning workshop, it can seem a bit academic.

But now you’ve got a room full of 13 year olds staring you in the face and it becomes all too real. So . . . my advice?

Ask better questions.

Sure . . . you’ll want to provide opportunities to help them think historically and understand how to go about answering the question. Provide scaffolding and support with tools, websites, and resources. Maybe even a bit of direct instruction.

And then . . . step out of the way. Let them struggle. Don’t give them the answer. Cause they’ll ask. The system has trained them to expect us to give them the answer. Hang in there and let ’em dangle a bit.

We simply can’t give them the answers anymore. Marco Torres once asked a room full of social studies teachers to describe their curriculum and instruction. After hearing long lists of dates and places and people and events, he came back with another question:

If I can Google everything you just said, what value are you adding to the learning that takes place in your classroom?

At the 2013 ISTE conference, Will Richardson asked a similar question:

I’m a big advocate of open phone tests. If we’re asking questions kids can answer on their phones, why are we asking the questions?

So.

Your unit design should never depend on “Okay, Google.” The questions we should be asking need to be “un-Googleable.” Things like:

  • What really happened in Boston on March 5, 1770?
  • Was dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima the humane or inhumane thing to do?
  • What is the best form of government?
  • Were African Americans really free following the US Civil War?
  • What is the best balance between state and federal power?
  • What does a “More Perfect” union mean?
  • Is it ever okay to violate the Bill of Rights?
  • What is the solution to the dropping water table in Western Kansas?
  • Should the local county commission allow energy companies to drill fracking wells within county boundaries?
  • How much influence does the environment have on historical events?
  • What name should be given to the federal land contested by General Custer’s 7th Calvary and the combined forces of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in June 1876?

Kids can’t ask Google to figure these out. They can’t use Siri. They can’t use print or online encyclopedias. They’re gonna have to use evidence and historical thinking. They’re gonna have to develop some skills.

You’ll probably never find the perfect balance between content and process. But asking great questions is a great place to start. The value you bring to the classroom is designing the learning that happens around these questions and the historical thinking processes that you teach your kids.

What questions are you asking your kids?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Not sure if the first question qualifies, at least not as written: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-boston-massacre
    I googled a few of the others and found answers to them online…
    Looks more like we need plagiarism prevention and using documents from class to answer the questions.

    November 30, 2016
    • glennw #

      The beauty of the questions is that there are multiple ways to explore the evidence. This allows us to plan the instruction in ways to create a sense of “academic discomfort” in the minds of our students – this encourages student analysis of primary and secondary sources to find the “correct” answer.

      The Boston Massacre is a good example. We can use both the Revere and 1868 Chappel versions of the event. We can provide court transcripts and other accounts. The idea is that our kids don’t know how it turns out – they have to practice their historical thinking skills to find the answer.

      Same with the other questions. We can look for the answers online but the idea is that there’s a lot of uncertainness about the answers. That’s what we want – the kids have to figure it out.

      Thanks for the comment – couldn’t agree more on the plagiarism!

      glennw

      November 30, 2016

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