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5 mistakes your kids make while thinking historically. (And how you can fix them.)

A big part of what I do every week involves spending time with teachers, especially social studies teachers, leading and having conversations around best practice, instruction, and assessment. And it’s almost always the best part of the week.

Think about it. I get the chance to sit and nerd out with other social studies people talking about our favorite history stuff. I know. It’s awesome.

A lot of our recent conversations have focused on the soon to be released Kansas state social studies assessment. At its most basic level, the assessment will ask kids to solve a problem using evidence and communicate the solution. This assumes, obviously, that the kid will have acquired some historical and critical thinking skills somewhere along the way.

And the more I get the chance to work with our current standards and the planned assessment, the more I realize that we need to do more than just train students to start thinking in certain ways. We also need to train them to stop thinking in other ways. We want them to be able to source and contextualize evidence. We want them to read and write effectively. These are useful skills.

But there are also ways of thinking that can slow that process down and even grow into habits that can lead to ineffective (and perhaps dangerous) citizens.

I recently ran across an article on my Flipboard feed that specifically addresses these ineffective and potentially dangerous habits. Posted by Lee Watanabe-Crockett over at the Global Digital Citizen, the article highlights both problems and solutions. You’ll want to head over there to get the full meal deal but because Lee focuses more on generalities than things specific to social studies and history, I’ve given you just a little taste below:

Jumping to conclusions

This is often the first thing our kids will do when we ask them to look at a particular problem or issue. Before looking at any evidence at all, the brains of many students will automatically decide that he or she already knows the answer. Watanabe-Crockett shares from Francisco Sáez:

We usually see patterns where they don’t exist because we need to believe in a coherent world that is governed by certain rules. Our brain is an associative machine that always looks for causes and, when they are not easy to see, we use a sort of statistical approach to determine them. Unconsciously, we judge which is the most probable sequence of events and end up assuming it as true. This way of thinking exposes us to serious errors when it comes to interpreting random events, since one signal may have multiple meanings.

He suggests that we need to train our kids to make intentional and conscious decisions to recognize that their brains will try and see a pattern that may not exist. Even more importantly, what is their emotional reaction to the problem or question – angry, saddened, anxious?  Second, our students often don’t know what they don’t know. Watanabe-Crockett calls it being ignorant of their own ignorance. They need to be clear about what they actually know and don’t know, what they believe and don’t believe. And than explore evidence that can help fill in those holes of “unknowing.”

For current issues, online tools like Pew’s Political Typology Quiz is perfect for helping kids be intentional about understanding their own biases.

Negative thinking

Negative thinking weakens the creative spirit in your students. We’re asking our students to do difficult work – it’s easy for them to believe that they aren’t capable of doing it or doing it well.

Historical and critical thinking is constructive thinking. That means students must take positive control over their thoughts and feelings. One of the easiest and most powerful ways to build positive thinking in your students is simply to be positive and happy yourself. A bit harder? Do more formative and ungraded assessments and fewer graded, larger summative assessments. Build failure into your instruction and assessment. Learning happens when we screw it up. Provide a place for kids to failure without penalty.

Losing track of purpose

Mindful, intentional, and purposeful thinking helps students succeed in the work we ask of them. Without purpose, students can waste time, effort, and mental energy that can help them to think historically and critically. But this can be difficult in today’s learning environments. Distractions are everywhere. Phones. Mobile apps. Homecoming. Sports. Friends.

Watanabe-Crockett quotes The Excelling Edge:

One defining characteristic that separates the good from great is an individual’s ability to master his or her thinking. Specifically, high performers think on purpose. Our thinking drives our performances. If we can master our thinking, we’ll be well on our way to cultivating excellence.

Your kids probably won’t be the next Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin. But to help make them as successful as possible, start by making sure your expectations are clear and that students actually understand them. it’s easy for us to fall into what the Heath brothers call “the Curse of Knowledge.” We too often assume kids know what we want. And it’s just as common for kids to tell us what we want to hear. So ask students to paraphrase back to you, in some sort of digital or written form, what their task is. Many students find it difficult to focus because they’re not aware of the steps necessary to complete a project so train them to create a checklist of most important and crucial tasks to least crucial. Build in stopping points along the way where you and students check in assess progress.

And as much as I love the tech, have kids park their personal devices unless absolutely needed – which isn’t very often, especially as more schools provide one to one devices for students. Show them the research showing how dumb we all get even if our phones are just near us or turned over.

Accepting false or inaccurate information

This habit is more and more common when so many online sources are intentionally or unintentionally spreading fake and inaccurate information. Our kids need specific skills to make sense of what they see and read, not just online but wherever they find evidence. The problem with kids taking what they see or hear at face value is that it discourages the critical and historical thinking process.

So train kids to ask better questions. This sounds simple but it takes time and intentional effort on your part. The Right Question Institute has some great resources for training kids to develop their own questions. And we’ve already talked a ton about training kids to identify online fake news.

Being close-minded

Watanabe-Crockett suggest that ignoring other viewpoints can cause several major problems. First, it promotes misinformation by dismissing the fact that stories have multiple perspectives. Second, and perhaps most perilous, it hampers our ability to understand others, leading to harmful stereotypical beliefs. Battling this is at the core of what we do everyday.

Watanabe-Crockett highlights one of my favorite TED talks, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 18minutes of goodness titled The Danger of a Single Story”:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

This one can be difficult to break because it is so often connected directly to a student’s world view of self and others. And sharing facts doesn’t always work, in fact sometimes it can create more close mindedness. I recently had a conversation with a relative about the group of families, “the caravan,” walking north from Central American towards the US. It started poorly because both of us tried to convince the other that our facts are the right facts.

But it ended well. How? By telling stories instead of stating facts. Here’s a family. Here’s their story. Here’s a photo of the family.

So be sure that you and students tell stories. Read stories. Especially with contemporary issues. Creating emotional connections rather than factual ones are a great way to begin projects, work assignments, and PBLs. Photos and videos can help tell stories. Talk about commonalities as well as differences. The Heath brothers book, Made to Stick, has some very concrete strategies for doing this.

And the National Council for the Social Studies has a great article titled Four Strategies for Teaching Open-Mindedness that is just perfect for this.

The So What

It’s easy for us to worry only about those skills that we want our students to acquire. But don’t forget those skills that we want them to lose. Be intentional about finding ways to eliminate these five habits when creating your instructional designs.

 

Glenn is a curriculum and integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He provides engaging professional learning activities across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Work with Me page.

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