Yup. It’s both / and. Your kids need a balance of process and content
I had the chance this week to spend two days with 13 social studies teachers as we continued our work on revising the state social studies standards.
Way back in 2011, we started the same basic process. State regulations require a standards review every few years. Most times, the whole business is usually an empty exercise – fix a few typos, move some sections around, update the list of review committee members.
But eight years ago, with some excellent leadership from department of ed social studies consultant Don Gifford, we jerked the process off the rails and moved away from a content-based standards document to one focused on process and skills. At the time, it was a major philosophical shift.
We created five standards:
- Choices have consequences
- Individuals 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
That was it. All kids. All grades. All content areas were to focus on these five ideas.
Discipline-specific content was important but not an end in itself. We wanted to encourage teachers to use content to help K-12 students wrap their brains around these big ideas. And to support the development of historical and critical thinking skills.
The required state social studies assessment moved from all multiple choice questions to a measure of reading, writing, communicating. So no content in the standards document was required or tested. The document went from almost 400 pages to 131 as we pared away as much of the trivial minutiae as we could.
Things got better. And, no . . . the Kansas state social studies standards didn’t turn around the multiple choice / No Child Behind tide by itself.
The NCSS College, Career, and Civic Life Standards came out soon after the state document was approved. Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Group came out with their Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms book in 2012. Their web-based curriculum and assessment tools went online around the same time. The pendulum was swinging away from memorizing content to do well on multiple choice tests towards using that content to solve problems and support arguments and I think we got in on that earlier than most.
Teachers around the country, and especially in Kansas, aren’t trying to hack the assessment system anymore. Not trying to find the best test prep strategies. To drill and kill. Instead, you’re asking for better primary sources. Document analysis techniques. Authentic problems to solve. Civic engagement opportunities.
That’s a good thing.
And now we’re back at it. The requirement to review kicked in last fall. It’s always so fun to get together with 15 other teachers who are passionate about great social studies teaching and learning. Lots of awesome ideas. A few heated arguments. A gazillion suggestions of what can be changed to make things better for kids.
So the document will look and feel different. (And probably half the length.) But all of the revisions and changes are focused on how to encourage and support the appropriate balance of content and skills. About not just what kids know and are able to do but what they actually can do.
And I just ran across a sweet little article that supports what we’re trying to do with practical, ready to use suggestions.
Head over to Edutopia and read Balancing Instruction in Social Studies by Aaron Pribble.
. . .the answer, I believe, lies in teaching skills through content. Universal skills like reading, writing, and speaking should be applied by students across disciplines and departments. Students should be practicing at least one of the three in every class, every day.
It’s a great read as you continue moving away from multiple choice and more towards what we know is best for kids – the balance between content and process.