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Eating your own social studies dog food

In a 2013 article in Wired magazine, written following one of the government shutdowns of the time, author Clive Thompson suggested that members of Congress should eat their own dog food. Thompson describes the “hardships” Congressmen had to endure as they waited in long airport security lines, rushing out of town on their way to hit up potential donors. Long lines they created by failing to solve federal budget issues, a failure that kicked in the ridiculous sequester idea.

“Critics warned that the sequester would cause hardship throughout the country, but congress-folk didn’t care — until they had to share in the pain. When they discovered that the sequester was eating into their vacation time, they rushed back to the Capitol and passed a law restoring funding to airports, working so fast that part of the bill was handwritten. Congress, it turns out, isn’t paralyzed. It’s just not motivated. In this spirit, there’s one simple way to get our do-nothing legislators off the dime: Have them eat their own dog food.”

Thompson goes on to describe a term I had never heard of before. In the world of software coding, “dogfooding” describes the habit of programmers actually using their own products, “day in and day out.” Invented in the early 1980s, the term – and the practice – continues because it works. Forced to live with their own code, programmers can quickly see what works and what doesn’t work. And just as quickly fix it.

Thompson suggests that Washington would be a bit more successful if Congress actually experienced life as they code it. They don’t live like . . . well, like you and me. Incredibly cheap and well run health insurance. Private schools for their kids. Great pensions. People throwing money at them left and right.

They don’t really understand what happens in the rest of the country when they pass (or don’t pass) legislation. They don’t eat their own dog food.


Step back a minute. What does this have to do with social studies teachers? I’ll wait. Think this through a bit.

(Insert elevator music.)

You back? Good. Here’s what I got.

Teachers need to eat their own dog food.

Especially social studies teachers in Kansas. We’ve rolled out a revised set of history / government standards last fall and a introducing new state assessment this year. These things look different than the previous versions. A lot different.

The standards document and state assessment ask teachers and students to focus on building historical thinking skills while finding ways to drill deep into just the right content. More process. Less content. They ask us to do different things. They measure different stuff.

And life for a lot of us will be different.

(And even if you don’t teach in Kansas, the pendulum is swinging in the direction of process and away from just memorizing content. This is you too.)

Here’s where I think the dog food idea comes in.

You’re going to be developing new lessons and adapting old ones. You will be asking kids to do different things. You will assign stuff to students that you haven’t assigned before. And that’s a good thing. But before you do, you need to taste it. Go through that homework assignment yourself. Write your own response to that revised writing prompt. Take the test. Analyze the primary sources. Answer the questions.

Eat the dog food.

You don’t have to do this alone. You should have some sort of professional learning network in place. If not, find one or make your own. (#sschat is a great place to start. That social studies teacher down the hall from you is another.) Share your ideas. Assign the guy down the hall your homework. Let him send you his. Develop a habit of critiquing each others lessons and units.

Cause when you do this, you might realize that the food doesn’t taste that good. And you’ll fix it. Your stuff will get better and your kids will get smarter.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning 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 Speaking and Consulting page.


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