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Posts tagged ‘school reform’

Social studies teachers as subversives

I stepped back into the office this morning after being on the road for a week and got hit with this question:

What should the new state social studies document look like like?

No coffee. No danish. No prep. Just straight to educational theories.

During the conversation that followed and after I woke up a bit, another question popped up:

How willing should we be to create a standards document that makes teachers very uncomfortable?

(If you’ve been following our state standards saga, you’ll already know that the document is designed to be different than our current set of standards. With a focus on history / social studies “doing” skills rather than content, the still-in-process revision is already stimulating . . . hmm . . . discussion.)

We never really settled the question of whether making teachers uncomfortable is a good or bad idea but it did lead to a little bit of deja vu. I’ve had similar conversations in the past. And more than just a few of them seem to revolve around the writings of Neil Postman. His Teaching as a Subversive Activity in particular.

After some time to reflect, I started a bit of browsing on the Interwebs and ran across some stuff that, if not completely relevant, was at least interesting.

The best thing?

A very recent article by Peter Pappas over at Copy / Paste titled 13 Subversive Questions for the Classroom.

At the end of my recent keynote on the power of reflection at TechitU, I closed by saying something to the effect “… as a teacher you get to reinvent yourselves every year … if you want to change the status quo at school, know that everything is conspiring against you … testing, parent expectations, curriculum mandates, etc … so perhaps you’ll need to be a bit subversive.”

Since I made that “subversive” comment, I’ve been thinking about reflective questions that would challenge the status quo in school.

And that reminded me of a similar discussion that I was a part of several years ago led by tech ed guru Marco Torres. After asking teachers to describe their curriculum, he asked:

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

So . . . finally to today’s topic. What sort of subversive questions should history / social studies teachers be asking as they “think about their approach to instruction?” With a bit of help from Peter, here’s what I got:

What’s the difference between teaching and learning?

Do you ever ask your students questions you don’t know the answers to?

Do athletic coaches (and art teachers, drama teachers, shop teachers) know more about authentic learning than history teachers?

Should we ever ask kids to answer questions that have correct answers?

Should students learn more content information or skills in how to critically evaluate the information that surrounds them?

What would your classroom look like if there were no state social studies standards or state assessments?

Why should every history class be required to have textbooks available? Why should all textbooks be banned from history classes?

What “homework” should we assign?

What foundational knowledge is absolutely essential for social studies / history students to know backwards and forwards?

What place should movies and books like The Hunger Games and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter play in our classrooms?

What subversive questions are you asking?

Are we creating tech rich crazy people?

Have you ever been sitting in a meeting and felt your phone vibrate, take it out and discover that, in fact, it hadn’t actually vibrated?

Yeah. Me too.

There’s a name for it. Researchers are calling it “phantom vibration syndrome,” the sensation and false belief that you hear your phone ringing or feel it vibrating, when in fact the phone is not. And it’s not necessarily a good thing.

It means you’re hooked. It means your brain has been re-wired based on your use of technology. You have been “dragged to (technology) by the potential of short term rewards. Every ping can be social, sexual, or professional opportunity, and we get a mini-reward, a squirt of dopamine, for answering the call.”

According to two recent Chinese studies, excessive technology and internet use result in changes in areas of the brain charged with attention, control, and executive function. These “structural abnormalities in gray matter” mean a 10-20 percent shrinkage of those parts of the brain. These changes are eerily similar to changes observed in the brains of drug addicts and alcoholics. People can’t focus, can’t pay attention, can’t think critically.

Research published within the last month by Missouri State University documents the high levels of depression among heavy internet users. One of the study’s subjects maintains four avatars, keeping each virtual world open on his computer, along with his school work, email, and favorite videogames. He told researchers:

My real life is just another window and it’s usually not my best one.

But this goes beyond just issues of personal use. As educators, we need to be asking some serious questions about the current research concerning technology’s impact on attention, deep thinking, reflection, and concentration.

And I’m part of the problem. I mean, just look at the title and tagline of this website. The whole point of History Tech is to talk about ways to integrate technology into the teaching of history and social studies.

I’ve been pushing the use of technology in schools for years. Now? I’ll admit it. I’ve got concerns.

Not concerns about the appropriate use of technology in schools. I truly believe that a healthy balance of technology can improve and encourage high levels of learning. What I’m becoming more concerned about is the research documenting what can happen when the balance is not healthy.

I’ve written about this before here, here, and here.

But a recent Newsweek article highlights a whole boatload of new research. And what it’s telling me is that we need to have more conversations about what appropriate use of technology looks like in schools and, if we’re not careful, we may be adding to the problem that many of our students have with technology overdose.

I push the idea of mobile devices such as iPads as learning tools but I also push the idea that schools should not be buying them (or any other sort of technology) if they’re not really sure how the devices are going to be used. I had a recent conversation with a school administrator who was planning to purchase a large number of interactive white boards simply because

everyone else has them.

If the only reason you plan to use technology is because “everyone else is doing it,” we’re part of the problem. We need to be clear about how, when, and how much technology will be used in our buildings. We need to plan to balance tech use with deep reflection activities and group conversations that happen face-to-face. We need to understand that tech use does not always equal higher levels of thinking.

We need to be aware that technology use is not the silver bullet for improving learning. Appropriate use by trained teachers is.

A few quick suggestions:

  • Be intentional about the use of technology and the web as part of your instruction. Clearly understand what your goal is for its use.
  • Institute tech breaks as part of your normal teaching routine. Allow kids one minute to two minutes to check texts, etc at the start of class and then require devices to be turned off and upside down in front of you. Every 15-20 minutes, allow another one to two minute tech break. Use this method to train your kids that the downside of not checking in every five seconds isn’t as bad as they thought. Eventually you can lengthen the time without breaks to 30 minutes.

A recent article over at Edudemic also seems useful. They’ve put together a handy infographic that provides suggestions and ideas of how to stay focused “in an age of distraction.” The infographic breaks up your day into six categories:

  • Managing your space
  • How to work
  • Create rituals and habits
  • Managing email
  • Take time to reflect and review
  • Help for addicts
  • Take a digital technology detox


It seems like the balance I’m looking for – acknowledging the fact that technology is necessary but understanding that we have to be careful how we use it.

And it can help us start to have more intentional discussions about the appropriate use of technology in our classrooms.

Suppose knowledge is not the goal of education

I’ve been waist deep lately in the revision process of our state standards. Some days it feels like neck deep. We’re trying to do things a bit differently with this round of standards – the hope being that specific social studies and historical content is no longer the focus. What becomes important in the revised document is the learning and doing of process instead.

Training kids to think critically, to persuade effectively, and to communicate well. That’s what we need to be doing. And it sounds great – right up until you try and write a document outlining those skills in measurable ways.

So it was nice running across a recent article by Grant Wiggins of Understanding by Design fame. Wiggins does a great job of articulating the true purpose of school – preparing kids for life. And not in some vo-tech or career cluster sort of way. But with content specific skills that allow kids to ask good questions, make good decisions, and think flexibly.

Grant Wiggins suggests

So, suppose knowledge is not the goal of education. Rather, suppose today’s content knowledge is an offshoot of successful ongoing learning in a changing world – in which ‘learning’ means ‘learning to perform in the world.’

How cool is that?

As odd as that might sound for academics, it makes perfect sense in our everyday lives. The point of child-rearing, cooking, teaching, soccer, music, business, or architecture is not ‘knowledge’; rather, knowledge is the growing (and ever-changing) residue of the main activity of trying to perform well for real.

It would be very foolish to learn soccer (or child-rearing or music or how to cook) in lectures. This reverses cause and effect, and loses sight of purpose. Could it be the same for history . . . learning? Only blind habit keeps us from exploring this obvious logic. The point is to do new things with content, not simply know what others know . . .

So what would that look like in a history class?

We need to start thinking like video game designers. (Long time readers know that I’ve talked about this before, once or twice. I love games.)

I also love how great video games start. You don’t have facts or any sort of information. You have a problem or a challenge that needs to be solved. You begin to gather data, generate questions, and look for clues. In the process, you learn the foundational information. And you solve the problem.

So why not think like a video game designer? Give kids a problem to solve and start ’em off with a few guiding questions.

For the last few years, I’ve been using a great problem to illustrate this. Ready?

What really happened on the morning of April 19, 1775 at Lexington Green? How do you know?

Kids start to figure out that, well . . . we’re not really sure. We’ve got lots of facts and primary documents and eye witnesses and information. But little agreement among any of it. So kids have to start asking questions about reliability and bias and all sorts of fun history stuff.

And just like a video game, kids are practicing and competing in the game of history – solving problems and creating answers, rather than reading the answers from a textbook.

The skills they learn here are transferable to the next problem where we introduce more complex problems, requiring even more complex skills.

It’s all cool enough to get me excited again about trying to figure out how to create state standards from all of this. I’ll keep you posted.

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Open source history, Wikipedia, and Encyclopedia Britannica

It’s the end of an era.

The print version of Encyclopedia Britannica is no longer. And just when I was getting psyched up to pay $1,395 for the 32 volume set.

It’s not really a surprise, is it? Owning a four figure set of books that are out-of-date as soon as you crack them open in the age of instant information just doesn’t make sense.

But the question many still have is

Can we trust instant, online information?

What people are really asking is

Can we trust Wikipedia? Should we let our students use it for historical research?

The simple answer?


For all you social studies teachers out there who aren’t letting your students use Wikipedia as one of their research tools . . . I’ll try and say this as gently as possible

For general research and gathering of foundational knowledge, Wikipedia is as good or better than other forms of encyclopedias. So it’s gonna be okay. Turn the kids loose.

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia with thousands of contributors, hundreds of paid editors, almost four million articles, automatic daily deletions of textual additions by anyone without a verified account, multiple languages, on-going fact checking, and live updates of current events. With such as a tool, one might expect problems,  mistakes, and inaccuracies.

But the interesting thing is that it seems as if Wikipedia’s problems with accuracy aren’t any bigger than more traditional tools.  More and more research is being done on the reliability of Wikipedia information:

And, of course, Wikipedia has its own article on the Reliability of Wikipedia. (Feel free to discuss that irony in the comments.)

In 2004, IBM researchers suggested that one strength of Wikipedia is that “vandalism is usually repaired extremely quickly — so quickly that most users will never see its effects” and that it had “surprisingly effective self-healing capabilities.”

Need some history research on the use of Wikipedia?

In June 2006, Roy Rosenzweig, a professor who specialized in American history and was the founding director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, published a comparison of the Wikipedia biographies of 25 Americans to the corresponding biographies found on Encarta and American National Biography Online. He wrote that Wikipedia

is surprisingly accurate in reporting names, dates, and events in U.S. history.

In the 25 biographies I read closely, I found clear-cut factual errors in only four. Most were small and inconsequential.

Rosenzwig continues:

To find four entries with errors in 25 biographies may seem a source for concern, but in fact it is exceptionally difficult to get every fact correct in reference works. “People don’t realize how hard it is to nail the simplest things,” noted Lars Mahinske, a senior researcher for Britannica. I checked 10 Encarta biographies for figures that also appear in Wikipedia, and in the commercial product I found at least three biographies with factual mistakes. Even the carefully edited American National Biography Online, whose biographies are written by experts, contains at least one factual error in the 25 entries I examined closely.

He did make the same observation that other research has made – Wikipedia is as accurate as other sources but perhaps not as well written:

If the unpaid amateurs at Wikipedia have managed to outstrip an expensively produced reference work such as Encarta and provide a surprisingly comprehensive and largely accurate portrait of major and minor figures in U.S. history, professional historians need not fear that Wikipedians will quickly put them out of business. Good historical writing requires not just factual accuracy but also a command of the scholarly literature, persuasive analysis and interpretations, and clear and engaging prose.

Our job has changed from what it was when I started teaching way back in 1987. Our job in the 21st century is not to deliver foundational knowledge.

Training kids to think critically, to persuade effectively, and to communicate well. That’s what we need to be doing. Grant Wiggins asks us

So, suppose knowledge is not the goal of education. Rather, suppose today’s content knowledge is an offshoot of successful ongoing learning in a changing world – in which ‘learning’ means ‘learning to perform in the world.’

So what’s the point of all of this?

Wikipedia is not perfect. No encyclopedia is. It is as “perfect” as any other basic research tool.

But you and your students should be using Wikipedia because of its cost, its anywhere/anytime access, its ease of use, its ability to update quickly, and because it offers rich citations and references to other print and online material.

Should students cite Wikipedia in their bibliographies? Probably not. Same with  the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedias aren’t designed to be primary or even secondary sources. They list basic, foundational knowledge and are best used as a starting point for research, rather than an end.

Nothing more, nothing less.

So go ahead and let your kids loose on Wikipedia. It’s gonna be okay. The end of one era means the start of another.

Social Studies really is about stories. And iPads.

It’s a bit of a whirlwind week. A couple of meetings Monday and Tuesday in Kansas, fly to Washington for the National Social Studies Supervisors Association conference then quick jet out to Colorado for the Association of Educational Service Agencies conference this Friday and Saturday.

Not a big fan of the whole cattle car airplane ride, Homeland Security, tiny bag of peanuts traveling thing.

But I’m a huge fan of talking with teachers from all over. Especially social studies teachers from all over. So this is a great week!

Part of what I’ll be doing this week is sharing ways to integrate iPads (and other mobile devices) with the Common Core, 21st Century Skills and social studies. So it was awesome listening to the NSSSA keynote, Kathy Nordmeyer, talk about almost exactly the same thing. It was a little bit weird . . . I think she stole my notes.

Kathy started with a few questions:

How do we engage our kids in learning?

How do we help insure that our students use 21st century skills?

Are we using the same tools that our kids are using?

How do we shape a learning environment that provides for life-long skills?

She went on and shared how kids love stories – hearing them and telling them.  Social studies instruction should not be just about facts but all about finding, analyzing, synthesizing and communicating stories. I really haven’t thought about history and social studies quite like that.

I’ve always pushed the idea of mystery and solving problems and using raw materials and collaboration and strong narratives. But I like the idea of describing the social studies content area as one that is all about stories. What would a social studies lesson, or unit or scope and sequence look like if we started with the idea that it’s all about listening to and telling stories?

Mmm . . .

We would need to think more about teaching and using narrative structures. When students write in appropriate ways, the process helps them retain what we read – rather this is a textbook, primary sources or even multi-media. And when we have kids create digital stories and actually publish their work, we’re doing two things – engaging kids in content while also creating great assessment opportunities.

And this is not just engagement with social studies stuff but kids are also learning and practicing 21st century skills and common core stuff. Kathy said something at the end that caught my attention:

Digital storytelling encourages imagination in our students.

I like that too.

I’ll still do my own presentation but will be incorporating some of the cool things that Kathy shared about stories as a key part of instruction. And if you’re interested, I’ve embedded a short version of my mobile devices and social studies presentation below.

Much of what I’ll be sharing is a few examples of how teachers can use iBooks, Book Creator and ePUBs to push out their own content and Evernote to pull in the work of their students.  Let me know what you think.

View all of my presentations
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It’s the learning, stupid

In 1992, Bill Clinton was running for president against George H.W. Bush. Just months before, Bush had a 90% approval rating. And to help keep Clinton’s campaign on message, his political strategist, James Carville,  hung a sign in the Little Rock headquarters that read:

  1. Change vs. more of the same
  2. The economy, stupid
  3. Don’t forget health care

Although the sign was intended for an internal audience of campaign workers and a reminder to the campaign to keep hammering away at what was truly important, the phrase

it’s the economy, stupid

became the de-facto slogan for the Clinton election campaign.

I think teachers sometimes need a sign like that. Something to remind us about what’s really important.

Over the last year or so, I’ve had the chance to participate in a couple of ongoing educational conversations – both of which go to the core of what we do as teachers. What is learning? How do we measure it? What’s important to know? How do we make sure kids acquire what we want them to know?

One has revolved around the idea of grades and homework. (Just so you know, I think most homework that we assign is a waste of time and that most of us don’t really understand the purpose of grades and grading scales.) Another has focused on the creation of state level history / government standards.

And I’ve heard a lot of things that don’t seem to have much to do with actual learning:

My kids weren’t turning in their homework so I changed the weighting to make homework count as much as tests. This will convince them that it’s important.

If they change the grading scale, I’ll just assign more work.

I count attendance and neatness as a big part of their final grade.

I give zeros for work not turned in and no re-dos in my class. It better be right the first time.

Standards aren’t that important. I’ve got these great slides from battle sites I’ve visited so I’m planning a WWII unit for 6th graders.


We sometimes get so caught up in the day to day surviving that I think we sometimes forget the point. We need a reminder, a sign

It’s the learning, stupid

posted where we can see it every day.

And I’ve got just the thing.

Part of our ongoing state standards conversation has revolved around the idea of a “rigor rubric,” a way to measure what we and our kids are doing while in our buildings.

The tool that will eventually end up in the revised standards will be a bit different than the one created by the International Center for Leadership in Education but theirs is pretty good. I like the quadrants idea.

This should be up in every one of our classrooms. This is our sign.

The goal is to move all of our kids to Quadrants C and D. That’s the stuff that we should be worried about, not wasting time grading worksheets or busy work assigned over Thanksgiving break to teach our kids “responsibility.”

It’s not about attendance, busy work, neatness, names in the right place, straight rows of desks or even the grading scale.

It’s the learning, stupid.

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