You can’t teach it all

Posted: October 25, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Eames TimelineSo, I’ve been thinking about social studies and history. I am the co-chair of the PreK-12 social studies/history department at my school. One of the issues we are always coming up against is the fact that history is not getting any shorter, in fact it’s getting longer every day. We can’t teach it all in 4 years of high school, we can’t teach it all even if we add in 3 years of middle school. And, expecting that content that gets taught in lower school will not need to be taught again at a more sophisticated level is a pretty high-risk move. So, that leaves us thinking about what to take out.

The careful reader will notice I did not talk about “covering” anything. If we are just interested in covering the material, and we are ok with going at break-neck speed, we could cover a lot. However, that gets us back into a high-risk situation–a high-risk that not a lot will get remembered. If that is the case, why spend the time at all? Well, as you might imagine as the department co-chair, I happen to think that history and social studies are important and worth doing well.

That brings us back to what to cut out, because seriously folks, there is no way to do it all. We need some depth not just breadth.

So, here are my questions. Feel free to answer some or all. (I could really use some comments here. Not only has it been a bunch of posts since I have had any responses other than spam, but I would love to get some ideas.)

  • How much US history is too much?
  • Are some time periods more equal than others?
  • How important is geographical distribution?
  • Can some topics/time periods be breezed through lecture style to leave more time for others to get in-depth treatment?
  • Is so, which ones?
  • Ancient history, how much time should it get?
  • Medieval history, an important and interesting time or understand the feudal system and move on?
  • How much time to spend on art, music, literature, and culture of the time?
Did I mention I would love some ideas?
(Super cool photo by Nat Tarbox used under creative commons license)
  1. Steve Jarvis says:

    Think of history as the study of concepts. Conflict & Resolution, Power & Leadership, Human Rights, Cause & Effects. The list goes on, and you can create what is important to you, or the direction you would feel most comfortable in taking. This is a step I have yet to take, but one I have been toying with. To do this would free us to deal with recurring concepts, and understand how they affect society. Many people call this “history repeating itself”. Do we really need to break down every war the United States has been involved in, or can we focus on cause & effect to understand a pattern in conflict? We can do the same with economic growth and decline in our history. Do we really need to study every economic crisis this nation has faced, or can we create a model to help us understand what makes the economy rise and fall.

    There are many more areas, or concepts we could discuss. One of the main points we need to understand is the effect of the internet, and more specifically, google. Do we really need to commit dates, names, and places to memory any more. If the questions we are asking can be answered by a simple google search then why are we asking them. The goal is to get from quadrant A to quadrant D, which means higher level questions and thinking. Our job as historians is to teach students how to think historically. How to interpret and analyze primary documents. To be able to determine the validity and accuracy of a website. To find the voice and motives, of the author, in any written document. If we can accomplish this then we can send our students into the world beyond our own walls and be confident in their ability to succeed.

    I know this doesn’t help you with what you can cut and what must stay in the teaching of history. What I hope it did was give you some ideas on how to approach the teaching of history. Trust me when I say that I wish I had enough time to teach all that I feel is important, and to the depth I feel it deserves.

    Good Luck

    • mseiteljorg says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

      I agree that recurring themes may be the way to go, that there is a lot less that it is critical to memorize given the ease of internet searches, and the critical importance of teaching how to evaluate the web information we find.

      What I worry about is balancing that with a sense of the big timeline of history. While I agree that the causes and effects of history and its repeating cycles are the interesting and require higher order thinking I worry that without enough context students will not be able to do that thinking themselves. Without enough understanding of the surrounding history, must these ideas be reduced to their most simplistic and formulaic?

      Perhaps it is those key moments of repeating crises or class struggle or intellectual leaps that that can serve as the stopping points as long as there is also attention given to how these events fit into the larger historical time line, not just of the place they happened but of other places around the world. There are a few newer courses at my school where the focus is these bigger themes. Certainly a good start.

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