Teaching Opinion

Response: Teaching History By Encouraging Curiosity

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 31, 2014 10 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on this topic)

Lychellia Cheeks asked:

What are some stories (testimonials) of the process teachers experienced when moving from the “stereotypical history teacher who only gives multiple choice tests on the dates of battles and offers their students a steady diet of mind dumbing worksheets and lectures.” (Eric Langhorst, part two of your response to Ways We Can Teach Social Studies More Effectively; April 2012).

This is a topic I’m particularly interested in these days since I’ll be teaching World History and U.S. History next year after a break from those classes for a couple of years.

Today, educators Diana Laufenberg, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez and Peter Pappas contribute their responses. I’ll be sharing contributions from others -- including from readers -- in Part Two.

You might also be interested in four previous posts on this topic, as well as a recent ten minute conversation I had with Sarah and Peter on my BAM! Radio program.

Response From Diana Laufenberg

Diana Laufenberg has taught all grade levels from 7-12 in Social Studies over the past 15 years. She most recently taught at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on modern learning. Her practice has deep roots in experiential education, taking students from the classroom to the real world and back again. Prior to her work in Philadelphia, she was an active member of the teaching community in Flagstaff, AZ. Diana was featured on TED.com for her “How to Learn? From Mistakes” and recognized for earning National Board Certification:

Teaching history is not glamorous. It conjures Ben Stein and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for most Americans. I’ve known this truth for quite some time. The trick is not to impart your enthusiasm for the subject so as to make the students enthusiastic. Instead, the trick is to get them legitimately curious about knowing history for themselves.

Now, I’ve never had a class start with, “Miss... I just have to know about the War of 1812, can you please tell me more?” The majority of students don’t come to class naturally curious about the stories of history. However, when you take the time to pull the students from their own experiences, allow them to make connections to history, float back to modern day to again find further connections and go back into history with all that information - meaning starts to develop in a way that is not achieved otherwise. I think of this looking something like a sine wave, ebbing and flowing between present day and the past. Students not only become curious, they also become incredibly aware of how current events are but a continuation of the stories of the past. To know the past is to understand the present. This is not accomplished with a steady diet of worksheets or multiple-choice tests.

I accomplished this with a robust set of units organized thematically, rather than chronologically. The big idea is that the themes provide schema for students to store their learning. As the year progresses, the themes are layered one on top of the other and the students start to understand both the broad chronology but also how different themes affect each other throughout time. For students who have such a short personal history from which to draw, themes allow students to build space for them to store historical skills and knowledge not only for class but as they move forward into life and away from formal education.

Response From Peter Pappas

Peter Pappas is a teacher, writer and national consultant exploring the intersection of critical thinking, teaching and new technologies. His popular blog, Copy / Paste is dedicated to relinquishing responsibility for learning to the students. It’s filled with loads of lesson ideas - many for the history classroom. Check out one of his multi-touch DBQ iBooks at iTunes or have your students create their own. Peter has many iBooks Author how-to resources available on his website. Follow Peter on Twitter @edteck :

Let me share my evolution as history teacher. In 1971, I began teaching history much the same way it was taught to me. I did all the reading and assimilation of material, then worked hard to craft the interesting lecture. I delivered the information with great gusto and loads of clever asides. Then I gave the objective unit test to see if the students got it. I was doing all the work; learning far more than my students; preparing and delivering “five shows daily.” And so I trudged through history - Plato to NATO.

Then one day I had a revelation. I walked into the art classroom next door to borrow some supplies and looked at the interaction of the art teacher and his students. I realized that if Tom taught art the way I taught history, then his student would be sitting in rows watching him paint. And so my journey began. Just as Tom was teaching his students how to think and behave like artists, I needed to figure out how to get my students to be the historian.

Here’s a few key ideas I considered when making the transition to student as historian. Note: For more, see my Slideshare The Student as Historian

Teach how historians think and behave:

What do historians do? Research, interpret, and evaluate sources, apply historic perspective, pose questions. More importantly they share the fruits of their research with others, take positions and defend them. Make these skills the basis of your class and you’re on your way to meeting Common Core standards. Build in opportunities for students to peer review each other’s work and reflect on their progress as learners. See my Taxonomy of Reflection for prompts.

Stop teaching facts and let students explore essential questions:

Look at a contemporary issue in the news and use it as catalyst for understanding its historic roots. Why teach the Federalist vs. Anti-Federalists debates? Better to frame the lesson around the essential question “How Powerful Should the National Government Be?” It’s timeless and extends the issues raised by the rise of the Tea Party back to the debate over the ratification of the constitution. Download my free Great Debates in American History

Use history as a platform for teaching across the curriculum:

Why not teach some graphing skills using historic census data? A great chance to design an infographic. Historians rely on key literacy skills like summarizing and comparing. Frame tasks for the students that allow them to develop their own summaries and comparisons, share them with their peers and defend their thinking. Those are more Common Core skills.

Choose the right primary and secondary sources for students to work with:

Visualize the famous “Golden Spike” photo taken to mark the completion of a transcontinental railroad line in 1869. What can a student learn by looking at the image? Not much, because the important information is not in the image. It’s in the background knowledge a student must already possess to interpret it. Unfortunately, this type of photograph dominates our textbooks. It’s iconic - it refers to something else that we want students to know.

Instead use historic sources that are less reliant on background knowledge. Allow students to make their own judgments about source material and share what’s important to them (instead of just repeating the details the teacher highlights). It’s a great chance for them to put those summarizing and comparison skills to use.

Response From Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez is a National Board Certified Teacher, and has taught in public elementary schools in Rancho Cordova, California since 2004. She was named Teacher of the Year in Folsom Cordova Unified School District in 2011. Sarah currently teaches in Folsom Cordova’s magnet program for high-achieving and GATE identified students who require greater challenge in an inquiry-based learning environment. Sarah also serves as a board trustee in the Washington Unified School District:

Teacher Shift

The first shift in moving from the multiple choice tests to more meaningful measures is the huge increase in planning time. Developing rich assessments, in my social studies class they are often projects or investigations around primary sources, takes much more time. Not only is there an increase in planning time, but also in time spent scoring assessments. Nowadays, many districts have machines that grade bubble tests in just minutes, and teachers who step away from those are faced with spending countless hours at coffee shops pouring over student work. The rewards of course it high - it’s the knowledge that you are giving your students a rich understanding and laying a strong foundation of knowledge.

Student Shift

When I first stepped away from the basic, bubble-assessment curriculum and into a more inquiry-based approach, I was surprised by my students’ reactions. I had assumed the students would eat up the rich lessons, yet their first reaction was one of discomfort. When my good, little memorizers didn’t easily earn a perfect score on an assessment, they were frustrated and shut down. After much reflecting, I realized they were out of their comfort zone and not used to being asked to think critically. Answers didn’t come easily, and since often their self-image of being smart is wrapped up with things coming easily, the students felt attacked. Slowly, the students began to thrive and rise to the challenge.

Perhaps the most telling story was of one my students who came to me from another district. By the end of the second month, she was officially failing math. I went back through her report cards to find she had a steady stream of As and Bs. Her mother and I had long talks, and we just couldn’t figure out why a student who had been so successful in the prior grade was now failing. I found huge gaps in her learning. Finally, we had an aha moment. As I was going over the assessments with the mother she commented on how very different they looked than the assessments at her other school, where she was so successful. It turned out that her former school, under program improvement and huge pressure to raise test scores, only gave bubble tests to align with the STAR. Her daughter had learned how to plug in answers and find the right solution, but didn’t actually know how to solve most problems if the answer wasn’t provided. They had trained her well for the STAR test, but sadly not prepared her for her future. Our deeper assessments gave us a more accurate picture of her knowledge, and we were able to use that data to help her be successful.

Worksheets keep students quiet. A room based on inquiry is buzzing with activity, and this can be unsettling for those who are used to hearing a pin drop. The shift to having students engage in collaborative conversations can be a big adjustment. Students need a lot of modeling in how to work together and effectively communicate, and at first the room can feel loud and uncontrolled. As the students develop their communication skills, they grew into a responsive audience, who treated one another with respect and honored differing viewpoints. These life skills have enhanced our lessons, but also carried over into other aspects of the students’ lives.

Thanks to Diana, Peter and Sarah for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. There will be plenty of space for readers’ thoughts in Part Two

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.