By Bill Waychunas – Here we go again. Without fail, each and every year, more than one parent will turn a parent-teacher conference into a confessional. Usually, it happens when a parent asks me to explain what my course (Civics) is all about. Sometimes, it comes after they tell me a story about how their child had really enjoyed one of the topics we had learned about and talked their parent’s ear off at home. On occasion, I’m completely blindsided by it, but usually it starts off something like this:
“I used to hate my history classes when I was in high school.”
Then comes my favorite part.
“It was just so boring.”
Great. This is going well. Then comes the curveball.
“But now I just love history stuff.”
Astounding. As a younger teacher, I thought the the adults who had this mindset or the students that weren’t particularly engaged by history just needed time to “come around” to history, as if it was an acquired taste.
Now, I believe that it has more to do with the way that the vast majority of social studies classes are taught. Just this week, I was riding in an Uber chatting with the driver and upon finding out that I was a social studies teacher, he said:”I always liked history classes. I’m good at memorizing things.” There lies the problem. Instead of teaching students to read, think, discuss, and write, we social studies teachers are focused on parading through as much content as possible. We can’t “cover” everything in our classes, yet when we try to, we are creating the “boring” class that’s just all about memorizing facts.
As more schools are shifting the emphasis of reading instruction into social studies classes, we have a great opportunity to teach less, teach it better, and teach social studies skills that will truly serve our students in their futures.
To renew my license this past year, I needed to take an additional course in reading instruction. So, I frantically enrolled in a course at a local public college and could only get into a Friday night course called Foundations of Reading Instruction. So, there I sat, the only secondary teacher in a class of future kindergarten and 1st grade teachers, learning about how to teach kids their alphabet and phonics. While I dreaded the class at first, I ended up learning more than just reading instruction.
To start each class, the professor would ask the class the seemingly simple question, “What is reading?” to which someone in the class would respond, “It is the interaction between the text, the reader, and their prior knowledge.” This is a powerful and important concept that has shaped my teaching of reading in my classroom but also has a related parallel to the work of social studies teachers.
If education and the study of social studies is about creating capable and engaged citizens and setting the foundation for a thriving democracy, then I would ask the question, “What is democracy?” Well, to borrow from my past professor, democracy is “the interaction between the real world, the citizen, and their social studies knowledge.” History and social studies are our “prior knowledge” which enables us to interact with and understand the world around us. Without background knowledge, students cannot use higher-level critical thinking skills that make history useful or relevant to their everyday lives. The problem that happens in most social studies classrooms is that we focus on cramming as much prior knowledge into our students brains as possible without ever showing them how to use it or why it matters.
I believe that this is exactly the reason why so many people are drawn to history as they become older; the success of the History Channel can’t be completely attributed to Duck Dynasty, after all. When asked to describe their high school history experience in one word, most people chose the words “boring” or “irrelevant.” How is it possible that history-centered entertainment continuously tops the charts of best sellers and blockbuster movies, like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States or Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln? Clearly, there is an untapped wellspring of interest and value in history that has been unfortunately overlooked or simply underutilized by social studies teachers for generations.
Students today are growing up in a much different world than the vast majority of their teachers, which is why we must adjust the way that we teach social studies. In the past, factual recall and content knowledge was perhaps generally more useful due to the effort and time needed to look something up. For students today, anything that they could possibly want to know is available at their fingertips through smartphones and the internet. The old-fashioned way of memorizing dates, names, events, and other facts needs to be “history.” Instead, what we should be doing is teaching students how to take on the truly massive amounts of information available in the world today by comprehending it, evaluating it, discussing it, and coming to rational conclusions about it.
This is why I’m imploring my fellow social studies teachers to ditch their textbooks (maybe not completely) and venture into the dangerous, exciting, and relevant world of controversy in the curriculum. As adults, we must navigate the treacherous waters of uncertainty, face down conflicting information, and grapple with varying points of view. Why aren’t we asking our students to do the same? By bringing controversy into our curriculum we allow student to practice their skills of interpreting information, considering the views of others, and evaluating arguments and evidence to come to reasoned judgements about a wide range of issues ranging from raising the minimum wage to whether or not 16 year olds should be allowed to vote.
In a history class, why not present students with some of the many mysteries of history where there is conflicting opinion about what actually happened? These are real world issues that are both relevant and interesting to students. Best of all, they give students the opportunity to engage and practice the skills they will need to support and thrive in a democracy before they are released into the world of adulthood. Each year that I teach, I find myself teaching less and less content while more deeply diving into a select number of topics.
But what about the mandated curriculum? What if student opinions get out of control and go beyond disagreements into full-out arguing or bullying of other students? These are valid fears. Teaching “by the (text)book” is certainly the easier and safer route to take. A big part of this is practicality, as going chapter-by-chapter through a book is efficient in terms of the teacher’s expenditures of time and energy. There is little thinking or preparing that needs to be done by the teacher, or by the students. Stepping outside of a textbook can also expose a teacher to possible conflict with students, parents, or administration if they don’t agree with the teacher’s particular presentation of a controversial topic. Staying within the lines of appropriateness isn’t always easy for a teacher to do, but should always be a large consideration when moving away from a standard, textbook curriculum.
The alternative is to stick too closely with the read the textbook, take notes, memorize, and assess cycle that has plagued many social studies classrooms. If we choose not to bring our social studies curricula and teaching closer to what is valuable and interesting to students through controversy and emphasizing the skills truly needed for positive participation in society, we’re not only cheating our students but we will forever be the teachers of just another “boring” course.