Thursday, November 7, 2013

Have You Heard About the New Social Studies "Common Core"?

With the release of the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards, history teachers struggling under the burden of their giant curriculum finally have an alternative to content coverage.  Through an inquiry-based approach to teaching, the authors of the C3 Framework encourage teachers to surrender their battle with content coverage and instead strive to build a robust learning environment in which students ask questions, seek answers to these questions, and communicate their findings—all under the guidance of expert teachers who can share the disciplinary tools necessary to pursue their curiosity about the world.

What a relief!  What a revolution! 

But are we ready for this?

According to the C3 Framework, the first dimension of the Inquiry Arc of Learning begins with students developing compelling and supporting questions to guide their learning process.  Authors of the C3 Framework contend that these questions will arise naturally from students’ innate curiosity about the world and from their efforts to make sense of how the world works.  However, some social studies teachers argue that students can’t be expected to ask these compelling questions until they know their historical facts.  According to this theory, kids need to read textbooks, listen to lectures, and muddle through multiple-choice exams in order to build up their knowledge base and gain an accurate understanding of their historical facts.  

But this seems to be a backwards approach to learning.  If we fill students up with content knowledge in the hopes that they will refer to their history facts when called upon to think later in life, then we will surely end up disappointed.  Historical facts alone won’t stick in kids’ memories.  According to Sam Wineburg, Daisy Martin, and Chauncey Monte-Sano in their book Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms (2013), facts can only be mastered by “engaging students in historical questions that spark their curiosity and make them passionate about seeking answers.”  As detailed in Dimension 1 of the C3 Framework’s Inquiry Arc, questioning is the key to student learning.  Kids are naturally curious about the world and want to make sense of it.  Research shows us time and again that our students are not simply “empty vessels in which to pour our adult ideas and knowledge” (C3 Framework, 2013, p. 84).  In fact, it is the pursuit of coverage that blocks historical thinking.  Because we are so pressured to get to the Cold War before February or finish Ancient Greece before Spring Break, we spend the majority of our teaching time talking at kids in the form of lectures or question-and-answer sessions.  According to the research of Tamara L Jetton and Cynthia Shanahan in their book AdolescentLiteracy in the Academic Disciplines: General Principles and PracticalStrategies, only 3% of instructional time in middle and high school classrooms is devoted to the explicit teaching, modeling, and scaffolding of students’ comprehension of a text (2012).  Instead, these learning opportunities are sacrificed for the memorization of a litany of facts that will most likely be forgotten.

So does this mean we throw out our content? 

Absolutely not.  Although the C3 Framework argues that “individual mastery of content no longer suffices,” students need content to help them understand the time period and context in which they are studying (19).  As a matter of fact, a major component of the C3 Framework’s Inquiry Arc is Dimension 2: Applying Disciplinary Tools and Concepts.  This dimension helps kids access the content they need to pursue their inquiries. Bruce A. Lesh in his book Why Don’t You Just Tell Us the Answers?” Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades7-12, contends that an inquiry-based approach to teaching actually elevates the teacher importance in instruction.  The teacher has the role of providing the context and guiding students “from being novices to masters in the art of thinking historically” (2012, p. 15).  

While investigating their inquiries, students will need help with Dimension 3 of the Framework, which addresses the skills of navigating through multiple texts, evaluating sources, and choosing evidence. The Sanford History Education Group’s Reading Like a Historian website ( is a great resource for engaging kids in the historical inquiry of primary documents.  These inquiries give teachers the opportunity to share the disciplinary reading strategies of sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating, and close reading—the reading strategies used by actual historians. Sourcing and contextualizing the documents helps students develop the habit of analyzing the author, his affiliations, and his beliefs while determining the historical context in which the document was written.  While corroborating, students learn to evaluate the text’s level of agreement or disagreement with other texts they have read.  In Reading Like a Historian, Sam Wineburg, Daisy Martin, and Chauncey Monte-Sano (2013) argue that this process of historical inquiry “transforms the act of reading from passive reception to an engaged and passionate interrogation.  For historians, the act of reading is not about gathering lifeless information to repeat on a test, but engaging a human source in spirited conversation” (introduction).  Through an inquiry-based approach to teaching, students will learn to see their textbook as simply another source of information rather than the end-all be-all of historical truth. By encouraging students to seek out and read texts from multiple perspectives, some of which conflict with each other, we convey the idea that history is about “the struggle to make meaning from the remnants of our past, to craft new interpretations of texts, and make evidenced based and rationalized arguments to support those claims” (Jetton & Shanahan, 2012, p. 77).

The fourth Dimension of the Inquiry Arc provides the purpose for students' learning.  In this final stage of the inquiry process, students communicate their conclusions and take informed action.  This can take a range of venues and forms, such as individual essays, group projects, multimedia presentations, discussions, debates, and policy analyses.  The C3 Framework advocates for variety in both what and how students share their learning.  Students need opportunities for individual, partner, and group work.  This Dimension helps both teachers and students venture beyond multiple choice exams and into real-life application of their learning.  Students can communicate their conclusions to a range of audiences beyond just the teacher and into the classroom and outside the school.  With this approach, kids don't learn history just for the sake of doing well on the final exam; instead, they have the opportunity to learn about history in order to ask questions about the world, seek answers to these questions, and present their findings to a wider audience.

For those teachers looking for an end to the vicious cycle of content coverage, the C3 Framework can provide the catalyst for revising both our instruction and assessments.  Take a look at the changes coming to the AP History exam for Spring 2015.  If the AP program makes a change, then high schools will feel compelled to change, and middle schools will follow.  

What a revolution! 

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