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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Time Vs. Content Coverage--the Epic Battle

As I was thinking back to my high school days and on my own experiences learning history, I recalled an episode from one of my favorite shows of all time: Beverly Hills 90210.  In this particular episode, Brandon Walsh (the main character) who usually loves American history complains to his friends that Mr. Danzel (his teacher) has ruined history class.  By assessing students through impossible, factual-based quizzes, Mr. Danzel has reduced the study of history to little more than memorizing "a bunch of facts."  Some students at West Beverly High, including Brandon himself, feel so much pressure to pass these quizzes they are willing to cheat.  When Brandon confronts Mr. Danzel with his concerns over these quizzes, Danzel defends his teaching methods, arguing that "memorization lays the foundation for a college education where [students'] ideas can be more fully examined."  In response, Brandon wonders who will fully examine these ideas--"A group of kids who have never been challenged to think?"

Within this classic episode of 90210, Brandon and his teacher find themselves engaged in the great debate over depth Vs. breadth in the teaching of social studies content: do we expose our students to as much content as possible to help them know the facts, or do we take Brandon's advice and slow down our teaching to provide opportunities for deep learning of less content?

Throughout my teaching experience, most of the social studies teachers I've met love their content.  They have study it, analyzed it, and have worked hard to become experts.  To know their facts.  And year after year, these teachers are forced into the perpetual battle, pitting time against coverage, often feeling pressure to rush their teaching in order to get through their district mandated curriculum.  Not only is this battle exhausting, but it also does little more than to promote surface-level learning--learning that is subject to rapid forgetting over the course of time.  Students might retain the information long enough to circle the correct answer on a multiple choice test; however, as Brandon points out to his teacher, students will not acquire the deep learning of content material that allows them to reflect upon, connect, and integrate knowledge.  Ironically, it is the very thing we and Mr. Danzel do to “get through” the curriculum that inhibits deep learning.  Our love affair with the content and our honorable mission to impart historical knowledge might be sabotaging the learning of students--students like Brandon who might eventually grow frustrated and fall out of love with history.  This certainly is not the intention of Mr. Danzel or of any social studies teacher engaged in an all-out content coverage battle, but it could very well be an unfortunate side effect.

In the book Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (2014), Hattie and Yates reviewed a study examining time’s role in promoting deeper learning.  In this study, the same eighth grade curriculum was taught in four different ways--as a full 12 week period or as a cut-down form in either 9 week, 6 week, or 3 week versions.  In all four versions, the same four topics were covered; however, the time allocated to teach each topic was dramatically reduced.  According to the results, this reduction in time made very little impact on multiple choice exam scores.  However, on written tests that assessed the depth of learning, students in the classes with reduced time for learning were unable to pass.  These students, like 90210's Brandon, who received the abridged version of the curriculum could not make connections or integrate ideas across the four units.  Just as Brandon had warned, rushing through the content forced teachers, like Mr. Danzel, to limit opportunities for students to engage in a variety of meaningful and enriching activities that would have promoted knowledge building.  

Think about how many times we as teachers have been forced to cut short a class discussion in order to quickly lecture through the material so kids “get what they need” for a test--and get it fast.  Or think about the teacher who is forced to cancel the class debate, skip an inquiry-based learning experience, or cut an analysis of a primary source document simply because she’s “a week behind” the other social studies teachers battling the content down the hall from her.

When we remove these powerful and engaging learning opportunities in favor of teacher lectures with PowerPointed quick-and-easy summaries of important historical events, we reduce our practice to nothing more than pre-packaged knowledge handed over by an authority figure--or as Steve, the class clown from Beverly Hills 90210, describes it: "a fossil in a suit." Yikes!  We might be able to progress through more material at a faster rate, but are the kids really learning? Could Brandon be right about his assessment of Mr. Danzel's teaching:  Can kids "dig deeper into the broader historical context" if we don't promote their historical thinking skills? 

Hattie and Yates (2014) refer to Mr. Danzel's style of teaching as the recitation method.  Using this method, Mr. Danzel might provide a lecture as described above, or he might interact with the class by inviting students to respond to teacher-initiated questions.  When a student responds, he evaluates the response before moving on to his next question.  This series of questions and answers is typically carried out in an orderly fashion, with the teacher highlighting what he perceives to be the key points of the curriculum.  Unfortunately, these teacher-generated questions are usually low-level and factual, requiring simplistic answers.  Typically, only one student at a time is active while the majority of the students watch and listen--or simply appear to be listening.  Overall, the “conversations” involved in this method are predictable and unengaging.  Students show up to watch the teacher work rather than actively participating in their own learning.

We are all familiar with this routine.  Think back to your own high school days when the teacher would ask the class a question (a factual question with a clear right or wrong answer rather than a thoughtful-provoking question that would elicit a back-and-forth student discussion).  A few students--usually the same ones every time--would raise their hands to answer the question.  After a while, we all began to figure out the kids who get it and the kids who don’t.  I didn’t get it, but I sure learned how to become invisible during those “discussions.”  If I moved my head into just the right position behind the kid in front of me, I could hide out and never be noticed.  Unfortunately, this trick didn’t work in all my classes.  Every once in a while, I would get the teacher who would ask a question, but instead of engaging in the back-and-forth exchange between the smarty-pants sub-group of kids who love to answer these teachery-type questions, he would purposely call on the kids trying to hide out and act invisible.  In these classes, I spent so much time worrying about being called upon that I had no energy left for actual learning.  

Why do teachers hold onto these routines?  Why does this type of teaching persists in so many social studies classrooms despite decades of criticism and attacks from expert educators?  

Simply put, we and Mr. Danzel teach this way because we are forced to battle the clock to cover the content.  The recitation model is swift, easy, and creates the illusion (the feeling) of teaching.  Content coverage is the worst type of nemesis in our curriculum battle because it manipulates us into thinking we’re doing what’s best for kids.  Mr. Danzel and the other history teachers engaged in this battle truly want students to love the content, to know their facts, and to understand the history of their world.  We want to share our knowledge with them; however, brain research tells us that exposing students to high levels of information presented through lectures and teacher-talk overloads the wandering mind of an adolescent.  All those facts we want kids to know and to love simply don’t stick for most learners.

So what can we do?  First, we need to focus on depth rather than breadth.  

1.  Search for the essential questions or big pictures.  According to Bruce A. Lesh in his book Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer? Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 (2011), the teacher's role in helping students develop as historical thinkers is to provide students with context and historical information that will allow them to address powerful and thought-provoking questions.  Organizing student learning around an "essential question" rather than a list of content standards compels students to explore the past.  The new C3 Framework for Social Studies States Standards supports the use of compelling and supporting questions as the central element to the teaching and learning process.

2.  Don’t just teach the fact, but give kids time to apply this knowledge.  Simply spending more time on an activity doesn’t improve learning unless there is guidance, instruction, feedback.  Lesh argues that "to fully promote a study of the past, students must be taught and provided the occasion to engage in the development, defense, and revision of evidence-based historical interpretations" (21).  Teachers need to work with kids on both content and process if they are to provide a comprehensive study of the past. 

3.  Create opportunities for quality student talk.  We can’t just put students in groups and encourage them to talk.  We need deliberate strategies to structure these discussions.  Try using the structured Paideia model or or even Socratic Seminar.

In the following example, 7th grade social studies teachers at Woodlawn Middle allowed depth to trump breadth.  For this activity, the teachers shared an image depicting an historical event and asked students to scan the image and circle anything they see that helped them determine who created the photo, when, and why.  At first, teachers guided students through the activity, modeling their thinking as they analyzed the picture.  Eventually, they handed over the analysis to the students, providing time for students to collaborate before writing their analyses.  See below:

The Golden Spike—Primary Source Analysis

 Scan the image below carefully from left to right, top to bottom.  Circle anything you see in the image that helps you determine who created this photo, when and why?   Label each item you circle with a short bullet point/jot dot describing what it tells you.  Once you’ve completely analyzed the image, answer the question that follows in a well-written paragraph. 

This image clearly relates to one of the historic movements that helped to shape American culture.  Which movement does it relate to and how do you know?


In the end, it all boils down to what we believe our role is in preparing students for college and beyond by asking ourselves what we really want students to get out of our class.  Do we want students to memorize the facts, or do we want them to be able to apply historical thinking skills?  After reflecting on Brandon's critique of his history class, Mr. Danzel had a change of heart.  At the end of the episode, after handing out the dreaded mid-term exam, he asks students to tear up the test.  Instead of regurgitating facts on a test he has given year after year, he tells students he wants to "know what [they] think."  He asks students to write a thoughtful response to the following question:  "Using examples from history and your own answers, what do you think our government should have done in the 19th century to save the American Indians?" Brandon, the last student to turn in his response, walks up to Mr. Danzel and says, "That was a hard question, but a good hard question."  In the end, Brandon's love of history is reignited, and Mr. Danzel embraces the challenge of teaching his students to think.  Perhaps in our own battle against the clock, we can remember Mr. Danzel's struggle and let go of content coverage in exchange for deep and meaningful learning.

Works Cited:

"College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards." National Council for the Social Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2014.

Hattie, John, and Gregory Yates. Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. London & New York: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Lesh, Bruce A. "Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer?" Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse, 2011. Print.

Star, Darren. "Higher Education" Beverly Hills 90210. Fox. 15 Nov. 1990. Television.