Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Revolutionizing Social Studies Instruction

Since the release of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards back in September 2013, social studies teachers in my district have been challenged to restructure their traditional, familiar pattern of teaching to make room inquiry-based learning.  Instead of moving through their curriculum chapter-by-chapter and test-to-test as they have done in the past, several of our teachers have begun allowing students and their questions to drive instruction.  In education, any transformation of this magnitude can often cause stress, and, at times, even fear.  Unless school leaders work to develop a supportive culture for change, teachers will not feel empowered to move beyond their comfort zone, tackle the fear of the unknown, and accept the risks involved in trying new strategies.  Fortunately in my district, because administrators cultivated a supportive climate for change, a revolution in social studies instruction has begun. 

In order to inspire a revolution, there has to be a perceived need for change.  Often, people would rather maintain the status quo than to develop the skills and strategies necessary to bring on a revolution.  It's simply safer to keep doing what we've always been doing—even if we're not really sure why we're doing it. 

Back in September 2013, before teachers officially got their hands on the C3 Framework and were challenged to revolutionize social studies instruction, 7th graders in my district were already knee-deep in their study of Colonial America.  The pressure was on for both students and teachers to race through the content in an attempt to cover early American history from colonization through the Civil War by the end of May.  Within this rushed and hectic classroom climate, I remember walking into a 7th grade classroom at Woodlawn Middle School and observing students busy as work scanning their textbooks, reviewing class lecture notes, and creating travel brochures.  The travel brochures were to serve as advertisements, detailing the specific geographical and industrial features colonist could expect to find in the New England, Middle, and Southern colonies.  Ultimately, the goal in making these brochures was to list the differences between the colonies so that students could easily memorize and later recall these details on a multiple-choice test.

Getting kids to draw colorful pictures, coin clever advertising slogans, and prepare fancy brochures might provide a motivating and engaging activity; however, at the time, I couldn't help wondering what it really had to do with deep learning.  And, to be honest, I think the teacher often wondered the same thing.  But year after year, he continued to assign that travel brochure project.  As a matter of fact, I'm sure most of us remember doing a similar activity during our own study of colonial America back when we were 7th graders.  And, if you're anything like me, you memorized the differences between the colonies just long enough to ace the test, earn an A, and move onto the next unit, but did you learn anything about how to read, write, and think like a social scientist?  I admit, as a 7th grader, it didn't bother me.  This project represents the way I had always been taught—it’s simply the kind of learning we did in a social studies class, and it never occurred to me that it should look any different. 

Now that I am an educator, I can't stop thinking about those travel brochures and the instructional time that had to be sacrificed so that kids could spend the class period drawing pictures and bullet-pointing facts without a context.  Furthermore, how many hours did the teacher spend grading students on whether they neatly colored their pictures and correctly folded their paper into a brochure?  Which historical thinking/content targets do arts and crafts assess?  And, more importantly, what insights could students have gained from a more meaningful learning experience?

According to Hattie and Yates in their book Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn (2014), the traditional classroom structure I encountered back in September 2013 (and back when I myself was in 7th grade) involves the teacher imparting knowledge to students in the form of a lecture, explanation, or set of teacher-generated guiding questions.  In the world of content coverage, standing up in front of students to deliver "the facts" they need to pass the test is a quick and efficient way to get the job done.  Instead of slowing down the curriculum to make room for the close reading, thinking, and writing skills involved in the Inquiry Arc of the C3 Framework, many teachers are compelled to push through their content in an attempt to cover the mandated curriculum.  Although the traditional classroom provides students with swift information, it comes at a price.  As Hattie & Yates (2014) point out, by racing through our content "under duress of time pressures," we run the risk of filling up our students with isolated facts (p.14).  And, unfortunately, facts that are not connected to meaningful and compelling questions, such as the facts that are listed on colonial travel brochures, "will be subject to rapid forgetting in the natural course of time" (41). 

So what other choice did the teacher have?  He had tons of content to cover and a deadline to meet, so he relied on his go-to method.  Year after year, those travel brochures looked great tacked up on the walls outside his room.  Not only that, but they also got the job of memorizing the characteristics of the colonies done in time to take the quiz and move on to the next unit.

Fortunately, with the release of the C3 Framework, this teacher was presented with another 
option— an option that turned his traditional classroom on its head.  In the C3 classroom, the teacher no longer could serve as the "sage on the stage," doling out pre-constructed, textbook driven knowledge.  Instead, students and their questions take center-stage in an unscripted learning environment.  For many teachers, life in the unscripted classroom represents unchartered territory.  If we choose to navigate through these changes, we forfeit the feeling of control over student learning and alter our traditional role in the classroom as the "giver of knowledge." 

Essentially, with the C3 Framework in our hands, social studies teachers in my district have been called upon to break a century-long tradition of teacher-centered instruction in American education.  How do we accept, let alone, cope with such a huge change?  According to Sir Ken Robinson in his Ted Talk Bring on the Revolution, innovation in education means challenging the things we believe to be common sense and changing the mindset of the people who think, "Well, it can't be done any other way because that's the way it's done."  It's tradition for the sake of tradition that compels us to keep doing what we've always done with no other explanation besides, “This is the way it has always been”—which is not a valid reason at all.

So what happened in our district to pull us away from the comfort and safety of our traditional teaching methods?  Here's the answer: our administration freed us from the confines of our memorization multiple-choice exams and told us to experiment with assessment—to "try something new."  We spent time as a department analyzing the C3 Framework indicators, evaluating potential resources, and developing an understanding of what it truly means to read, write, and think like a historian.  With the C3 Framework as our guide, we were no longer focused on the perpetual cycle of content coverage.  We could finally let go of the memorization, recitation, and regurgitation method of learning and begin our work with inquiry.

But that's not all.  We needed more than just a new outlook on assessments—we needed a supportive environment necessary for real change.  True innovation requires experimentation, trial, and inevitably error.  According to Fullan (2001), when we begin changing our practice, we often fall into an implementation dip, which is "literally a dip in performance and confidence as one encounters an innovation that requires new skills and new understandings" (pp. 40-41).  Our administration gave us permission to make mistakes, to fumble through new teaching strategies, and to fall deep into the "dip."  As long as we focus our instruction on the meaningful and enduring skills of historical inquiry, we can feel safe and secure venturing out into unchartered territory.  

Let the revolution begin!

So with the freedom to experiment with inquiry, what happened to those Colonial American travel brochures?  They were sacrificed in favor of more meaningful, deeper learning.  As a matter of fact, the entire 7th grade curriculum underwent serious change.

By following the guidelines of the C3 Framework, 7th grade social studies teachers developed an overarching, compelling question for the year to guide the work of their students: What led our nation to the Civil War?  With this question in mind, students began investigating early American history in order to explore the roots of the Civil War.  This endeavor required so much more of students than simply memorizing maps and retelling information on a quiz.  Instead, students analyzed the maps, determined patterns, and developed conclusions—life-long skill that will be remembered way beyond 7th grade.  According to Wiggins and McTighe (2005), when students have the opportunity to explore "key concepts, themes, theories, issues, and problems" by actively "interrogating the content through provocative questions," they gain deep and transferrable learning that will help them throughout school and in the real world (p. 106).

Analyzing the climate, geography, and industry of colonial America led students to their own compelling question: Were the colonist more united or divided?  Giving students the freedom to explore this question got them thinking on a level the teachers had never anticipated.  Students were delving into social evolution and coming to understand the specific demands each region's physical environment had on the culture of the people living there.  In New England, colonist adapted to the rocky, hilly land and thick forests by building big cities, becoming tradesmen, and making a living off the sea.  On the other hand, Southerners with their fertile land and warm climate, owned large plantations, relying on slave labor to farm their land, earn them money, and build their success.  The Middle Colonies, according to his students, "were like a blur," using their land both for farming and for the development of large cities.  The Middle colonies shared characteristics of both the North and the South, creating a "blend" that would come into play throughout the history of the young nation.  The differences between the colonies don't need to be memorized and displayed in arts and crafts projects.  Instead, they needed to be analyzed, evaluated, and interpreted.  The regions are different and those differences helped to create the conditions that would eventually fuel the Civil War.  

This is the type of deep learning that can't be tacked on the walls outside our room.  By allowing kids to ask questions, this teacher forged an apprenticeship with his students, established a purpose for their learning, and mentored them toward becoming masters in the art of historical thinking (Lesh, 2011).  

Think about why kids love social studies?  Do you ever hear your students claim, “I love reading my 800 page textbook day after day, taking notes on each chapter, and memorizing 'facts' to later recall on a multiple choice exam”?  Instead, when I talk to students about why they love social studies, they tell me how much they enjoy learning about the past, finding out why things are the way they are, and using this information to help explain present-day issues.  They fall in love with the content when they are provided the freedom and the guidance to ask questions and pursue the answers to those questions.

The Inquiry Arc of the C3 Framework presents teachers with a profound moment—a choice—in how we structure our classrooms: Do we keep plugging away at our textbooks in a cycle of fact memorization, information regurgitation, and rapid forgetting? Or, instead, do we allow kids to ask questions, pursue inquiries, and develop deeper learning? 

The only way this can happen is by releasing us from traditional assessments and giving us the freedom to follow the guidelines of the C3 Framework—not as an extra task to add to our already overburdened curriculum.  But, instead, as the backbone of teaching and learning.

Do we choose to transform our teaching?  Bring on the Revolution!

Bring on the learning revolution! (n.d.). Retrieved December 15, 2014, from

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Fullan, M. (2002). The change leader. EducationalLeadership,59(8), 16-20.

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.

Swan, K., Lee, J., & Grant, S.G. (2014). C3 Instructional Shifts. C3 Teachers. Available online:

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandra, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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