Teacher Shock

Flickr Photo by Noah Darnell Here

Browsing through some blogs the other day, I ran across this one (What are we Doing?) from Mike Meechin, a Florida social studies teacher. Meechin tells of a high school junior in his class, who asked a question, “about the pilgrims (U.S. History early 17th century) using the automobile.”

Now, as a former social studies teacher, I am disappointed that Meechin’s (or anyone’s) students seem to understand so little about geography and history. But I’m not surprised. There are two reasons for this generation’s lack of understanding about their world — in my opinion. First of all, we do not value this kind of knowledge ourselves. Ask most of your adult friends when the automobile was invented. Plus, I do not see how we can so emphasize the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) to the degree that we have, without devaluing, (in) our students eyes, history, geography, and sociology. Social science is one of several essential keys for enabling future prosperity. Yet, scanning through an education journal, while sitting on the tarmac, I ran across an article entitled, “Competing in the Global Economy,” subtitled, “Factors Impacting Science Achievement.” Don’t get me wrong, STEM is critical. But so too is understanding the social, cultural, and historic contexts of the world we are working and playing in.

The second reason gives me even more concern. I’ve often said that I consider myself lucky to have grown up during the golden age of Television. This new and compelling form of communication availed us the power to share ourselves, or worlds, and our stories in ways that had never been possible before. When taking my son to the University of North Texas a few years ago, to audition for their school of music, we took a drive through the country side. There, I was flabbergasted that he did not know what a long horn steer was. He gasped by the sight, and I immediately realized that he never watched Rawhide. I watched TV that, with the exception of Saturday mornings, was geared for a general population, across ages, that was experiencing this phenomena together.

My children have spent their time on Nickelodeon. Don’t get me wrong. I think that Nick has some wonderful and thoughtful programming. But it is still contrived to appeal to children by entertaining them on their terms. Their video games are similarly designed to entertain, and the culture of their social networking is almost entirely evolved out of what children want to do. This, too, is not bad. I have deep respect for what our children have made of today’s information environment. But they have missed so much, and I do not know how to fill this gap.

Because of how our children learn, I do not believe that we can teach it to them. I do not believe that we can or should expect them to learn history, geography, or sociology (or anything else for that mater) by telling them to, or worse yet, “Because it’s going to be on the test.” That worked for us, but I won’t for them.

What they learn well, they learn because it helps them. Knowledge and skills are tools for them, which they learn to use to accomplish goals. Their goals are to reach some level in the video game of the day, or to generate conversation through their social networking. To me, the question should be, “How do we infect these information ecosystems with the knowledge and skills that we know will be essential to their future.

Finally, and this is turning into a long blog because this is a two hour flight, I think that part of the problem is ours. How often do we, as educators, look at what we are teaching, and ask ourselves, “Is this really important?” As Meechin asks, “What are we doing?” How important is it for them to know that precisely where the invention of the automobile and early European settlement of North America fall in relation to each other on a timeline — well 300 years difference is a bit much to swallow.

I remember one instance, in my early days with computers in the classroom, where I asked this question. We were helping our students learn the states of the US, using flash cards. Each card included the name of the state, the geographic outline of the state, and its capital. I asked myself, why should students learn the shapes of the states. Of course it was an association thing to help students remember the states. But there were other things about the states that I thought it was important to learn, and using flash cards seemed an unnecessarily tedious way of doing it. So I wrote a game for our Radio Shack Model III computers.

The game placed a map of the U.S. on the screen — no small task for a TRS-80. Then the learner was informed of the state he was currently in, a commodoty to be delivered, and the state it was to be delivered to. Sitting by each computer was an almanac. Students had to find which state produced the commodoty, and then drive his truck to that state by typing in the name of each state to be driven through to reach the supplyer, spelling each state correctly. Then they drove to the target state. There was a counter running, so your payment for each trip depended on how fast you got there. In no time, the students were working without ever picking up the reference books.

It seemed that using the information as a means for achieving something, was a much better way of learning it, than simply memorizing from flash cards.

The bottom line of this ramble is that students armed with answers about science, technology, engineering, and math will not be able to compete or contribute to a global economy. It will be students who can can observe their environment, understand it, and inventively find ways to participate and contribute.

12 thoughts on “Teacher Shock”

  1. David, thank you for this dialogue. You bring up such a great point; “But they have missed so much, and I do not know how to fill this gap.” These students truly have missed so much. My fear is for my high school students post-graduation. Where will they ever get this information that they have missed? Our schools are not designed as a whole to produce independent critical thinkers – even though everything the districts push down through the ranks demands “making” critical thinkers out of out students. So, if the schools are not designed to fill these information gaps, we as educators must do it in the classroom.

    A lot of the information that you blog about are the methods we need to be taking hold of in the classroom… helping to fill the information gaps that our students suffer from. The question is how do we get the districts, states, and federal government to fill the information gaps with us?

    1. I honestly believe that the powers that be understand this, but they are too stuck in the accountability loop and addicted to the “global competition” Kool-aid — and there is a real dissonance between measuring performance and helping our children to be critical thinkers.

      The good news is that they can and will learn what they need to know. We find a way when we have no choice. The bad news is that without a sense of context, which is what they lack, there is no starting point, nothing to get traction on. It’s a recipe for becoming third world…

  2. Great thought here. I’m constantly asking, “Does a person truly need to know/memorize/understand this deeply in order to live their lives?”

    But, the bigger question I have is…how do I get a copy of that game you created??? 🙂 Do you know of any current versions of something like that?

    1. The game died with the TRS-80, though I understand those computers lasted in that particular school long into the age of Macintosh and PC Juniors. I’ve thought of re-making it for the web, which would not be a huge stretch. But my web servers are taxed as they are…

  3. Hi David. Interesting post. I get your broader point here, and I agree that perhaps learners have changed. However, how would you suggest teaching this specific point about the colonial times? I can guarantee that few, if any, of my schools AP US History students would miss this very basic knowledge question despite the much-criticized AP curriculum. So, how would you teach this information?

    1. Sorry for the delay. I saw this comment earlier this morning, and have only now gotten a chance to respond. This is an excellent question and I’m surprised I’m not called on more often to put my money down — and I’ll add here that I doubt that I am going to mention anything that hasn’t been done a million times.

      A couple of ideas occurred to me initially, chief among them to find a movie that seems to authentically portray the trip and settlement. Then show that in class asking students to share what they absolutely could not go without if they had to go back and live in the early 17th century, or what is the one thing you have today that you would take with you if you could.

      Another more project-oriented idea is to have the students create a listing of the items that the Pilgrims would need to take with them to the New World. This would start as a class discussion.

      1) What will be the bare necessities needed for the trip?
      2) What will they need when they get there?
      3) What are your limitations?
      4) What’s going to be your process? What do you need to learn and how will you learn it?

      One and two are important and would involve some interesting conversations. But question three is where you’ll start talking history. How big is the ship? How many people will be going? How do you avoid your passengers going koo koo during the voyage?

      Then you let them go. It could be a classroom assignment, but I would prefer that it be an outside the classroom project assignment and ask the students to collaborate online.

      Another thing that I would do as a more ongoing concern is to have a web-based timeline that students would contribute to during the course of the year or semester. As they learn about events, people, inventions, discoveries, etc. either in class or on their own, they would add them to the digital timeline. The timeline would be an obvious link on my classroom web site so that it would be available to parents and the community.

      I also think that it might be interesting to partner with another class on the timeline, to see what events, people, inventions, and discovers come up in their class (being taught in t U.K. for instance) that doesn’t come up in our class. I wonder how much of the American Revolution would come up.

      Another thing that I would do as an ongoing project is to assign each student in the class, at the beginning of the year, to become the class expert on some particular topic. It may be a person, event, place, invention, or discovery. Their job would be to eventually write an article about their area of expertise to be added to a classroom wiki encyclopedia. But the main thing would be classroom discussions. “OK, here poor Julius Caesar and this real pickle. Umm, Jane. You’re our expert on Alexander the Great. What do you think he would do here? What do you think would be the outcome? Karl, what about Catherine the Great?

      OK, that’s enough writing.

      1. David: Thanks for your thoughtful response. I would argue that most of those strategies are part of the effective teacher’s toolbox whether or not they are integrating technology or aiming their instruction at “21st century learners” or not. I would have argue against, though, about the focus on personalizing history to the extent that you are advocating. My objection is on two levels: first, I think too many teachers, perhaps out of laziness or perhaps out of a desire to “engage” their students, skip to the personalization of history without the student actually knowing anything about the history. I agree that the worst answer to knowing something is because it is on a test, but, that foundation knowledge is critical to having a discussion about placing yourself in a historical scenario. Too many teachers skip to that personalization and the conversations have no context and become meaningless. Second, although I agree there is some role in imagining yourself in the scenarios, this strategy, if overused, becomes potentially ridiculous and overindulgent, especially for older students (I am thinking 11th grade, the students that take US history in my area). At some point, it has to be about the actual events and not the response of students.

  4. I don’t know about you, but by 7th grade I learned that when the teacher told you it would be on the test I realized I only had to put it into short term memory (lasting a few weeks at most). Yes, I did consciously develop that as a skill.

    I believe I remember making models of early America in elementary school. within those models would be horse and carriages and not automobiles. I believe that the emphasis on explicitly hitting all the points on the approved curriculum makes these sort of time wasters mostly a thing of the past.

    I don’t quite recommend a life of learning only when a student becomes interested in a subject, al a Rousseau’s Emile, but a bit of time to let things sink in can be invaluable.

    If you would like to create a web version of your game I will offer to host it on my site, as you can see I have pretty much nothing there yet. http://murphreesonline.com/

    1. Brendan, a great point. One of the several shifts that I see as needed to make education more relevant to our students and their/our future is that the importance of how you learn has increased dramatically, while what you learn has become somewhat less important. The what is changing. The answers to the questions are changing. As a result, your ability to learn and even invent new answers has become a defining element to being educated.

      For that reason, I agree that students should be spending time and effort becoming an expert on some subject or topic, even if it is somewhat at the expense of their broader and more shallow learning. Anyone who can make themselves an expert, can learn what they need to know about the rest.

      Again, I’ll add that it is critical that all students have a sense of context that is common with their neighbors (local and global). This is history, science, mathematics, health, literature, language, etc. But that I can’t recite the dates of the major battles of the American Civil War or even, from instant recall, tell you that cars hadn’t been invented at the time of the Pilgrims — well, at the point that I need that information, and can find it and integrate it into the skill and knowledge sets that are needed.

  5. BS….I don’t buy it. I am sorry your son never saw a photo of a longhorn and perhaps the kid in class thinking the Pilgrims at Plymouth were driving a Plymouth was a bit of a dolt, but I don’t buy that people that grew up in 50s, 60s and 70s are more culturally aware than kids today.

    I sense a bit of romancing your past. The parents and teachers of your youth thought you and your friends were probably dimwitted bores who spent their whole time watching Rawhide rather than out chopping wood like they did a generation before.

    What you are confirming is that there is, always has been, and always will be a generational conflict…where some old guy waxes poetic about his TRS 80 Computer to a group of kids who 160GB ipods and cell phones that can jump start your car.

    There are no good old days, man, get over it.

    There are good teachers and there are crappy teachers. There are good students and there are crappy students. I have been teaching history for twenty years and the guy in the classroom next to me crams every last fact in the textbook down the kids throats. Hell, after teaching US History for twenty years, I am afraid of that maniacs tests. I think I would get a C in his class.

    At the end of the day, good teachers are able to inspire kids to be curious about the world around them. Good teachers don’t tell the kids a bunch of crap that can be looked up, they inspire students to consider ideas and perspectives that students have been “allowed” to consider before b/c they are busy memorizing a bunch of nonsense. High school students need to be freed from the narrow tyrannical grasp of the College Board, the AP and the college admissions process.

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *