Yesterday, I read the proposed National Standards for teaching Literacy in History/Social Studies. I was bowled over by how bold and visionary these standards were.
First, there was not one mention, not one, of any fact, historical figure, war, event, or date in these standards. I think this is a good thing. Over the next ten years, access to quick and easy information is going to become even more ubiquitous. In my freshmen history class in Oakland CA, it seems like I am the only one without a phone that can access the Internet. My students can Google facts as fast and I can ask questions. Ask them to remember those facts, however, and they seem stymied.
While their relatively small bank of easily recalled facts makes the digital generation seem less intelligent than their Boomer grandparents, this new generation is intelligent in profoundly new and different ways than any previous. Notice I avoided a qualitative measurement of “better” or “more” to counter the commonly held description of “less intelligent.” It’s not that this new generation will beat or loose to their predecessors in the intelligence game – it’s that this new generation is playing an entirely new game. While it has been the number and accuracy of recalled facts that determined the relative smarts of Boomers and Gen-Xer’s, the digital generation will measure itself based on how individual manipulate information and knowledge to create something new.
This is where the new National Standards have demonstrated extraordinary vision. As the volume of information continues to grown from a stream to a river to a flood, users of information need to learn how to be more wary in these now-treacherous waters. Anticipating this, the proposed National Standards will ask middle school students to be able to, “identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose,” and to be able to, “distinguish between fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a historical account.” Later, in the first half of high school, they should be able to, “compare the point of view of two or more authors by comparing how they treat the same or similar historical topics,” and “assess the extent to which the evidence in a text supports the author’s claims.” Finally, by graduation, they should be able to, “evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, evidence, and reasoning,” and “evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other sources of information.” Given the amount of incorrect and fraudulent information available on the Internet, these are rapidly becoming survival skills for citizens.
One of the reasons why traditional standards for history have remained dominated by a laundry list of facts is because it is cheap and easy to test the memorization of facts. Despite all of the uproar over testing, test scores and how these measures should give us an accurate picture of how our children are learning, California spends less than three dollars per child, each year testing. Given the sheer number of children to be tested and given the current budget crisis that seems to exist each and every year, it is hard to argue against efficiency. However, it seems reasonable to ask a question, “Isn’t finding a detailed picture of how our children are learning worth more than a latte?”
“Professional Historians DON’T take quizzes!” is a poster than hangs in my freshmen history class at Skyline High School in Oakland, California. My students pride themselves on the fact that they have never read Section 4 of Chapter 8 of their textbook in order to answer the six questions at the end of the section and study for a quiz on Friday.
When my freshmen open their textbooks, they turn first to the index. This is because when they open the book they are hunting for more information about ancient Mesopotamia to help them understand Hammurabi’s Code, or more information about the Roman Empire to help them understand Suetonius’ description of the water projects undertaken during the reign of Claudius. They do this work while researching and writing about deep, complex questions such as, “How did the need for a steady supply of water effect the technological, political, economic, and legal development of the world’s first civilizations?”
Real historians research and analyze primary sources. They determine the relative bias and trustworthiness of their sources and use the information they find to create and publish answers to deep questions. This is what we train our freshmen to do at Skyline High School and this is what is being asked of history teachers under the proposed national standards for teaching literacy in history/social studies.
Alaska and Texas did not send delegates to create the new national standards. Texas’s governor decried that no one other than Texans should determine what Texan children learn.
The same day the proposed National Standards were published, Texas’s School Board entered what will become a fierce debate about the state’s new standards for History and Social Studies.
According to a New York Times article on the Texas proposal will, “include a section on ‘the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.’” Additionally, the article mentions that, “References to Ralph Nader and Ross Perot are proposed to be removed, while Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate general, is to be listed as a role model for effective leadership, and the ideas in Jefferson Davis’s inaugural address are to be laid side by side with Abraham Lincoln’s speeches.”
While some political conservative may laud replacing what they see as a liberal bias to history with one that is more in line with their values; while political liberals may decry what they see is a biasing of history, I am disappointed on a more fundamental level. Texan children are still going to be forced to memorize discreet facts about history. Additionally, the volume of textbook purchased by Texas may give their standards as much, or perhaps more, weight than the proposed National Standards.
The proposed National Standards are a step forward into a new generation and a new area of knowledge and learning that acknowledges the reality of easily accessed information and demands that next-generation thinkers are better prepared to find, analyze, and utilize that information. In Texas, the school board is squabbling over which set, or perhaps whose set, of discreet facts we make young people memorize. While Texas remains mired in pre-Guttenberg ways of thinking about education and learning, nationally, we seem be poised to embrace the digital age and prepare our young scholars for the future.