Saturday, May 3, 2014

Why won't you just tell us the answer

Bruce Lesh's "Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer?" is an interesting text describing an investigational approach to social studies classes. He begins the thesis with a rationale for teaching history differently. For over a hundred years, he contends, we have bored students who recall little of what is "taught" and who feel that the class is useless. The method of instruction that history teachers have utilized for this time period is lecture and reading. If we want a different outcome- students who are engaged, interested and actually learning history- we must change our presentation method.

Toward this end, he proposes teaching students history in the way that historians approach it: as a study of often conflicting sources that must be interpreted to determine the answer of a question; history can come alive.  Examining primary sources is critical. He describes this methodology as historical investigation

Lesh describes seven American history lessons that he has used, some of which he has presented at a variety of workshops. These lessons cover Nat Turner's Rebellion, Theodore Roosevelt and the Panama Canal, the rail strike of 1877, the Bonus Army March, Custer's last stand, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Truman-MacArthur debate. Five of these lessons use a jigsaw approach. The others use both collaboration and whole class presentation.

Lesh begins his investigations with visual and/or musical pieces to stimulate the students's thinking. He poses a question and sets the class up with a limited number of sources to evaluate. Unlike the traditional DBQ essays which also involve primary sources, Lesh's investigations include no "correct" answer. They demonstrate different sides of an issue and require that students evaluate the text, subtext and the context in order to formulate an opinion that answers the question.  "What is Roosevelt doing on his autobiography (lying, telling a half-truth, exaggerating, rationalizing or obfuscating) and what role did the US play in the acquisition of territory used to construct the Panama Canal?" is one of his questions (p. 60). This open ended question does not have a definitive answer, but does lead to discussion and a deep understanding of the situation.

Lesh offers suggestions for identifying sources, selecting questions, and determining time frames (keep the investigation less than 120 minutes). He provides some sample graphic organizers and worksheets to use with the described lessons. Although he offers interesting descriptions of his lessons, lots of room is left for interpretation. The author confirms that setting up investigations is time consuming. Sifting through the volumes of sources available, selecting ones that support understanding differ viewpoints and pieces of information, and preparing lessons around the question takes copious time. Slowly introducing investigations and limiting the number of thorough ones is important. Lesh does assign textbook and survey reading, especially for homework to prepare students for the investigations. He is not using the investigations to present what happened, but rather to analyze why did an event occur, how are events interrelated, which perspective should be understood, and how have things changed over time. This is the higher level thinking we aspire toward that is often missing in traditional history classes.

The book was written while the CCSS were being developed and rolled out. His methodology, while not referencing the standards, is compatible with them. They utilize all the reading standards. For example, the CCSS list the following standards in the 6-8 strand.
  • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources- he uses primary sources for investigations themselves and secondary ones to set the stage.
  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions- if students cannot understand the text, the rest is moot.
  • Identify key steps in a text's description of a process related to history/social studies (e.g., how a bill becomes law, how interest rates are raised or lowered)- the entire approach is process oriented.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies- Lesh advocates using the language of the source and the writing. Scaffolding in this area is for students who would struggle too much with the source material- handwritten pages can be typed, unusual words and language can be debated in small groups  
  • Describe how a text presents information (e.g., sequentially, comparatively, causally)- Lesh structures his concepts around issues such as causality and sequencing.
  • Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author's point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts)- this the subtext that is critical to understanding primary sources; one of three aspects of reading primary sources that Lesh focuses on throughout all investigations.
  • Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts- Beginning lessons with images and music and moving on to more wordy sources integrates the visual and the print.
  • Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text- the questions require students to analyze these issues as part of both the text and subtext.
  • Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic- by providing secondary source homework, occasional lectures and movies, Lesh sets the stage for the investigations. This enables students to see how the sources are related. 
  • By the end of grade 8, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 6-8 text complexity band independently and proficiently- Although the text is used less than in a traditional classroom, students are expected to read the text or teacher written historical summaries of events.
All of these aspects are evidenced within his structure. Since historical investigations do meet the Common Core standards, this approach should not be as controversial as it was when Lesh began using it over a decade ago. Students have responded well to having to do the process of historians as opposed to having to recall detailed lists of facts.  He has also discovered success with student performance on both AP and NY Regents exams. Using an increasing number of primary sources with ambiguous interpretations enables students to sample the task of historians in an active and engaging method. Being careful to be sure to cover the material that is critical to the mandated state exams, can be done while at the same time presenting history in an manner that students will actually learn the subject and perhaps not dread the class.
It appears that premade historical lab information is not as easy to locate as one might desire. Simulations are the most often occurring samples. While some simulations offer insights into why some events occur, students shuffling students into situations so they can try to "feel" the way people did in the past is ingĂ©nue. Empathy is important to develop, but we need to develop empathy in a historical sense. If all we get out of slave ships is indignation, we cannot understand the historical events that led to them and why it took so long to eliminate such events. We do not need to agree with slavery to understand the social complexity of it as an underpinning of early American society.

No comments:

Post a Comment