How to teach:
toward a philosophy of meaning


GalileoMissing the point

Over the past hundred years or so, educators have proposed a number of different approaches to teaching history to our children, and other educators have come along to say that these ideas were wrong. Such debates may be missing the point; perhaps we should focus first on the meaningful understandings students need in order to live effectively in the world, and then we can try to figure out the best methods for teaching them. It is not likely that one approach will fit all.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, humanities schooling in America emphasized knowledge of the Greek and Roman classics, but it wasn't long before advocates of "progressive" education proposed that public schooling for the masses should be more practical and readily applicable to the workplace. Acquiring factual historical knowledge wasn't as important, they said, as "learning by doing."

The remainder of the century saw a continuing tug-of-war between the progressive and traditional philosophies of education, one side seen as defenders of the status quo and the other as advocates of dubious reforms. One side, and then the other, gained ascendancy at different times and among different constituencies. The progressive approach often prevailed in schools of education, while the traditional approach retained strength among teachers and the interested public, which periodically supported "back to basics" movements.

In recent years, the battle between traditional and progressive teaching philosophies has been fought on several additional fronts:

Coverage versus postholing
Some educators believe the sheer volume of history knowledge makes it virtually impossible to provide students with a coherent overview of history, so teachers should concentrate instead on in-depth investigations of individual historical episodes, a strategy known as postholing. Others argue that disconnected learning of this kind will deprive students of the invaluable historical sense that only a broad overview of history can provide.

Powerful white males versus neglected minorities and women
Following the civil rights and women's rights movements of mid-century, some historians urged a greater emphasis on the study of social conditions in history, particularly the roles played by under-represented groups in society such as women and minorities. A related position proposed that Western civilization courses be replaced by world history courses, which would offer a more inclusive and less Eurocentric view of history. Traditionalists were concerned that such changes might prevent the schools from passing on our cultural heritage to our children. Conflicts over whose history to teach sparked the infamous "
History Wars" of the mid-1990s.

Memorization versus analysis
Meanwhile, some educators have been urging that history courses stop requiring students to memorize long lists of names, dates and facts. Memorization, they say, has little value because students quickly forget what they memorize unless the knowledge is applied. These educators propose that students spend much or most of their time engaged in historical analysis activities rather than memorization, thereby developing the "historical habits of mind" that will better enable students to analyze important issues they will face as adults.

In my view, these polarized positions represent false dichotomies and, moreover, they miss the point. None of these approaches -- whether it be coverage or postholing, facts or analysis or emphasis on minority groups -- is of much value if the learning derived from these methods is meaningless to the lives of students, as it certainly may be under any of these schemes. We are putting the cart before the horse when we argue about the best methods to teach our children if we haven't yet determined what meaningful understandings our children need to learn.

Meaning should drive methods, not the other way around.

It's all about meaning

Since the purpose of schooling is to prepare students to live effectively in the world, it's just common sense that the needs of students should be the starting point of schooling. Nonetheless, educators tend to focus on what to teach rather than on what students need to learn. Think about your own experience as a teacher. How often have authoritative sources told you what to teach (curriculum standards and textbooks come to mind), and how often have you been asked to consider what your students really need to know about your subject in order to live effectively in society?

One influential group of professional educators has made the shift to designing curriculum "from the learner's point of view." The Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development has published a collection of materials titled "Understanding by Design," which encourages teachers to begin by identifying big ideas, or "essential understandings," that have "enduring value beyond the classroom."1 Teachers then work "backward" to develop the assessments, lessons and materials that will effectively convey these meaningful understandings to students.

A similar approach was suggested several years ago by William H. McNeill, who has been called the dean of contemporary world history writers. McNeill was concerned that history education might become irrelevant unless we "find something worth teaching...something all educated persons should know; something every active citizen ought to be familiar with in order to conduct his life well and perform his public duties effectively."2

We appear to have a confluence of opinion here: the esteemed historian William H. McNeill, the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, and simple logic all tell us that meaningful understandings should be the basis of what we teach to students.

And here's the topper; science now tells us that meaningful understandings are central to how humans learn. According to a major study released by the National Research Council in 1999, learning occurs when the mind uses knowledge to "develop coherent structures of information" that are meaningful to the learner. Research on experts suggests that meaning is created when knowledge "is organized around core concepts or 'big ideas'..." (See: Knowledge and the construction of meaning.)

Meaningful understandings are not only what we should teach, they are also how people learn.

Getting specific about meaning

Meaning is an imprecise term, so how are we to identify meaningful learning? For guidance, we can go full circle and return to our first principles of education. We saw that the purpose of schooling is to prepare young people for the future, and, specifically, the purpose of history education is to illuminate how humans behave and how the the world works so as to enhance judgment and wisdom. In addition, history education provides a common basis of experience for communicating about these important understandings. Teaching that does these things will, by its nature, be meaningful.

Still, we are speaking in general terms. What are the specific meaningful understandings that young people in our society should learn in school? Well, various individuals and groups have tried to answer this question by devising lists of "themes" or "important questions" meant to specify important knowledge that students should acquire in school. Several of these lists are collected in the Conceptual Frameworks section of this website (click here).

In my view, meaningful understandings are a species of historical knowledge very different from the extensive list of factual events cataloged in the National History Standards, and also distinct from broad themes like "civilization" identified by the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools. Meaningful understandings occupy a middle ground between these poles, being broader than individual events and more specific and concrete than themes. The following list provides some flavor of the kind of important meaningful understandings that we might wish our children to gain from an historical education.

Examples of Meaningful Understandings

How humans behave:

  • Lust for wealth and power
  • Intolerance of cultural difference
  • Propensity for violence and warfare
  • Spiritual yearning
  • Desire for freedom
  • Love and altruism
  • Drive towards knowledge and advancement
  • Are humans basically good or evil?

How the world works:

  • General understanding of the development of human societies through the ages and across the regions of the world
  • Diffusion:
    • Peaceful contacts: trade, migration, teaching, communications
    • Hostile contacts: warfare, conquest, enslavement
    • Disease
    • Influence of geography and climate
  • Characteristics of important world-historical cultures
  • Familiarity with major regions and features of the Earth.
  • Awareness that technology changes society and the environment in large and unforeseeable ways
  • Are humans progressing other than technologically?
  • The nature of democracy, its problems and strengths
  • Conservative versus liberal tendencies
  • How did European culture come to dominate the modern world?
  • Recent historical developments leading to current international and environmental conditions
  • Awareness that knowledge is created by subjective humans based on incomplete evidence; it may be biased, misleading or wrong.
  • Ability to critically examine various sides of an issue.
  • Economic justice as viewed from different world perspectives.
  • When is war appropriate?

In an ideal world, meaning would always be the beginning point of teaching. Once we had decided on the meaningful understandings we wanted our students to learn, we could proceed with determining the factual content, assessments and methods that would best convey these understandings. It's only logical that the understandings we wish to teach may have a strong bearing on the choice of methods used to teach them. A shovel may be used to drive a nail, but a hammer would certainly be more effective. In other words, meaning should drive methods, not the other way around.

The understandings we wish to teach may have a strong bearing on the choice of methods used to teach them.

In the real world teaching is not a tidy step-by-step process. In order to actually teach, we generally must proceed on a number of fronts simultaneously. Still, if we maintain the conviction that meaning should be the focus of our teaching - and if we are committed to working from meaning to methods - our teaching can continually move toward a more effective meaning-driven approach.

An example of meaning-full and meaning-less learning

Let's try to bring this discussion of meaning down to a more concrete level by looking at an example drawn from twentieth century history and the U.S. Department of Education's 2001 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). The NAEP assessment in American history asked high school seniors to "recognize the significance of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution." The fact that a majority of students failed in this task was widely cited in the national media as evidence of the appalling historical ignorance of American students.

I suspect, however, that few people who actually lived through the Vietnam War period are able to name the document that granted President Johnson early congressional authority to expand American involvement in Vietnam. Still, those who experienced this period of history first hand very likely do possess a profound understanding that the Vietnam War represented an attempt to contain communist expansion, that it was a hot episode of a cold war and that public disenchantment with the war eventually led to its end. These are meaning-full understandings of the kind that history teachers should teach - and tests should assess - in contrast to meaning-less facts such as a now-obscure government document.

Teachers should teach key facts, the kind that unlock meaning.

Am I suggesting that students shouldn't learn factual information? Certainly not. History teachers must teach facts -- but, key facts, the kind that unlock meaning. I expect my tenth grade world history/geography students to become familiar with the term "containment," referring to U.S. policy during the cold war. The term itself, while helpfully descriptive, is not so very important, but the concepts it unlocks are central to understanding the second half of the twentieth century including the Vietnam War.

The policy of containment was a manifestation of America's genuine fear of communist world domination after Stalin took control of Eastern Europe and Mao took control of China. Knowing about this policy not only illuminates American involvement in Vietnam, but also U.S. attempts to contain communist expansion in Korea, Taiwan and Cuba.

To know about the Tonkin Gulf Resolution is to know a factual detail of the Vietnam War; to know about containment is to understand an underlying dynamic of the entire cold war period that places Vietnam in context, helps to explain why the war happened, and does much to explain America's current strained relationships with China and Cuba. Teaching should be focused on meaningful understandings of the kind that expand students' knowledge of the world they inhabit, not on facts that have little relevance beyond their own limited context.

Finding the balance

Okay...so, let's say we accept the central importance of trying to imbue our teaching with meaning. What teaching approach, then, would best convey these meaningful understandings to our students? Would it be better to adopt the methods of the traditionalists and their ideas about transmitting factual knowledge of our cultural heritage, or should we follow the lead of their opposition, the progressive educators with their notions about learning-by-doing, postholing and analysis? The answer to this question is easy because the ancients figured it out long ago.

The Chinese called it Yin Yang, a realization that opposites such as day and night and hot and cold form a harmonious whole. The Greeks termed their concept "The Golden Mean," a useful balance between extremes. More recently, George Hegel, the noted German philosopher of history, described the synthesis that results from a conflict between opposite ideas.

Hard-core partisans of either the traditional or progressive modes may tell us that compromise with the evil other is unacceptable; that philosophical purity must be preserved or dire consequences will result. Whatever teaching method they propose is heralded as the long-needed panacea that will finally reform education if only we embrace it completely...and, if it doesn't work, we didn't try hard enough.

The ancients figured it out long ago: harmony and balance.

We needn't get caught up in this tired rhetoric. A glance at the Meaningful Understandings cited above immediately reveals that no single method can encompass them all. Some of these understandings might be more suitable to a coverage approach, others to a postholing approach.

John Dewey, the philosopher of education who is credited with starting the progressive education movement in America, began his book Experience and Education with these words: "Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites. It is given to formulating its beliefs in terms of Either-Ors, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities."4 As teachers, we need to help our students acquire both a coherent understanding of history and the "habits of mind" that can help them to use this understanding. These functions are complimentary, not contradictory.

As effective teachers we are not ideologues; we see the value to be found in all legitimate teaching strategies and choose the most effective methods for advancing our mission of imparting meaningful understanding to the young. We seek not an artificial and uneasy compromise between competing voices, but the balance necessary for achieving a harmonious understanding of the human experience. We use what works.

Dialectic cartoons

Meaning and the body of knowledge

If meaning is to be our message, it should be embedded throughout the body of knowledge taught to our students. This website identifies three essential components that comprise an appropriate body of knowledge to be taught in world history and geography classrooms. Let's briefly review these components in light of our desire to promote meaningful understanding.

Chronological narrative
The chronological narrative provides the basic structure for the world history and geography course; it is the skeleton that will be fleshed out through various learning activities. While some advocates of analysis-based teaching may view factual information as little more than grist for the analysis mill, the chronological overview has vital work to perform in history education. It is an important conceptual framework that discloses the sweep of history, providing a sense of historical coherence and closure. It describes the development of human society over time, a meaningful understanding. It illustrates how causes lead to effects, and how ideas travel, both in time and space. It provides cultural markers that give us a common language for communicating about important societal issues. It shows students their unique place in the stream of time.

Mammoth textbooks and voluminous history standards have discouraged some teachers from attempting to provide their students with a coherent overview of history. These teachers have opted instead to examine selected historical events, the posthole approach. When this happens students may be the losers because isolated episodes simply cannot connect the physical world and its cultures in an ongoing and interactive story of human experience in the way a narrative overview can. Lest we forget, the root word of history is story; world history is our story.

The Student's Friend , available free on this website, was developed to meet the need for a concise historical overview that leaves ample time in the curriculum for other, posthole-type learning activities. Surely, the best historical understanding will result from a harmonious balance between breadth and depth. What good are postholes, after all, without the connecting fabric of a fence to give form to the landscape? (For more information see: Chronological narrative.)

Conceptual frameworks
Cognitive research has shown that we need conceptual frameworks, or mental structures, to help us organize knowledge so that learning can become meaningful, memorable and usable. Conceptual frameworks include visual models such as timelines and maps. They include "big ideas" around which meaning may be constructed; the Meaningful Understandings cited above are examples of this type of conceptual framework. Other useful conceptual frameworks include the chronological narrative described above and the thinking strategies described below.
(For more information see: Conceptual frameworks.)

Thinking strategies
Thinking strategies are conceptual frameworks that can be used to examine historical information. These strategies may include comparing cultures, examining cause and effect relationships, considering continuity and change over time, or asking questions about the validity of historical sources. These thinking strategies are meant to give students practice in examining historical knowledge and thereby inculcate "historical habits of mind" that will better prepare students to examine important societal issues that may be encountered in the future.
(For more information see: Thinking strategies)

Teaching activities

Teaching activities are the strategies that implement the body of knowledge. They are the tools that construct meaning. It may be useful to think in terms of two types of teaching activities that have complementary roles to play in the classroom;

- Type 1 activities focus on learning factual information.

- Type 2 activities tend to hone-in on specific topics in greater depth, and they may be more experiential in nature.

The "Using the Student's Friend" section of this website discusses four examples of Type 1 activities that may be used to help students learn the factual content contained in the Student's Friend . These activities are: key points, study questions, notes/quiz and written narrative. (Study questions and quiz exercises are available in the Teacher's Aids area.) Classroom discussion, lecture, video clips and unit exams may also fall under the category of Type 1 activities. The learning acquired through Type 1 strategies supplies a knowledge foundation that can be explored in greater depth through Type 2 activities.

Teaching activities are the tools that construct meaning.
Type 2 activities are what is generally meant by the term "postholing." They include activities such as historical analysis exercises, simulations (role-playing), research, reading primary source documents or novels, watching films, staging plays, or preparing reports, essays and presentations. History education has traditionally spent the majority of its time on Type 1 activities, but good teachers have always included a healthy dose of Type 2 exercises. Progressive educators would like to see that ratio reversed.

Type 2 activities can be problematic. They generally take more time to prepare and to conduct than fact-oriented activities, and outcomes tend to be harder to measure. Type 2 activities usually have a fairly narrow focus and cannot be used to cover a wide range of material. Their use is justified when they generate learning that is especially powerful, when they serve to anchor the broader knowledge contained in a unit of study, when they afford an opportunity to address relevant learning not covered in the overview, or if they stimulate student interest that enhances historical understanding.

Their use is not justified if they bear little relation to the subject matter under study, or if they are used merely as time-fillers meant to keep students busy. We should strive always to make our teaching "intentional," that is, activities should be consciously aimed at illuminating the meaningful understandings we wish to convey to our students. Otherwise, we are wasting everyone's time.

Two postholes and the "ah ha!" moment

One of the most extensive activities I conduct during my ninth grade world history and geography course is an ancient Greece simulation that extends over five consecutive 90-minute class periods. I justify this considerable time expenditure on several grounds. Ancient Greece was the wellspring of Western civilization, and its contributions were prodigious; Greek Week helps to anchor this understanding. During the feast that concludes Greek Week, students are exposed to the music, dance and food of a distinctly foreign culture, an experience that contributes to cultural awareness. Students are assigned to city-states during the exercise, and they get caught-up in competition reminiscent of the fierce competition between the actual Greek city-states of ancient times. During Greek Assembly day, students debate and vote on issues including women's rights and slavery, issues that resonate through much of history.

And finally, my students learn first hand an unexpected and compelling lesson in democracy. As the students cast their votes in the Greek Assembly, they usually vote to support positions that will enhance the standing of their own city-state in the week-long competition. In the debriefing session that follows, students acknowledge that they voted in their own self interest rather than voting for the public good. I ask the students to apply this understanding to the workings of present-day democracy in America. An "ah ha!" moment ensues as students realize that their elected representatives may operate under similar motivations, and that democracy requires constant public vigilance. This realization leads to a discussion of the role played by the news media in a democracy. (For more on this simulation, click here.)

Activities that generate such "ah ha!" moments - when a student's personal experience in the classroom yields powerful understanding - are my most treasured activities. Let me offer another example. Prior to beginning the "1900-1925 Unit" in my tenth grade class, I conduct an "Entangling Alliances" simulation that requires about 45 minutes of class time on each of two consecutive days. Students are assigned to four fictitious European nations and provided with background information on the geography, political status and relative economic and military strengths of their countries. The countries are then permitted to forge any alliances and agreements they choose with other countries to protect national security or to gain other advantage. Then war breaks out.

This simulation, of course, is meant to demonstrate how the system of entangling alliances in Europe became a major cause of World War I, and it admirably succeeds in this task. But, as with the Greek simulation, the ancillary learning may be even more powerful. As it turns out, the weaker countries in the simulation invariably form alliances with one another to protect themselves from the strongest and most aggressive country, which ends up being attacked by enemies on all sides. This outcome leads to a discussion of America's current role as the world's only superpower. The "ah ha!" moment arrives when students realize they have experienced feelings that might be similar to the feelings held by people of other countries toward the United States.

I have taken time to describe these simulations for several reasons. In the first place, they reveal how posthole-type activities can be intentionally targeted to support specific learning. While my students consider these simulations to be fun events, students genuinely expand their understanding of ancient Greece and pre-World War I Europe.

There is more than one way to learn history.

Second, these activities demonstrate the complimentary nature of a factual historical overview combined with in-depth learning activities. Neither simulation would be as meaningful if it were divorced from the larger world-historical context. The Greek simulation is enhanced by the student's knowledge of both Classical Greek culture and the nature of American democracy. The Alliances simulation enhances the student's understanding of both World War I and contemporary international relations. When students acquire an historical overview, they can relate their learning to issues that lie beyond the immediate matter under study. Isn't this one of the main reasons for studying history?

Third, these simulations demonstrate that there is more than one way to learn history. Some recent advocates of historical analysis activities have succumbed to the impulse to suggest that their way is essentially the only way, an example of method driving (and limiting) the meaning that a student may derive from historical study. A steady diet of analysis activities would not only turn students off to history, it wouldn't be as nourishing as a well-rounded diet. If my students were to be deprived of the understandings gained from these two simulations, or from a coherent overview of history, they would be poorer for it.

The Bradley Commission on History in the Schools, our touchstone for sound advice about history teaching, agrees that no monolithic approach is sufficient. The Bradley Commission's menu includes facts and narrative, chronological overview, important themes and questions, and historical habits of mind.

Fourth, I love these "ah ha!" activities so much that I would like to find more of them. They spice up learning and provide compelling lessons about both the past and the contemporary world. If you use activities in your classroom that succeed in grabbing students by provoking this kind of profound personal understanding, please send details to this website, and share your discoveries with the rest of us.


Earlier I noted that teachers use what works. How do we find what works and what works best? We may choose to continue relying on the standard approach of luck and trial and error. Or, we may choose to enhance our efficiency and effectiveness by sharing what we know with each another.

It shall be the continuing mission of this website to ask teachers what meaningful understandings students should take with them into adulthood, and to ask what activities are most effective in conveying these understandings.


Notes:

1 Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay, Understanding by Design, Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998

2 McNeill, William H., "Beyond Western Civilization: Rebuilding the Survey," in Dunn, Ross E., editor, The New World History, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2000

3 Bransford, John D., Brown, Ann l., and Cocking, Rodney R., eds, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, National Research Council, 1999

4 Dewey, John, Experience and Education, Touchstone, 1997, original copyright 1938 by Kappa Delta Pi.


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