Teachers working together
are the best hope
for improving education
Do you know the best way to teach history?
Neither do I.
We are not alone.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was established by Congress in the late 1960s to serve as "the nation's report card." According to NAEP assessments, American schools do a worse job of teaching history than any other core subject.
Because the NAEP will not assess world history until 2018 (current estimate), we have only the U.S. history assessments to serve as a measure of America's effectiveness at teaching history. Findings from the most recent U.S. history assessment in 2006 revealed that only 16 percent of U.S. students were "proficient" in history compared to 25 percent in science, 25 percent in geography, 28 percent in writing, and 31 percent in math.*
These are averages for students in the 4th, 8th and 12th grades. Generally, the higher the grade level, the lower the proficiency. Only 13 percent of twelfth graders were proficient in U.S. history. By this measure, history education in high school appears to be the worst of a poor lot.
Whether these assessments are accurate, appropriate, and relevant is open to discussion, but, in this age of standards, the NAEP is the nationwide standard sanctioned by the federal government. History students, and therefore teachers, are falling far short of the standard. Since the scope of U.S. history is substantially narrower than world history - presumably making U.S. history easier to teach and learn - we can only speculate uncomfortably about our effectiveness at teaching world history. If current approaches to teaching history aren't working very well, perhaps we should consider doing things a bit differently.
We can do better by working together.
At a social gathering one evening, I asked an architect acquaintance and parent if he knew how teachers develop the classes they teach. "Well," he said, "I suppose you get the guide book."
There is, of course, no guide book. Unlike the architect and his predecessors who established long ago the size of beam needed to span a given opening...or the surgeon who learned from his training and journals the most effective procedures for removing a malignancy...or the teenager at McDonalds who knows precisely how long to cook the fries, we teachers make up most of our procedures as we go, collecting ideas from any source we can find. Eventually, after much individual effort and experimentation, some of us become pretty good teachers. Others never do.
The general public would undoubtedly be surprised, and not a little apprehensive, if they knew our little secret that every teacher in every classroom essentially reinvents the wheel. The resulting inefficiencies are staggering. Perhaps it is education's lack of institutional learning that helps to explain why only 25 percent of science students and 16 percent of history students are deemed proficient in their studies and why half of new teachers quit before reaching their fourth year on the job.
Why hasn't education established dependable procedures to promote competency and consistency as other professions have done? Simply put, the requirements of education are more subtle and more complex than most other occupations. The surgeon in her operating room deals with a known and limited set of variables; the school teacher in her classroom deals with an unknown and practically limitless set of variables that are constantly changing in a fluid interactive environment. This is why teaching is termed an art rather than a science and why it may be more difficult to be an effective teacher than an effective surgeon.
Furthermore, teachers work isolated from one another in their classrooms; they haven't found an effective method for evaluating and organizing their collective experience. History educator Ross E. Dunn asks, "Why do teachers have a variety of avenues - workshops, institutes, published resources - for building their knowledge of particular parts of the world but so few opportunities to join together to develop coherent conceptions of world history that can underlie an entire year's work?"**
It is the ambitious, yet realistic, goal of this website to devise a coherent conception of world history and geography education and to identify strategies for implementing it. The collaborative capacity of the Internet offers teachers an unprecedented opportunity to work together to improve education. Through collaboration, teachers can refine approaches and improve them over time as surgeons and architects have done. The importance and the challenges of teaching are far too great to continue sending teachers into classrooms unequipped with a reliable package of effective ideas, strategies and tools.
If there is a better way to deliver education, teachers are in the best position to find it. We are smart enough, our hearts are in the right place, and most importantly, we have the relevant experience. We learn how to teach from the interaction with our students; they teach us as we teach them. Teachers are the only people in this position; only they can get the job done. We must be the student's friend and advocate. We can pool our knowledge, build on experience and undertake a journey to find the most effective ways to educate our young. It is a quest worthy of Odysseus, and not one to be undertaken alone.
Making a beginning: identifying a body of knowledge
Logically, a good place to begin the search for an effective way to teach would be to identify the body of knowledge to be taught. This is a particularly daunting task when the subject is world history and geography, and the potential course content includes everything that has occurred since the beginning of time.
Textbooks are of limited value because they are overly-inclusive, covering more cultures and events than can possibly be studied and understood during a standard high school course. Textbooks include so many topics, facts, dates and names that any meaningful understanding is often obscured in a blizzard of detail. If this overkill weren't already sufficient, textbook publishers compete with one another to supply teachers with the greatest total poundage of ancillary materials - much of it insipid - to accompany their thousand-page textbooks.
We don't need more stuff. We need more understanding.
The beginning point of this website, then, is an attempt to identify a body of knowledge that can reasonably be taught to real students in real high schools. To this discussion I bring a concise narrative of world history and geography that I developed for use with my 9th and 10th grade students as an alternative to the textbook. (See: The Student's Friend)
The narrative consistes of two parts: prehistory to 1500, and 1500 to the present. Through the trial-and-error of classroom use, each part of the narrative has been reduced to 26 pages of concentrated information, which I find to be approximately the amount of foundation knowledge that most students can absorb during one high school course. As these materials were being used in the classroom, they came to be called "The Student's Friend." (The 52 pages of the Student's Friend equal approximately 120 pages of text in a standard hard cover book, or 150 pages in a textbook.) In my classroom, "The Student's Friend" is supplemented with various learning activities and visual aids including overhead transparencies, video clips, posters, and artifacts.
The Student's Friend is available on this website free of charge for teachers to review, download, use in the classroom, modify and criticize. It is meant to be a starting point for a productive discussion about the historical content appropriate for generating student understanding of world history. What do you think; does the Student's Friend include too much information? Not enough? The right information? Are there errors in fact or interpretation? Should alternative content be included, and, if so, should existing material be cut? Your input is welcome. (See: What teachers say about the Student's Friend.)
The chronological narrative is one important component of a body of knowledge. This website identifies two more: conceptual frameworks and thinking strategies. (See: What to teach: the body of knowledge. ) If we put our heads together, perhaps we can reach a working agreement on a useful body of knowledge to be taught to our students. It is better for us to make these decisions than relinquish them to textbook publishers or legislators. And, if we do not fully agree, no problem. The body of knowledge available here is presented in electronic form, so teachers may easily select and modify to suit individual circumstances.
The next steps
Identifying a body of knowledge is a beginning. Other important issues remain:
-How is this body of knowledge to be taught in classrooms so that students maintain interest and learn?
-How can we help students understand the content, retain it, and internalize it in ways that transform mere information into useful knowledge and (dare we hope) into wisdom?
-What activities, projects, technologies and other strategies effectively promote and cement student understanding?
-How can we assess student learning in ways that:
-extend the learning process,
-tell us what students have learned,
-motivate students to achieve quality of effort, and
-inform us as to the effectiveness of our teaching?
I don't have good answers to all these questions, and the experts don't either. Surely the best answers reside in our collective experience. This website is an attempt to access and organize that experience.
last revision: Feb. 2011
About Mike Maxwell and the development of this website
* NAEP results as of Fall, 2007
**Dunn, Ross E., "Constructing World History in the Classroom," in Stearns, Peter N. et. al., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History, New York University Press, 2000