Old Ideas Made New Again, pp. 8 of 10

I used to start my class in eighth grade history with a lesson I called “A Book, A Coin, and a China Plate.” I brought to class a book in a language other than English, a coin from a country other than our own, and a dinner plate (not really fine China). I created a story about archeologists uncovering these items on a recent dig on the site of an ancient culture. What might we infer (or guess) about the people of this culture based on these artifacts, I asked.  The students said that at least some of the people must have been literate. They had a fairly advanced manufacturing technology; they were able to make books, coins and plates. They had a monetary system; they didn’t just trade. And so forth. I had to ask questions, of course, but they were pretty good at developing inferences. This led to a discussion of how we know about the past, what artifacts of today might tell people in the future, and so forth. I wanted them to understand that history was the story we created about the past, not simply what happened in the past. All year long I tortured them with primary source documents and asked questions which didn’t have a “right” answer. There might be poorly defended answers, answers not based on evidence. But not really wrong answers.

One year I had a particularly difficult group of students. Toward the end of the year we went on a field trip (or learning journey) to a reconstruction of an early settler village near the town I taught in. Much to my relief the students were well-behaved. They also asked great questions about what they were seeing. They were eager to hypothesize about the use and purpose of artifacts we looked at. The docent told me they were one of the best groups she’d ever worked with. They were very proud of themselves. So was I. And I had real evidence that they had learned a core concept of the nature of history.

Finally, Newmann and colleagues stress the importance of real-world impact. Learning that has value beyond school is, after all, what school is really about. Can students relate what they are studying to personal or social issues and concerns?  Newmann’s work also points to the importance of substantive conversation. This feature involves considerable discussion and interaction about the ideas of a topic that develop and build on ideas presented by others in the conversation. This involves sharing ideas and multiple exchanges in which students and other participants develop shared understanding of a theme or topic. Or, as Dewey would say, learning is social.

I observed a fifth grade classroom one year whose teacher engaged the children in the study of the community. She really engaged them, moving beyond the textbook to help them understand the community and its concerns. The children decided there needed to be a traffic light at a busy intersection. And here’s where the teacher really impressed me. They didn’t simply present their arguments to one another or role play a city council meeting. Rather, the class worked together to put together a real presentation to the city council. They worked together around a social concern. And they got on the agenda of the city council.  The whole class, or many of them, went to the meeting and their ten-year-old spokespeople made their presentation. They were well-practiced. They had their evidence, supported with visuals.  They were really engaged in social action. 

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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