by Matt Doran
Many observers of contemporary American politics believe we have reached the pinnacle of demagoguery and political posturing. True enough, negative campaigning, vitriolic personal attacks, divisive rhetoric, and other forms of incivility, are commonplace today. This conclusion, however, is drawn from a presentist view of the world, rather than from clear historical thinking. Historically speaking, incivility has been a rule rather than an exception in American politics. It is, however, a rule that surely needs to be (and indeed can be) broken.
The use of demagoguery—an appeal to people that plays on their emotions and prejudices rather than on their rational side—is as old as politics itself, dating back to Ancient Greece. The American founders understood this propensity. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 71, notes, “The republican principle… does not require an unqualified complaisance…to every transient impulse that people may receive from the arts of men who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests.” In Federalist 55, James Madison argues, “In all very numerous assemblies … passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason.”
In one of first contested presidential elections in 1800, the campaigns of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams engaged in an acerbic war of words. Among other things, Jefferson supporters called Adams a "hideous hermaphroditical character." In turn, Adams supporters branded Jefferson “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father,” “an atheist," and “a coward.” The legendary Lincoln-Douglas Senate debates of 1858 were equally vicious, sardonic, and crude. Douglas repeatedly referred to Lincoln’s "Black Republican" party and made frequent use of the N-word. No doubt, hundreds of similar examples could be culled from the archives of twentieth century elections as well.
To point out this history is not to suggest that we should lose hope in a better America. To the contrary, knowing this history is the first step in overcoming it. What we need is not a return to some mythical golden age of politics and statesmanship, but to move beyond the vices of our fathers and our own base instincts. In short, we need a new era of reasoned civil discourse grounded in logic, humility, and empathy.
The key to the future, therefore, lies in humanities education. As Sam Wineburg argues, “My claim in a nutshell is that history holds the potential, only partly realized, of humanizing us in ways offered by few other areas in the school curriculum. … Each generation must ask itself anew why studying the past is important, and remind itself why history can bring us together rather than—as we have seen most recently—tear us apart.”
First, history teaches us how to think. History and civics education must go beyond a curriculum mired in trivia and facts. The answers to the questions we pose should not be Googleable. We must engage students in the compelling, philosophical, and persistent questions that shape humanity. As students pursue answers to these questions, they learn to gather evidence, make inferences, contextualize sources, distinguish facts from value judgments, and identify fallacious reasoning.
Second, when we encounter a multiplicity of voices and human experiences, we are humbled by the vast sea of events, information and ideas, and how little we know. Doing history teaches us to avoid hard-and-fast conclusions, but rather to hold suppositions as tentative. The past is gone; only remnants remain. Sometimes new remnants come to light or new ways of looking at old remnants are encouraged, forcing us to rethink our interpretations.
Third, history teaches empathy. Empathy is walking in another person’s shoes, the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. As Jason Endocott and Sarah Brooks write, “historical empathy is the process of students’ cognitive and affective engagement with historical figures to better understand and contextualize their lived experiences, decisions, or actions.”
The methods we use to teach history are important to cultivating these dispositions. The Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) is a good starting point. This strategy blends the best of evidence-based argumentation with civil discourse. As described on the Teaching American History Clearinghouse website:
The Center for Civic Education’s We the People program is another model program for engaging students in civil discourse. Teams of students prepare oral arguments for a simulated Congressional hearing before a panel of judges, and respond to follow-up questions from the judges. Unlike many recent presidential debates, questions in We the People are deep, philosophical, and provocative. Here is a sample from this year’s national competition:
For fostering both historical thinking and historical empathy, Reacting to the Past, an increasingly popular approach used in university history courses, has created a standard for K-12 to follow. The methodology consists of course-long simulations, set in historical context. Students are drawn into the past with assigned roles informed by classic texts. Class discussions and presentations are run by students, with guidance and evaluation from the instructor.
Indeed, American politics is, and has been historically, an ugly sphere. But the future can be brighter when the light of history, through the lens of logic, humility and empathy, shines upon it.
by Matt Doran
Over the past several weeks, I have been crafting new assessment items around skills standards--credibility of sources, bias, stereotypes, claims, supporting evidence, etc. It strikes me that in the Internet and social media era, we need to update our thinking skills to address Internet legends, viral videos, and social media memes.
How do we wade through the multitude of spurious quotes, stories, and claims?
Remember the words of Lincoln...
By Matt Doran
Skills: What should students be able to do? Apply disciplinary thinking skills to text sets to show the relationship among social studies content, current events, and civic engagement.
The use of text sets supports infusion of the Common Core Literacy in History/Social Studies standards, and holds great potential for creating a 21st century social studies classroom. A text set is a collection of readings organized around a common theme or line of inquiry. The anchor text is the focus of a close reading. Supporting texts are connected meaningfully to the anchor text and to each other to deepen student understanding of the anchor text.
In social studies, close reading of content texts is not an end in itself, but rather a means to creating successful citizens. In this model, anchor texts can be pulled from rich collections of primary and secondary sources. Supporting texts from current events show the enduring relevance of the themes and questions raised in these readings from history, geography, and government and economics. Applying the tools of disciplinary thinking and common core literacy standards across the text sets prepares students to engage in meaningful civic discourse and take informed action.
Here is one example of an inquiry-based text set unit:
Course Overarching Essential Question
Unit Compelling Question
For a complete text lesson, with anticipation guide, adapted readings, and close reading questions, download the resources from this page on Share My Lesson (free account required).
by Matt Doran
Graphic and source file updated 2/2/19
Inquiry learning is central to history education. What does it mean to do historical inquiry? What types of questions can students investigate? The graphic below highlights six types of historical inquiries. Stay tuned for examples of each type in a folllow-up post.
Click here to make a copy of this graphic in Google Drawings.
Rather than recommending a specific bibliography of works worth reading, I find it easier to recommend historians and social studies educators whose works I have found useful. This is especially true in recent years, as "works" are often in the form of websites, lesson plans, MOOCs, blogs, and tweets, not just traditional books and articles.
I have been compiling names over the last three years, and I am now finally getting around to sharing it publicly, in no particular order. While the majority teach social studies education at the university level, others are university history professors, high school teachers, or education consultants. I should also add a disclaimer that the inclusion of a particular individual in this list does not mean I agree with or endorse every opinion they express. My list is by no means exhaustive or conclusive, and I am always open to suggestions. Who do you follow?
Click on the names below for academic homepages or personal websites or follow the Twitter handles indicated.
By Matt Doran
I recently came across my old filmstrip collection, which I believe has now officially passed from audio-visual aid to historic artifact. Most of the filmstrips are accompanied by a cassette tape that beeps as a signal to move to the next slide. Others require human narration. For the record, I am not old enough to have actually taught using filmstrips. I am, however, old enough to have watched them as a student.
As I looked through my collection, a question came to mind: has pedagogy changed in thirty years, or are PowerPoint presentations just the new filmstrips? While filmstrips could provide a helpful visual supplement to a lecture, they were largely a passive experience for students. Students might be required to take notes or answer some questions, but the content was largely pre-determined unless the teacher ad-libbed.
By the turn of the 21st century, filmstrips, slide projectors, and overhead transparencies were being replaced by PowerPoint presentations. Today, PowerPoint is often viewed a symbol of stand-and-deliver direction instruction (lecturing), which has fallen out of favor for more constructivist pedagogy. As the Grant Wiggins recently noted, history teachers appear to be the most likely to spend a large percentage of time lecturing, at the expense of other student-centered approaches.
It is important to remember that PowerPoint is only software with a blank canvas (and some fancy themes). It is neither inherently good nor bad--it all depends on how it is used. A PowerPoint presentation need not be a canned lecture or scripted narration. When used effectively with interactive features, PowerPoint has far greater potential than a prefab film strip. Here are four suggestions for creating interactive PowerPoint presentations.
Vocabulary instruction is a critical component of students' academic success, and 55 percent of students' academic vocabulary comes from social studies disciplines. In Robert Marzano's Six-Step Process for Building Academic Vocabulary, step 6 requires involving students in games that enable them to play with terms. Games for vocabulary development should include student-to-student interaction. Tech savvy educators have created PowerPoint game templates that can be customized to meet specific course vocabulary. These include games like Password, Pyramid, and Taboo. For more PowerPoint game templates, see the links from FMI Teaching Resources and UNCW EdGames. Teachers can also create their own templates, using hyperlinks within the presentation. (See the directions in the Contingency and Decision-Making section below.)
Visual Discovery and Spiral Questions
Teachers' Curriculum Institute, publisher of the popular History Alive! materials, uses visual discovery to increase engagement. Students view and interpret a few powerful images on a historical topic. As slides are presented, teachers pose a series of spiral questions on three levels. Students can assume the role of detective as they answer the questions and record notes in a graphic organizer.
In Level 1 questions, student detectives gather evidence by identifying the people, places and things. (What do you see in the image?) In Level 2, student detectives begin to interpret the evidence and make inferences about time period, place, or people in the scene. Students should begin to defend their answers with “because” statements. Questions focus on what, when, where, and who. In Level 3, student detectives must use the evidence and their own critical thinking skills to make hypotheses about what is happening and why. Questions at this level emphasize why and how questions and require justifying, synthesizing, predicting, and evaluating.
Checking for Understanding - Clickers and Poll Everywhere
Student response systems (clickers) provide an easy and quick way for teachers to check for understanding. TurningPoint is an add-in to PowerPoint. Teachers can create new presentations in TurningPoint or use existing PowerPoint presentations and add in new slides. These new slides include multiple choice items in which students can respond to questions with remote response cards. Results are tallied and displayed in a chart in real-time within the PowerPoint presentation. Teachers can save the session to track individual and group progress over time. (Note: Plickers is a free alternative that allows teachers to collect real-time data through a web browser and teacher smart phone or tablet, without the need for student devices.)
Poll Everywhere is an app that allows teachers to ask multiple choice or open-ended questions. Teachers create questions using the online app. Once the poll is activated, it can be downloaded as a PowerPoint slide and inserted to another presentation. Students can respond to questions via the web, text message or Twitter. As the students respond, results appear instantly on the slide. Graphs change and move and open ended answers roll in for everyone to see. Poll Everywhere now includes a PollEv Presenter Add-in option for PowerPoint. Teachers can download the add-in to create new polls directly in PowerPoint, and navigate between poll slides. In addition to checking for understanding, Poll Everywhere questions work well as brainstorming warm-up questions, such as a K-W-L activity.
Choose Your Own Adventure - Contingency and Decision-Making
PowerPoint presentations, like textbooks, often present history as a linear narrative of what happened in the past, without much consideration to contingency and decision-making. In their article, What Does it Mean to Think Historically?, Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke write, "To argue that history is contingent is to claim that every historical outcome depends upon a number of prior conditions; that each of these prior conditions depends, in turn, upon still other conditions; and so on. . . Contingency demands that students think deeply about past, present, and future. It offers a powerful corrective to teleology, the fallacy that events pursue a straight-arrow course to a pre-determined outcome, since people in the past had no way of anticipating our present world. Contingency also reminds us that individuals shape the course of human events. . ."
PowerPoint presentations do not have to flow in sequential order. Instead, slides can be hyperlinked in a such a way that students choose from a set of decision-points and view possible consequences of their choices, allowing students to better understand the underlying and immediate causes of historical events. The Smart Art graphics in PowerPoint provide a variety of options to generate list, process, hierarchy, or relationship graphic organizers. To hyperlink an element of the organizer, click on the element and select Hyperlink from the Insert tab. Next, click on Place in This Document and link to another slide.
Above all, simply avoid death by PowerPoint by using the tool to promote interactive and engaging strategies, instead of rote lectures.
Echoes and Reflections, a leader in Holocaust education, provided a free, full-day workshop for teachers (English and Social Studies) in our district this week. Our presenter was Alexis Storch, Director of Education at the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was joined by powerful testimony from John Koenigsberg, a Holocaust survivor. Here are some of the key takeaways for me.
The Humanity of All
Agency and Choice
Propaganda and Prejudice
Telling the Stories
By Matt Doran
Skills: What do we want students (citizens) to able to do? Analyze perspectives in primary and secondary sources, and evaluate the credibility of information in historical and contemporary sources.
Today I am sharing three short videos that can help teachers sharpen students' skills in source analysis:
1. Primary vs. Secondary Sources
2. The Guardian Commercial: Points of View
3. How to Choose Your News
In the classroom, you may want to pause the clip after each point of view is shown. Have students make inferences about what is happening based on the point of view they have just seen.
By Matt Doran
Skills: What do we want students (citizens) to be able to do? Make informed decisions about current issues that are grounded in a deep understanding of historical causation
For many years, “Current Events Fridays” have been a popular way for social studies teachers to incorporate the news into their curriculum. Through resources like Channel One, CNN Student News, Scholastic Magazine, and local newspapers, students have engaged in class discussions, summarized articles, and developed weekly portfolios using the news. When our state moved to standardized social studies testing for 10th graders in 2005, some teachers asked me whether they should abandon this practice. Testing occurs less than 3/4 of the way through the year, leaving little time to cover a large swath of history. I recall giving a quite political answer: “You have to evaluate what is best for your students, and find a balance between test preparation and meaningful content,” or something like that.
Since that time, my views on current events in the classroom have evolved. During the 2008 election, I looked for ways to make connections between election news and state standards in world and U.S. history. I concluded that the most promising way to keep current events in the curriculum was to connect everything to the skills and methods state standards (bias, credibility of sources, thesis statements and evidence). About 20 percent of the state exam assesses these skills, and many of the test items in this strand do not require background knowledge of a specific historical period. (E.g. A mayor believes that an increase in the city bus fee has led to fewer riders. This thesis could be supported or refuted by which type of data?)
One helpful article in my journey was “Conversations Between Past and Present: Thoughts on Teaching Current Events in a World History Classroom” by Tom Laichas in Teaching World History in the Twenty-First Century. I encountered this piece in preparing to teach a graduate course for teachers called “Experiencing World History: Connecting Past and Present.” The main thrust of my course was to help 7th grade teachers (who teach ancient and medieval world history) see the contemporary relevance of their content, and to help 10th grade history teachers (who teach modern world history) to see the ancient origins of contemporary issues.
More recently, I have come to the conclusion that not only can we keep current events in the curriculum; we can actually make current events a central driving force in social studies. Indeed, every day can be a current events day. In a recent TED talk, “The Content-Free Classroom” James Kendra suggests that current events are the most meaningful and relevant way for teaching social studies disciplines like geography, economics, and government. I would go even one step further to argue that current events can also be a powerful lens for teaching world and U.S. history. Using a “ripped from the headlines” approach, this methodology starts with current events and traces back through history to see how we got where we are. When tensions flare up in the Middle East or the Ukraine, we need to go back through the centuries (not just the 20th century) to analyze layers of causation. When the Supreme Court decides a case, we are driven back to a study of the Constitution and its evolution, placing the decision in comparative context to earlier rulings.
One of the challenges of this approach is that our study of our history becomes non-linear and quite disjointed chronologically. A broad chronological overview in the first quarter of the year will be likely necessary for most classes. Additionally, a large and regularly-updated wall map and time line can also help pull things together weekly, monthly and quarterly.
There are several resources available in print and on the web that support teaching history through current events. I have divided them into two categories, scholarly/academic (mostly for teacher reference) and instructional (lessons and student handouts).
Teaching history through current events is not just about finding a way to make history interesting. It is also an act of civic engagement. If we want to fulfill the mission of social studies (creating effective citizens), our students need to be able to make informed decisions about current issues that are grounded in a deep understanding of historical causation. Instead of dismissing current events, relegating it to Fridays, or using the news only to teach skills, we should approach history through current events, a whole new lens for students to think about the news for the rest of their lives.