What are the intellectual tasks with which students have the most difficulty in the history classroom? What are the types of things in a history class that students need to practice consistently in order to become adept at historical analysis?
As I continue considering how to restructure my class around social media this school year (the time for which is rapidly dwindling…) I’ve been thinking about those intellectual tasks and challenges that students need to gain experience with in order to become skilled, confident historical thinkers.
For instance, the skills and habits (spanning the entire spectrum of Bloom’s taxonomy) that come to mind most readily include things like:
- Understanding causality
- Being able to distinguish preconditions from catalysts
- Knowing how to construct and study a timeline
- Knowing how to critically read and analyze primary sources
- Being able to identify and derive significance about an author’s point of view, perspective, and historical context
- Knowing how to identify significant terms and concepts in secondary sources
- Knowing how to create identification terms that answer not only the “what” of the term, but more importantly address the “why is this significant?” question.
- All sorts of writing and argumentation skills (perhaps the most important, actually)
- Ad infinitum…
This list could go on and on, but in order to spare myself (and you, dear reader) the indignity of spending the day absorbed in a meandering list of bullet points, I’ll just point you to an earlier post from this summer that I cobbled together for my Breakthrough teachers that lists all these sorts of skills and others.
The Status Quo
In previous years I’ve sought to have all the students in my classes practice the gamut of skills all at the same time. Normally, my decision to, for instance, have everyone make timelines stemmed from a collectively poor performance on the chronology section of a test. Or, if students’ eyes glazed over every time I mentioned the Anatolian Peninsula, I’d conjure up some additional map assignment for reinforcement of important reference points. In essence, my assignments were often shaped in a reactive way that tried to address some collective student struggle.
While my goals were good (e.g. help students improve in an area of difficulty,) in retrospect, my approach perhaps left something to be desired. I began observing the dynamic, particularly for the issue of chronology, whereby students would gear themselves up for the reinforcement assignments, do well on the next assessment, and then forget all about chronology for later units, which in turn prompted me to create a chronology-focused assignment…and on, and on…
The other challenge of this dynamic had to do with the way in which it reinforced teacher-centrism. While I strive to make my classroom participatory and student-centric, in creating assignments that reacted to short term student struggles, I unintentionally discouraged students from learning about themselves as learners. Rather than have students learn to gauge where their own areas of struggle and develop strategies to address those on their own, they waited for my collective diagnosis and then temporarily ramped up their effort in the problem area in order to achieve the immediate benefit (e.g. success on the next test’s chronology section).
Clearly, part of the challenge lies in the fact that history requires a broad set of skills and some of the more onerous, yet important tasks (e.g. chronology, geography) take a backseat to other skills that students are developing in the classroom. Certainly, I place a higher priority on students being able to critically read and analyze primary and secondary sources, and then construct an argument based on those; however, some baseline knowledge of these more objective elements is also necessary in order to understand and analyze historical context. Moreover, my blood pressure really can’t handle any more tests or class discussions where a student informs me that Jesus lived in 500 BCE.
The Collaborative Model
So, as I’ve learned about more and more various social media tools and considered how to restructure my class around online postings, work submission, and collaboration by students, I’ve thought about how to parcel out these various intellectual tasks/historical habits of mind amongst students. Ideally, I’d like to have students practicing all these various skills, (which will be identified and addressed shortly,) sharing with one another in a student-centric way (something I addressed in my earlier post about “The Loop,”) and being able to draw on one another’s resources for review and studying.
Professor Sample proposes a five-part rotation built around blogging and wikis whereby student rotate through five roles:
- Role 1 – Students are “first readers,” posting initial questions and insights about the reading to the class blog by Monday morning
- Role 2 - Students are “respondents,” building upon, disagreeing with, or clarifying the first readers’ posts by class time on Tuesday
- Role 3 - Students are “synthesizers,” mediating and synthesizing the dialogue between first readers and respondents by Thursday
- Role 4 - Students are responsible for the week’s class notes
- Role 5 – Students have this week “off” in terms of blogging and the wiki
I find the idea of the rotating roles in the classroom a really compelling and clever idea. By having students shift from one intellectual task to another, they gain experience in developing the various habits of mind that are involved in both the knowledge, comprehension level, and also at the more sophisticated, critically analytical level. However, rather than structure my roles all around blogging and the weekly schedule, I see the applicability in the secondary school context to structure the roles around various historical skills/tasks and base it on the chapter schedule.
Here’s my potential breakdown of student roles:
- Role 1 – Students are chapter outliners. They can use either the formal outline format (for the very linear minded) or perhaps some other type of mind-mapping website.
- Role 2 – Students are chronology compilers. These students would be expected to use the textbook, its chronology resources, the primary sources we read, and any other important dates and events discussed in class and compile them into a timeline that can be shared with all other students.
- Role 3 – Students are the identification term definers. These students would be charged with taking the list of ID Terms posted on the class wiki or determined in class and then writing definitions and explanations of significance for all these terms.
- Role 4 – Students are the critical questions deconstructors. Rather than have these students write full-blown responses to the critical questions I post on the class wiki, they would be responsible for dissecting/deconstructing how one would go about answering these various questions. In so doing, they’d learn how to systematically approach these questions (and read them closely), discover what objective information the question relies on, and what higher-level analytical skill one must then complete in order to fully address the question.
- Role 5 – Students are the blog post synthesizers. These students would be charged with reading their classmates’ blog posts to the various homework assignment questions/prompts and then distilling the major themes, patterns, and trends that emerged in this out-of-class dialogue. Not only will these students learn to read their peers’ work critically and, as a result, develop an eye for quality argumentative, substantive writing, but they will also get practice incorporating textual evidence into their own writing.
- Role 6 – Students are Wikipedia comparison authors. These students would choose one of the ID terms or another concept from the chapter and write a brief comparison juxtaposing the textbook’s treatment of the subject with Wikipedia‘s. Ideally, these students’ responses would go beyond those two sources and also investgate primary sources related to the subject matter (on the Internet History Sourcebook) and other secondary source articles on that topic (perhaps via JSTOR.) In so doing, these students would begin to learn about historiography, historical argumentation, various historical approaches, and see the ways in which different types of sources construct the past.
These roles also offer the opportunity for expansion (or perhaps substitution.) At the beginning of the year I provide my students with the list of critical questions and ID terms to help them learn about what type of information from the reading and class discussion is salient versus that which is not. However, as the year progresses and the students begin to internalize these skills more thoroughly, I could remove some of the scaffolding and create additional roles for:
- ID Term Compiler(s) - these students would have the responsibility to read through the chapter and class notes, coming up with the terms that are most important and which their peers should be responsible.
- Critical Question author(s) – these students would be charged with writing the critical questions (beginning with “how” or “why” to prompt an analytical response) that might appear as essay questions on tests or other in-class writing assignment.
- Class notes/discussion synthesizers – this role seems a little more challenging in the secondary school context versus the college lecture hall context. Primarily, my classes meet every day, and not all days are structured around lecture (thank goodness!!) or even whole-class discussion. Just as often we’re working on individual or group projects. Therefore, having a specific role charged with compiling and sharing class notes seems like a task that might be too infrequent and/or challenging.
Ideally, the generation of material created by the students in their completion of these various roles will provide a really nice, substantive base of material that students can use to review for quizzes, tests, and major exams — particularly because they’ll be posting and sharing their products online. Additionally, because students will be relying on their peers to do high quality work, they’ll also push themselves to also generate valuable material, and as a result, hold one another to lofty standards.
Moreover, these assigned roles help give the students specific things to be looking for and working on as they do the reading. So often students struggle with active, critical reading because they feel aimless and unclear about what they should be looking getting out of the text. However, if the students have assigned role and specific material to generate, they’ll hopefully feel more directed in their reading and absorb the material in a more meaningful way.
While I’m sure there are many I haven’t anticipated (please, by all means, draw my attention to them!), the one that strikes me most obviously has to do with the timing of turning in assignments. Clearly, the students will need some time to read the text, process it, and work on their assigned tasks. However, the Wikipedia comparison role will likely take a bit more time than, say, the chronology compiler role. Similarly, the blog synthesis role is something that will likely have to be done toward the end of a chapter so that the students in that role have time to read their peers’ posts over the entire chapter, and then draw conclusions based on those writings.
As for the potential roles that I haven’t planned to implement yet, the ID term compilers and critical question roles are ones that obviously have to happen before those terms and questions can be answered and broken down, respectively. In this case, it seems as thought I’d need to have staggered due dates depending on the particular role in order to enable all students to complete their assigned tasks thoroughly and to the best of their ability.
Perhaps the easiest solution is to have an early deadline for those more objective tasks (e.g. outliners, chronology compilers, ID term definers) and a slightly later due date for those roles that require more sophisticated analysis (e.g. Wikipedia comparison, blog syntheses.)
Now, my own challenge moves on to creating a master spreadsheet/grid that assigns these various roles to different groups in rotating pattern throughout the course of the year. Once that’s done, I’ll work to port that file over to the class wiki where students, once they’ve completed and posted their work for that chapter, can hyperlink to that work, thereby creating a central repository for all the classes’ work throughout the course of the year.
I’ll work to post a follow-up once I start to implement this grand strategy and actually begin having my students generate some of this material. In the meantime, please give me whatever feedback and/or experience you may have about this type of class organization. I’d greatly appreciate it!