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From the Teaching column of the January 2004 Perspectives

What We Should Know about Precollegiate Learning

Robert J. Gough, January 2004

Even historians just beginning their careers as college teachers usually have not been in a high school classroom for at least a decade. In the case of their senior colleagues, this time span often has been 30 or 40 years. Postsecondary teachers, therefore, usually have only a hazy understanding of how their students have previously studied history. Would it not be useful for them to know something about actual practices in history classrooms in the secondary schools?

I began thinking about this question during the past several years while observing student teachers in history and social studies classrooms in middle and high schools. When a colleague retired in 1997, I agreed—despite not having any background or training in K–12 education—to take over my department's responsibilities in teacher education. Essentially, this meant I was the "content supervisor" of student teachers. Although I knew that I was not going to be much help to my student teachers in terms of making pedagogical suggestions, I had other goals in accepting this assignment. One goal was to learn first-hand what was going on in social studies classrooms in the public schools. In turn, I wanted to use this information in several ways, one of which was to better align the content and practices of the classes taught in my department with what our students had learned previously. It is that aspect of my supervisory experience that I want to focus on in this essay.

I cannot claim that what I see is necessarily representative of what goes on in all American schools, but over the past seven years I have made almost 300 observation visits to about 150 student teachers working with about 75 different classroom teachers ("cooperating teachers") in more than 40 high schools and middle schools throughout western Wisconsin. In addition to what I have formally observed in the classroom, I have also learned a great deal at second- and third-hand about what is going on in the schools. Based on this experience, I will outline briefly four aspects of social studies teaching in grades 6–12 that I think would be helpful for college instructors to understand if they are going to become more effective in their own classrooms.

Instructional Strategies in the Classroom

For better or for worse, lecturing is not dead. To be sure, many secondary school teachers have reduced or even eliminated lecturing in their classrooms. To some extent, however, this practice is still part of the instructional strategy of most social studies teachers, if only to "cover" a topic at the outset of a unit before they can proceed to activities that will more actively involve their pupils. Indeed, in some instances the push for pupils to meet "standards" and pass "competency exams," as well as the somewhat belated popularity in Wisconsin of Advanced Placement courses, has encouraged the revival of lecturing in the past few years.

But the word "lecture" itself is never used. This custom is due only in part to a desire to avoid the negative connotations of the word. It is also because middle and high school teachers do not "lecture" to their pupils in the manner that college professors customarily do. Rather, they "give notes." They dictate information, usually employing an overhead projector or, as I am beginning to see more often, PowerPoint or similar technology. The pupils are expected to make an essentially verbatim record of the information their teachers present, and are usually tested for it on a unit exam.

Students who come directly from such experiences, therefore, may not be ready to learn from college lectures. College instructors need to explain to students that their lectures will be more abstract than "note giving" and that students do not have to copy down (or electronically record) every word that is said. College instructors should certainly provide their students at the outset of a lecture with clues about what to listen for, perhaps in the form of a printed or projected outline, but also need to emphasize that notes should include more than the helpful headings or terms or statistics that will be written on the board or projected on the overhead.

Methods of Evaluation

K–12 teachers assess their students regularly by multiple methods and include "extra-credit" assignments in calculating grades. In a 10-week quarter, a typical eighth-grader might take three exams and six quizzes, complete a dozen worksheets, write four reports, participate in preparing two projects, hand in weekly current events clippings, and make three oral reports to the class. These assignments are almost always graded and returned to the students within two or three days. In many classrooms, pupils are able electronically to check their current grades on a daily basis.

It is a shock, therefore, for a first-year college student to take a history course in which there may be only a mid-term, a final exam, and a term paper. It is even more shocking for these students to approach the end of the semester with no idea of their prospective grade because they have not had a graded assignment returned to them.

Although postsecondary teachers are increasingly resorting to more frequent testing and are tending to return grades more quickly, there are still students who want to take a test every class period on what was discussed in the previous class and dread a "comprehensive" final exam. I try to tell such students that because they are somewhat more intellectually mature than they were as high-school students, I give them fewer assignments which in turn require broader thinking, but I try to grade and return these assignments as quickly as did their high school teachers. Knowing their previous experience, I also understand why students are increasingly e-mailing me wanting to know their exact grade at that point in the course, and I try to be patient with them.

Like most American teachers, almost all of the cooperating teachers who work with my student teachers incorporate the effort shown by their pupils into the grades they assign to them. Teachers usually allow and often encourage extra-credit assignments for secondary-school pupils who want to raise their grades. Students naturally expect that they will continue to have similar opportunities in college courses. College instructors, therefore, need to explain carefully their extra-credit policies at the outset of the semester, and if they are going to allow such opportunities, think about identifying specific extra-credit activities that are related to the content of the course they are teaching.

Modes of Critical Thinking

Increasingly, even precollegiate students are being introduced to some types of historical thinking. For example, the Internet has made a wide variety of primary sources easily available for use in secondary classrooms. Even more significantly, the practice is for teachers to ask their pupils to think critically about these sources, by learning to evaluate bias in authorship, for example. Oral history projects also abound. (I sometimes think that every World War II veteran in western Wisconsin must have been interviewed at least twice by middle-school students!) Activities involving data gathering and analysis are also regular features of psychology and sociology courses, both at the Advanced Placement and regular level. Working with original sources, however, is associated with the "skill-building" or "critical thinking" goals inherent in all secondary social studies courses, not with "research." Students associate "research" with "looking-up" something in secondary sources. But the 20-page "research paper," proverbially based on "at least three nonfiction books in the library other than encyclopedias," is a dinosaur (if it ever existed at all). Secondary-school student "research" is now done almost exclusively from the Internet (albeit from increasingly good sites designed for that purpose); typically by groups of three to five pupils; and presented as a poster, or a web site, or other nonliterary media. Teachers often require, or at least encourage, these projects to identify alternative interpretations, to emphasize the point that historical narratives are subjectively constructed.

Students coming to college, therefore, have already been introduced to primary sources and know that history is more than a factual recitation. They also know that research is an important part of studying history, although their idea of what constitutes "research" is likely to be different from that of their college professor. Working from this foundation, college teachers will need to introduce these students to scholarship that is still available only in print format. They should be ready to guide those students majoring in history, in particular, in how to do research by using primary sources to build an original historical narrative. They will also need to help their students with writing papers that are longer than just a few pages, and with documenting the sources they have used. Finally, they must try to assist students not just to recognize but also to evaluate opinions, and to develop their own opinions that are informed by evidence and not just personal preference.

The Loci of Learning

The focus of secondary-school social studies classes is what goes on during classroom periods. Few high-school or middle-school teachers give assignments that cannot be completed in class (or at least study hall period). "Research days" are provided for pupils to go to computer labs during classroom periods to prepare projects (teachers cannot assume the universality of home-computer ownership by their pupils' families). Pupils are not generally expected to read material outside of class time.

Textbooks still play a role in secondary education. Teachers rely on them heavily in Advanced Placement courses, and they are also commonly used in regular economics and psychology courses. In history and civics courses, however, teachers are likely to be selective in using textbooks, and assign only short sections or perhaps a few chapters. In these circumstances, textbooks are read aloud or silently during class, or used a resource for completing worksheets, not read beforehand. Collateral reading assignments are quite uncommon, even in Advanced Placement courses.

College instructors, therefore, should not expect their students automatically to defer to the reading lists on their syllabuses. To be sure, students have probably always been recalcitrant about completing reading assignments before class. Rather, what has changed in recent years, at least in my experience, is that students increasingly do not understand, and in some cases reject, the need to read in preparation for a class period, in part because they do not bring the expectation of needing to read in a history course with them from their secondary experience. To highlight the significance of assigned readings, therefore, college instructors need to be more self-conscious about using them as the basis of classroom discussions; referring to specific passages from them in lectures; requiring students to write about them in papers; or otherwise incorporating them directly into course activities.

As you may suspect, my experience in observing student teachers has also led me to develop ideas about what are the best practices and curricula in social studies education in grades 6–12. But that is an entirely different essay!

—Robert J. Gough is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.