Reading Like a Historian

In the August 8, 2012 edition of Education Week I read History Lessons Blend Content Knowledge, Literacy, a report on an instructional program for social studies called Reading Like a Historian from the Stanford History Education Group.  It’s been designed by historians to use in schools, and is wrapped around the use of primary source materials to teach students the analytical and reasoning skills of a trained historian.  As a former Social Studies teacher and department chair, I am impressed with this program and with the related research that EdWeek describes as a part of the early reviews in schools where the program has been implemented.

A major element of school reform, in most states, is teaching students to think critically, to navigate the ever rising flood of information that is inundating contemporary society, and to develop sound reasoning strategies that can guide their adult lives.  I’ve frequently debated with my colleagues about what constitutes proof that American schools are failing, and for me one of the biggest failures is the lack of critical thinking demonstrated by adults across the nation.  We don’t recognize, and therefore don’t expect, quality thinking or logical reasoning from our elected leaders or from our media outlets.  We tolerate the polarization of almost every broadcast news source and we can no longer separate truth from fiction on our public airways.

We have no figures like Walter Cronkite on TV today.  We expected decent information from Cronkite, and when he editorialized (as when he expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War) it was clearly identified as an opinion–a separate commentary with reasoned argument explaining his opinion.  Today, we have lots of commentary and opinion–rarely backed by thoughtful analysis–interspersed with information, and the information is frequently slanted to suit the politics of the station’s target audience or corporate backers.  If we were all good critical thinkers, I believe we would expect more.  If we have the luxury of seeing news broadcasts from other nations, we can see the stark contrast between our infotainment and their news.

But I digress from the  “Reading Like a Historian” program.  Those of us who follow the Common Core Standards know that our ELA standards are entitled  “Learning Standards in Literacy, Social Studies, Science and the Arts,” and are heavily invested in reading informational texts of all kinds in order to expect students to learn appropriate skills in understanding, evaluating, and critiquing the information around them.

Reading Like a Historian appears to be perfectly suited to the Common Core.  Students are exposed to basic source materials from the past, and are engaged in evaluating these materials in the context of real world settings, even comparing the source material with the content of their textbooks.  From the website description of the program:
“This curriculum teaches students how to investigate historical questions employing reading strategies such as sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating, and close reading. Instead of memorizing historical facts, students evaluate the trustworthiness of multiple perspectives on issues from King Philip’s War to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and make historical claims backed by documentary evidence.” 

“…make … claims backed by documentary evidence.”  There’s the key, and the intellectual behavior change that we as educators need to support among our students everywhere.  Critical thinking is hard work, and we’ve taught our students too little of it for too long.

On Critical Thinking

While I don’t agree with many critics of public education, my critique would be that schools are failing to produce critical thinkers.  Within schools, the older generation of teachers will often be heard saying the expectations for critical essays in English or History found on state exam questions has declined over the years.  Proof that we don’t value critical thinking is all around us—we reelect politicians who don’t govern for the common good; we uncritically devour the vitriol of the Internet and broadcast media; we too often believe that all sides of an issue have to be reported or respected or given equal time even when one side is objectively or scientifically unfounded. We accept news stories without fact checking.

How would we recognize if renewed efforts to teach critical thinking work?  The next generation would demand truth in advertising, news that’s more than thinly disguised editorializing, and government of the people, by the people, and for the people rather than government by the biggest pocketbook.  We would see decisions based on evidence rather than emotions.  (Isn’t this what reformers are suggesting with changes in the way they propose to evaluate teachers–use test data, not the opinion of administrators?)  The Common Core, if done well, expects critical thinking to be deeply embedded in all that is done in classrooms.  If that actually happens, we are on our way back to the reasoned ideals on which America was built.

A good example of Common Core efforts to improve our critical thinking skills is a model lesson reading Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Students reading this should come to understand Dr. King’s indictment of Southern white ministerial leaders for their lack of support for the civil rights of minorities. This content will make some parents and teachers uncomfortable.  So teaching critical thinking can be controversial.  Societal discomfort with teaching critical thinking is illustrated by the Texas GOP party platform passed in the early summer.  (Google ‘Texas GOP platform’ for several links, or check out Valerie Strauss’s blog on the topic.) Their platform positions exemplify the occasional local opposition to any instruction that questions authority figures and traditional societal norms.  Teaching children to think for themselves is anathema to some critics of the Common Core, and rote, uncritical classroom instruction is a highlight of some voucher programs and charter schools across the nation.

As students begin to practice critical thinking skills, teachers and parents must be open to those who reach informed and reasoned conclusions that are different than their own. I think good educational practice inevitably challenges traditional authority–we have to teach for the future, and teaching critical thinking will certainly challenge the old ways of doing almost everything. We need young people to learn the skills to pursue ideas in a critical fashion and use that skill to become our future leaders. The Common Core’s emphasis on deep reading and critical thinking is a step in the right direction.

Eight Problems with the Common Core

I am always delighted with the daily column from Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post.  In the last year or so I keep seeing her columns reposted again and again by other writers and bloggers in education.  Well, the August 13 column featured a guest writer, Marion Brady, writing “Eight problems with the Common Core Standards.”

Wow!  Mr. Brady hits the nail on the head.  Great points here.  He’s the latest educational expert who points out the behind closed doors development of the Core Standards, a point which most Americans and even fewer parents actually understand.  I particularly like his analysis of controversial Michelle Rhee, who pushed D.C. teachers and administrators into a major cheating scandal and then left the district to become every teacher union member’s worst nightmare.  His highlighting of the consistent unfairness in the way international test results are reported for American students is right on, as are his comments on poverty and school achievement.

I wholeheartedly recommend Valerie Strauss and her own regular commentary as well.  Do yourself a favor and sign up to get her column every day.  At the bottom of the column–under the comments–you can sign up for an RSS feed and get this rich source of current educational commentary from Valerie and from top-notch other writers every day.