This past week I was again in Fort Collins, Colorado, as one of hundreds of readers of the World History Advanced Placement (WHAP) test. This is a test that mostly 15-year-olds take to see if they can earn college-level credit for a (ideally, unusually rigorous) high school course. And although that may sound like a barmy idea, and for the many students who bomb the test probably is a barmy idea, enough students write essays surpassing in knowledge and analysis what I normally see from my university students to legitimize the whole shebang at face value. The collateral elevation of standards and expectations is also probably a good thing, insofar as it doesn’t just ratify class-and-culture hierarchies in ‘public’ education. Long discussion, that.
The reading itself involves a solid week of scoring about a hundred or so essays a day, from 8am to 5pm, with breaks for snacks and lunch. Most readers read the same question all week; both years I’ve read the ‘continuity and change over time’ essay, last year on trade in the Indian Ocean, this year on the Silk Road. We are trained and do the scoring on a standardized rubric, with accuracy the first priority and speed closely following. For me it’s a good reality check to see what ambitious high school students are being taught and what they’re actually learning, plus it pays pretty well for a week of hard work.
Each year there’s a professional development speaker. Last year it was Bonnie Smith, whose work I have long admired. This year it was Sam Wineburg, who I had never heard of but should have. Sam is a cognitive psychologist with a background in theology and experience teaching high school history who researches history education and runs the Stanford History Education Group. He also spoke at the OAH this year. His book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (1991), looks like a good read. He argues that the way historians think critically, in terms of sources, contexts and corroboration, is quite distinctive and possibly valuable, although he allowed as how any number of cultures have managed to get along just fine without much of a historical consciousness. He doesn’t think there’s anything natural or automatic about knowing how to think historically – it must and can be explicitly taught. He thinks the same about knowing how to teach history. If you want people to know how to do things, you have to teach them.
Sam’s talk was a rhetorical delight. He softened us up by telling several long autobiographical shaggy-dog stories, in the tradition of great Jewish comics like the young Woody Allen,
in which he subtly developed the point that even very bright and accomplished people can know a lot of history without knowing how to think like a historian. Knowing facts and knowing what to do with them are distinct cognitive operations. He then demonstrated this with a number of examples from his research, in which he found that top high school students often outperformed trained scholars in content knowledge measured by multiple-choice testing. But when presented with primary sources the professionals were able to ask questions about authority and context that extracted far more information and meaning from the texts.
Incidentally, this discrepancy in factual mastery mirrored my own department’s struggle to satisfy ongoing assessment requirements related to accreditation. There’s a push to norm our students’ learning outcomes by national standards, but the main available test to do that is a multiple-choice exam of content knowledge, most of which we do not teach or even think is important. Recently we took the test ourselves to get a better understanding of it and perhaps compile evidence of its ir/relevance to our work. We did relatively poorly; for example, the many questions on minutiae of U.S. political and diplomatic history were a challenge to those of us whose training and interests are in the social and cultural history of other parts of the world. We did not see any useful correlation between knowing the random factual junk on the test and being ‘historically literate’ or an ‘educated person’, although this may just be our dumbass sour grapes.
Sam gently lampooned current outcries about the ignence of our youth,
pointing out that such fretting itself has a history as old as mass education. The biggest problem in history education is not that our students are factually ignorant, but that factual knowledge is still taken and imposed as the measure of historical education. (Ironically, nothing says ‘ignorant’ by the standards of historical scholarship like thinking that historical literacy is being able to answer factual questions about names, dates and events.) Focusing on content coverage at the expense of knowledge development skills makes for easy assessments but is cognitively counterproductive. We’ve got to stop chewing up the worms for the baby birds and teach them how to get their own.
Sam got cheers from the crowd with his critical remarks about Bloom’s taxonomy. Apparently the high school teachers have it coming out their ears. He thinks knowledge cannot possibly be the foundation of the cognitive hierarchy, because you don’t actually know anything until you’ve gone through all the steps of investigation, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Knowledge is the output, not the input. I think he’s right, with the proviso that I’d see the process more dialectically: each new investigation is informed in part by the knowledge developed in previous ones. He says as much in his emphasis on the ways trained thinkers use background knowledge to zero in on salience and rough out context in their readings. I suspect he’s pointing toward something more like William Perry’s classic cognitive scheme but I’ll need to read the book.
Practically, Sam identified source assessment and contextualization as the key historical skills, recommended engagement with primary sources as the high road of history education from sixth grade forward (he and his team have had success with their curriculum in an experimental elementary school), and offered a basic rubric of questions to work into classroom practice until they become deep cognitive habits. These include subsets on sourcing (who wrote this, when, why; is it believable), cross-checking (other pieces of evidence, different versions of the story, comparative credibility), and context / perspective (imaginitively reconstructing the lives and perspectives of past others). It’s comfortingly similar to my own reading rubric, which I have gradually been making more and more central to all my teaching. So I agreed with Sam, which is no doubt why I enjoyed his talk so much.