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13 August 2009

Reflective Thinking, Teaching and Learning

"Am I a professor? Then what will I say today? But if I am a teacher, what will they do today?"
Lendol Calder, 1370
The New Social Studies of the 1960s aimed to transform classrooms that had been conduits for the transmission of knowledge into agents of cultural change. Looking back from the standpoint of 1992, Byron Massialas summarized the prospects of teaching through inquiry.
Through a proper classroom environment and teaching method, students of virtually any age could be involved in reflection and critical thinking. Springboards from any of the traditional social sciences and history could be introduced into the classroom to create interest and reflective thinking about social events.
Massialas, "Retrospect and Prospect," 121
His use of springboard as metaphor for the value of history, sociology, geography, economics, and other disciplines all serving something higher called Social Studies merits more examination than I can give it here.

Although the reform movement began with consideration of social-political contexts and psychological factors affecting students, Massialas tells us, many teachers embracing this reform movement emphasized "the structure of knowledge of the organized disciplines" (121). Historians, for example, failed to see that their disciplinary knowledge and processes were means to another end, a place to start but not the map. History dominated the curriculum that Massialas and his associates sought to transform into Social Studies. They conducted empirical studies of classroom practices that "confirmed the idea that a social-issues, rather than a traditionally chronological, curriculum is more in tune with the demands of modern society" (122).

The New Social Studies Movement ended by the mid-1970s; that is, it ended before I took a course in Social Studies teaching methods from a historian.


Undergraduate Education

O. Gene Clanton espoused some of the ideals of this now defunct reform movement. He advocated inquiry-based teaching of history in his methods class as theory. and his practice seemed to reflect this theory. Clanton had been my professor two years earlier for the second half of the American history survey: U.S. History, 1877 to present. In that class, he structured our classroom practices around what he called an inquiry approach. He divided the class of sixty or so into two groups; his teaching assistant took the other half. We then sat in a circle and talked about the documents--primary sources, mostly texts--that followed each narrative chapter in Richard N. Current, American History: A Survey, vol 2.

Clanton's teaching of history was refreshing and liberating. But it was not the method of inquiry-based reflective thinking and learning espoused by Massialas and his colleagues. Clanton did most of the talking.

In Inquiry in Social Studies (1966), Massialas and C. Benjamin Cox make the point that a discussion technique does not necessarily alter the method of classroom as conduit.
[T]he teacher assumes the role of expositor of knowledge while his students act as recipients. The materials at hand are the sources of knowledge and the major task involved is most easily described as the process of transmitting finished knowledge from source to recipient. The techniques utilized in this transmission, whether lecture, discussion, student reporting, or film projection do not differentiate the method itself. If the intent is to inform students of some already organized system of predetermined knowledge, the method is expository.
Massialas and Cox, 62
Paulo Friere calls this expository method the banking concept of education. The teacher (subject) narrates to passive receptacles or listening objects (students).
Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat.
Friere, 53
The alternative sought through the New Social Studies was concept based, student centered, and focused on contemporary problems. The teacher was to manage and coordinate, rather than dispense, the construction of knowledge. In my education courses, the professors used the term facilitate.
The materials at hand are at once the sources of promising springboards or hypotheses and the compilations of factual evidence required to support or refute these hypotheses. The students in this case become participants in the process of reorganizing this knowledge around new centers of attention and interest. The learning situation is characterized by the seeking, discovering, reorganizing, and testing of knowledge.
Massialas and Cox, 62
This movement towards inquiry based teaching in social studies ran aground. When I was in college, several history professors dismissed it as a fad of the Sixties. Even so, to the extent that it was part of other educational developments that favored student centered education, it echoes through much of educational theory today, if not the practice of teaching. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that prescriptions for developing reflective thinking in high school and middle school social studies classrooms anticipate recent calls for rethinking the history survey in college classrooms.


Teaching and Learning

Checking e-mail in class is rude and immature, but it is also a predictable response to a worn-out pedagogy that no longer has a place in the history survey.
Lendol Calder, 1360
In his essay, "Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey," Lendol Calder seeks ways to empower students as the agents of their own learning. He refers to a label Sam Wineburg used in conversation with him: the attic theory. Wineburg's attic theory of cognition resembles Friere's banking concept, or what Massilas and Cox call expository teaching.
As it happens, people do not collect facts the way homeowners collect furniture, storing pieces for use at a later time. ... Facts are not like furniture at all; they are more like dry ice, disappearing at room temperature.
Calder, 1361
Calder points out that covering a subject means not only going the length, but also connotes concealment. Historians, he alleges are quite adept at covering up, or "hiding what it means to be good at history" (1363). Like Wineburg in his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001), Calder attempts to identify the peculiar signature of the practice of history. He seeks to introduce to his students six "cognitive habits: questioning, connecting, sourcing, making inferences, considering alternate perspectives, and recognizing limits to one's knowledge" (1364).

Calder's process in his course on American history since 1945 is particularly relevant to Patriots and Peoples (this blog). His course divides into six units; each goes through a three stage process. Film clips are used
to create an environment so rich in information and so charged with interesting problems that students who are inert in the face of lectures and textbooks will be stirred to ask a few historical questions. After the film awakens their capacity for wonder, I then send students out to do what historically minded people do: follow a question that takes them beyond what they already know.
Calder, 1364
In the second stage, the class examines primary documents. Entry to class requires a ticket: a three to five page essay on questions formulated by the student (inspired by the film), and using the documents as evidence. One gets the sense that Calder is looking for questions that are focused on the time and place of the United States in the past half-century or so, rather than broad universal questions of the sort favored by the New Social Studies reformers.
A generalization, in order to have wide applicability, must not refer to a specific event, period, or region. A more reliable and useful generalization would be one which, if formulated as a theory, can apply to all times and places.
Massialas and Cox, 333
After formulating their own questions, and answering them through analysis of prescribed documents, the students are prepared to read the work of professional historians. Calder uses Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States and Paul Johnson, A History of the American People. Johnson's work is stronger, that is, less polemical than Schweikart and Allen's A Patriot's History of the United States.


Theorie und Praxis

As a student in high school and college, I craved the rare opportunities to talk back, to argue with the professor, and to get expert guidance in my own self-directed study of the past and its relevance to the present. On the other hand, I would have felt cheated in a course concerned with the late-nineteenth century if the author of Kansas Populism: Ideas and Men (1969) and Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890-1900 (1991) should have considered it his place to be silent while my peers and I constructed our knowledge from William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold speech. It was good that the doctor in class was a teacher, but he needed to be a professor, too.

As a teacher, I remember that Clanton's practice did not quite match his theory. Nor does my own practice of PowerPoint based presentations interspersed with focused discussion quite match my theory tersely expressed in the title of Carl Becker's classic article, "Everyman His Own Historian." I follow Clanton in looking for balance between making useful deposits and facilitating student management of their investments.


Works Cited

Becker, Carl. "Everyman His Own Historian." American Historical Review (January 1932): 221-236.

Calder, Lendol. "Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey." The Journal of American History (March 2006): 1358-1370.

Clanton, O. Gene. Kansas Populism: Ideas and Men. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1969.

________. Populism: The Humane Preference in America, 1890-1900. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Friere, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continum, 1993.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York: HarperPerennial, 1998.

Massialas, Byron G. "The 'New Social Studies'--Retrospect and Prospect." The Social Studies (May/June 1992): 120-124.

Massialas, Byron G., and C. Benjamin Cox. Inquiry in Social Studies. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.

Schweikart, Larry, and Michael Allen. A Patriot's History of the United States: From Columbus's Great Discovery to the War on Terror. New York: Sentinel, 2004.

Wineburg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States, 1492 - Present. New York: HarperCollins, 1980.

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