When the state released a draft of the high school social studies framework last year, a group of social studies teachers I’m part of responded calling for revisions that build in more room for inquiry, depth, and choice.
I feared that the new framework would, like the old one, pressure my classroom to be places where trivial memorization trumped the higher level thinking, research, and writing skills we know our students need to develop to be ready for the next phases of their lives as citizens and college students.
A new draft of a Social Studies Framework, though far from what I hoped for, makes large steps towards our demand for inquiry, small ones towards choice, and some (mostly rhetorical) nods towards depth.
Since a deep revision seems unlikely now, I instead want to highlight some of the places where the latest framework supports good teaching in my classroom and others; point towards other places where meaningful improvements are possible; and lastly, begin to think about how a revised Regents exam could allow for students to experience inquiry, depth, and choice even if the framework doesn’t change.
Moves towards inquiry and choice
Within the content specifications, there are a number of places where the new framework encourages deeper thinking by juxtaposing historical events that together complicate cartoony narratives.
For example, when the framework asks that students consider “the Irish Potato famine within the context of the British agricultural revolution and the Industrial Revolution,” it is exactly the type of counter example I present to student to complicate the dominant narrative of progress typically associated with the time period. Similarly, a pairing of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Reaganomics is one I have used in U.S. history class to not only demand higher level thinking, but also to help students understand a fundamental division in U.S. politics today.
And while there are still examples of the interpretive work of history being done for students, as was the dominant case in the previous framework, this revision does a much better job of leaving the interpretive work up to students. A statement like, “Students will examine the growth of industries under the leadership of businessmen such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford and analyze their business practices and organizational structures, from multiple perspectives” perfectly captures the approach I take, where it’s up to students to ultimately determine whether these people were good for the country.
All three of these examples, and similar ones throughout the framework, are likely to encourage the type of sophisticated thinking we want for our students, and required by the Common Core.
Breadth at the cost of understanding and skill development
However, the framework’s overwhelming breadth of content will stand in the way of two of its expressely stated goals: pushing students to deeply explore the material and develop the research and writing skills dictated by the Common Core and the National Council on Social Studies’s C3 framework (of which I enthusiastically approve).
That’s why we responded to the hundreds of content specifications in the original draft with a demand for choice. And there are some places in the revised framework where we feel we have been heard. For example, the framework lists a number of 20th-century social movements, including LGBT, Native American, and feminist movements, and states that “students will deeply investigate at least one of the efforts above.”
This is the type of option I give to my students, so they have the opportunity to attain a deep understanding of movements that interest them, and to practice their research skills, while still becoming familiar with others as they listen to class presentations. I would like the social studies framework to build in more of these kinds of options.
Take the example of a key idea in the ninth-grade standards, which demands that students understand that “Classical civilizations … employed a variety of methods to expand and maintain control over vast territories.”
If the primary goal is this understanding, I can get students to that point by doing two case studies, perhaps of Rome and the Mayans. However, the “conceptual understanding” tied to that “key idea” says that “Students will examine the location and relative size of classical political entities (Greece, Gupta, Han, Maurya, Maya, Qin, Rome).”
Which is more important here? Is it the key idea, which could be accomplished by in-depth case studies of two civilizations? Or will it be the conceptual understanding, which demands students be vaguely familiar with seven different civilizations? Given the number of understandings we’re supposed to make sure students reach, only a class period or two can be devoted to this one.
In my opinion, spending one period each on two civilizations is a better use of my students’ time than 11 minutes each on seven. If I were to do the latter, none of my students would remember anything about the civilizations, let alone get to the deeper understanding about maintaining control over territory.
How a revised Regents exam could help
I hope the final framework will give school communities more choice about content so students have the chance to learn material in depth. But I recognize that the committee responsible for the framework faces demands for specific content from many different stakeholders. So I want to end by considering how revising the Regents exam for global studies and U.S. history could mitigate the effects of the long lists of content the framework includes.
The current Regents exam emphasizes memorization of trivial surface knowledge in its 50 multiple-choice questions, basic reading in its document-based essay, and discussion of some knowledge in its thematic essay. None of these capture the work historians or citizens do with historical knowledge, nor do the results tell me much about whether my students have the skills needed to be successful in future endeavors.
Both the recently revised U.S. History Advanced Placement exam and the International Baccalaureate test show that choice is possible within a highly rigorous and respected course. It is my hope that the new Regents exam will take a path between these two widely respected exams, where the emphasis is on historical thinking and 21st-century reading, writing, and research skills.
By eliminating endless multiple-choice questions that prioritize students’ ability to recall facts from a vast vault of superficial knowledge, a new exam could assuage my concern about the adoption of a new curriculum that continues to make social studies a discipline where knowledge is an inch deep and a mile wide. My students deserve a social studies education that prepares them to participate insightfully in our world.