“Successful” Students

The following is a response I wrote for a Coursera MOOC I’m taking, “The Art of Teaching History.”

In the video I’m responding to, the instructor talks about what he thinks makes a “successful” history student. I admit I bristled at this a bit. Who defines a “successful” student? I’m sure there are many definitions/thoughts about success. What is “successful” for one student is different than might be for another. I tried to watch the video with an open mind.

Anyway, here is the response I posted on the course forums:

A “Successful” History Student

I struggled with the definitions given for “successful history students.” They were:

  1. Knows history/significant knowledge of history
  2. Reads and writes well
  3. Thinks analytically and historically

I do agree with #3, but the first two give me pause. In my work, I teach and develop content about state history primarily for 6th grade students. Perhaps these definitions of success apply better at an older age — more like undergrad — but I can’t apply them to 6th grade, middle school, or even to high school.

If the knowledge of history was the measure of success, we’d be testing facts. We don’t want to do that. We want to engage students in history, give them a sense of their place in the world and how the past has influenced where we are — where THEY are — today. For 6th graders, we strive to build a base of historical knowledge, of course, but our measure of success is not that they know the date of statehood. We want them to understand the factors that created the state, what were the positives and negatives about how the state was made. Who were the players? How do past events impact them today. We want them to understand the “So What” questions — why does it matter that we study history. We want them to know HOW to find historical detail and information. It is not necessary that a 6th grader memorize minute details, dates and more.

I also feel strongly that teaching history is part of the process of creating readers and writers, but this is a text-centric approach. Students today need to be able go beyond text and into visuals, audio and more. Our culture is moving from only text into communicating strongly through visuals (images, art, video) and sound. Students of today need to be as fluent – if not more so- with these modes of communication. They also need to be able to express their knowledge through these modes. Producing a video requires many skills: organizing information, determining important and non-important information, creating a thesis, writing a script, choosing appropriate visuals and audio and more. This, to me, is far more than writing, and we as educators and parents are responsible to see that students can do all this. Focusing on the academic historical essay is doing a disservice to all students except those planning on graduate work in history — and can be saved for the high school or undergraduate work.

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