Wow — an excellent post on the state of history education today. As a professional historian and a history-museum-educator, we see this when visitors talk about how they hated history in high school, but love learning about history in our museums and historic sites. Why? Because we tell stories. We make it relevant, real and human. History isn’t about filling in bubbles on a test.
Thanks, History Tech, and Thanks, Indiana Jen for reblogging it so I saw it.
About 15 years ago, I had the chance to drive James Loewen around for a couple of days. He was in town for a two day workshop and afterwards had to get to Kansas City for a flight. As his chauffeur, I got the chance to pepper him with all sorts of questions. And much of what I wanted to know revolved around his most recent book at the time, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.
I was especially curious about the first few sentences in the book:
High school students hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history always comes in last. They consider it “the most irrelevant” of 21 school subjects, not applicable to life today. “Boring” is the adjective they apply to it. When they can, they avoid it . . .
This short tweet shifted my world. I look at the work my kids bring home through a whole different lens. Not that I ever approved of assessments that were based on simple factual recall – when I was teaching 20 years ago, we never ever used bubble tests. Those were considered the lazy teacher option that didn’t test anything except who had the best memory. In 1990, I was telling my history students that I didn’t expect them to memorize all the dates and facts as long as they knew how to find it. Back then, finding the information meant looking it up in a physical encyclopedia.
My daughter just finished her sophomore year of high school, including a year of AP World History. In this class and in her biology class she took a horrifying number of “Scantron” tests. Of course, the kids never got the tests back (you see, they might pass the answers to someone else) and parents never got to see them. I finally requested to see the tests and had to make an appointment so I could look at them in the room with the teacher present.
Back to Google….. After seeing the tests, I was so disappointed. They were 90% basic low level questions that could be easily answered using Google.
What about AP Tests?
A few months ago, I was asked to give a talk to a group of history and education majors at Carleton College about tech in education and how museums are using tech to work with the K12 audience. On a whim, thinking of my daughter’s tests, I looked for a sample AP test.
Question from Sample AP US History Test
I took this sample AP test and Googled the 40 questions exactly as written. It took about 2 seconds to find the answers – and that was checking a couple of pages to verify the answers. Thirty-five of the 40 questions were easily answered this way. The other five required information from a chart or photo.
I asked the students at Carleton to find the answers to a couple of these questions. Obviously, they had the same result. The students, many of whom had taken plenty of AP classes, were shocked. The professors were very amused.
A few weeks after this, I had the opportunity to talk with a history professor at Oberlin College, and asked him what he thought about this and AP in general. He said that they often need to reteach students how to read and study history when they arrive at Oberlin. Students who have been through AP classes are geared to read for minutae and minor detail. They haven’t been taught to read for concepts, context and the big picture.
In looking closely at the AP material online, it turns out that the multiple choice questions and the free response questions are each worth half of a student’s “grade” on the test. There are 80 questions to be completed in 55 minutes. The free response questions, including primary source analysis and essay, takes 130 minutes.
This quote from the AP materials confuses me:
“Although there is little to be gained by rote memorization of names and dates in an encyclopedic manner, a student must be able to draw upon a reservoir of systematic factual knowledge in order to exercise analytic skills intelligently. Striking a balance between teaching factual knowledge and critical analysis is a demanding but crucial task in the design of a successful AP course in history .”
They admit that rote memorization isn’t necessary, yet fully one half of the test score is based on this skill. While I don’t disagree that a basic level of knowledge of factual knowledge is necessary, is it necessary to have grades depend on the skill of memorization when we now have access to encyclopedias of content in our pockets? There is no possible way we can have the entirety of knowledge memorized — we need to be able to find it. We need to teach students how to find this information.
In my daughter’s AP World History course, her assessment/grade was based on this skill of rote memorization: assessments were worth 60% of the grade, and these assessments were by far mostly multiple choice Scantron tests with a few writing assessments thrown in there. Any creative assignment that required critical thinking, creativity and communication was worth just a few points. The content, structure and assessment of the course is designed to heavily favor strong word-based learners. It does not allow for success of a visual learner.
Even Will Richardson dislikes Google Questions
At ISTE in June, Will Richardson shared a story about his high school daughter’s history final – 100 multiple choice questions. He thought that all but 5 could be answered using the phone.
“I’m a big advocate of open phone tests. If we’re asking questions we can answer on our phone, why are we asking the questions?”
I’m excited to have yet another awesome quote about the value (or lack of) low-level questioning.
I had a fun, quick Twitter interaction with him later — I just had to know what someone like him, who is so active in this community, so well respected, does when his own kid is given an assessment like this.
Watch Will’s talk. The history final story is at 12:30. Then don’t give any more tests that can be Googled.
A recent study by Pew Research (summary article by MindShift) finds teachers of higher level students feel that the opportunities offered by using technology in writing improves students writing. Students (and adults) need to learn how to write in formal as well as informal voices. Teaching writing with technology tools allows for sharing, an authentic audience, teaching of voice, as well as copyright.
HT to Jennifer Carey for this study. I’ll be referencing this in a letter I’m about to send to the superintendant of my local school. This type of writing is not only not happening in the school my daughter attends, but it is actively discouraged.
I’ve only read the article (not the whole book) and am intrigued to read the book.
My only concern is the continued attack on “giftedness.” Having been active in supporting gifted learners, I am concerned (and disagree) with the concept that “all students are gifted.” Without reading the book, I agree with Kaufman that all students can achieve greatness, and definitely that society measures intelligence in only one way (more on that later.) However, I am concerned about not meeting the needs of kids who do measure gifted in the traditional manner. These kids have a different learning style that needs to be addressed/met in order for these kids to be able to achieve their potential. They need to be able to move quickly, learn deeply. It is an ongoing concern with the label “gifted.” I do wish there was a term that better defined this learning style.
That said, I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of this article. Why do we define intelligence based solely on test scores? Why are we such a text based society? Why isn’t intelligence in other areas valued in a similar manner?
…traditional metrics of intelligence are misguided and may even be detrimental to learning and development.
I see this all the time with my daughter. She struggles with tests and with “traditional” learning settings. Yet, allow her to express her knowledge in an appropriate setting, and she shines. Let her make a video, write a short skit, give a speech – and her intelligence, communication skills, creativity and critical thinking skills shine. Make her take a multiple choice test? Not so much.
I have had a couple of her teacherscomment in the last few years about how she does on these types of projects. The engagement we see at home for these types of assessments is clearly different than what we see for multiple choice tests. In the long run, which skill set is more important? You know what I think….
Yet, she is being defined by these tests, and we see an increasing impact on her self-esteem and image. This is not to deter from the kids who do well on these tests. I just wish there was another measure that was valid.
Kaufman says it better:
I am against standardizing minds and ignoring the fact that there are multiple paths to the same outcome and that engagement is an extremely important aspect of the equation.
As I’ve blogged before, my daughter’s school uses the exact same tests over and over and over again. Tests must be standardized so that all kids have the exact same assessment. Guess what, kids aren’t standard, nor are they the exact same.
I heard an anecdotal story about a teacher who allowed students to come up with their own project to express their learning. A parent complained because her student got a “B” and now this teacher isn’t allowed to do these types of assessments. Now he has to do tests.
At the recent ISTE conference, I sat next to a high school teacher from St. Louis. As Adam Bellow showed his awesome video about shredding Scantron tests, he told me that his school got rid of their Scantron tests three years ago. Best move ever, he said.
Kaufman is pretty clear about his solution – project based learning:
… allow students to express their knowledge of the material on their own terms, in their own unique voice, and at their own pace, I think we’d be setting up all students for the future much better, including those students we label gifted now.
No way this is going to happen at my daughter’s school. I’m not sure what the solution is for us, given she has two years left. My son will not be attending this school.
Ran across “Clouds over Cuba” today, a digital interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis produced by the JFK Library.
The site won a Webby for its navigation/structure. I agree that it is an inventive, creative solution to navigation.
However, to me, it represents a fascinating way of delivering digital history.
First, it has an accessible documentary about the Crisis, broken into chunks/chapters of about 3-5 minutes. Perfect length. Content isn’t superficial, nor is it too complex.
Second, you “earn” a dossier — a file of primary sources. This is awesome. You don’t actually do anything to earn the sources, but as you watch the documentary, sources that relate to the content in the video are added to your dossier.
Then, you can go see these primary sources. They have everything from recordings of phone calls and meetings, photos, letters, notes, radio addresses by Kruschev, newspaper articles and more. I believe there are 187 items in the dossier when you’re done.
Somehow I feel that reading 12 pages glossing over the entire history of slavery is not an effective way to learn history.
– Tweet from a wise and insightful 15-year-old high school student
I was excited to see this blog post from Indiana Jen about online and interactive museums for two reasons:
It’s what I do with my life! I work at a museum, and my work is all about bringing the collections, content, experience of the museum to schools, teachers and students through a digital experience. Museums have a wealth of resources and the digital tools now available mean we can empower educators to use the content in ways that best serve students. Or – students can be empowered to learn on their own.
I am giving a talk at a local college about this very topic, how museums can impact K-12 education through technology and 21st century skills. This is a great reference from the teaching world. Thanks, Jen!
I agree. Totally and wholeheartedly. I am looking forward to his additional posts explaining the 4 Ms: Making, Mining, Marking and Mashing.
I can’t comment directly on these things, but given the tone of this post and the one previous, “History on Thin Ice,” I think I have a good sense where he’s going.
I have been in the history education biz for 25 years, first as a high school/middle school teacher, then now as a museum professional for the last 20+ years where I’ve worked as an interpreter (taking the public through museums/historic sites), a program and exhibit developer, a website developer, and now as a digital curriculum developer. In the museum world, we frequently hear visitors say how surprised they are that history is so interesting, because it was so awful in high school!
How do we make history interesting? We tell stories. We make it relevant. We connect people to their history, and help them see how it impacts their world today. We talk about how people lived, what they ate, what they did. We find objects, documents, photos, maps that show real people, telling real stories.
What do I see in my kids’ history classrooms? Tests, lectures, and pages and pages of dense text. This wasn’t interesting 30 years ago when I was in school, and it certainly isn’t interesting to today’s students. History isn’t a multiple choice test — history is people, things, places and stories.
These history classes cover an enormous period of time and an enormous geographic area. There is no room to dig deep, to learn more than a few dates or names of “important” people then move on to the next big war or emperor.
My son’s school is different. To be fair, they are not beholden to the (ridiculous) standards expecting them to teach an unreasonable amount of content. (They also don’t have to give up nearly three weeks for standardized tests.) Instead, they use that time to dig deep. For example, they spent an entire month – yes, four weeks – studying an incident in Minnesota history that very few schools even mention, much less spend time on it. They examined primary source documents, including treaties, newspaper articles, testimonies, court documents and more. They examined reactions to the incident over the last 150 years. They had to take the raw materials of history (from a pool of resources the teachers pulled together – they were only 11 and 12 year olds, after all!) like an historian does, and put them together in various ways to make arguments and present information. I would guarantee you that these 11 and 12 year olds knew more about this incident than the vast majority of adults.
It’s pretty clear which approach I prefer, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming blog posts about how he envisions the new teaching of history!
I’ve been working on digital content delivery of a curriculum for the last year or so. I haven’t seen very many good models out there, and am constantly looking for an appropriate way to delivery content in way that truly takes advantage of the media (online – be it iPad, computer, whatever) and doesn’t just look like a book.
My kids have “online books” that really are just that: print books that have been put online. Oh, there might be a few videos dropped in or an audio of a vocabulary word, but basically, it’s a book. Most are pdfs, with perhaps an interactive element or two dropped in. It’s a book.
I love books. I have thousands in my house. I read print books. I strongly prefer printed books to ereaders.
But digital isn’t a book! Digital delivery offers us different things. There are so many more options, choices, opportunities. When building digital content, we sell ourselves short if we retain the print model. By taking advantage of the interactivity and multi-media possibilities, we can create richer platforms for learning.
A recent feature in the New York Times, “Snow Fall: Avalance at Tunnel Creek”, is an interesting use of digital media to deliver a story. An Atlantic Monthly article refutes the claim that “Snow Fall” is the “future or journalism” because of the time and personnel resources required.
I can see their point. But it’s a great model for education content delivery. I can easily see how I could use this model of delivery for content. It’s not cheap – the multimedia time/expertise is pricey, as is the content development itself.
But it’s a great concept — far better than a pdf of a print book!
I’ve had the chance to look closer at AP history offerings lately and do additional research into the detractors. From my admittedly limited observations of my daughter’s AP World History course, here’s what I see:
huge scope of content
no primary sources
assessment is by far memorization through multiple choice exams
no creativity in assessment
no formative assessment
teaching to a specific test
no relation to current events
little evidence of teaching historical skills – it’s just memorization of content
I’m sure some AP courses involve primary source, creativity, and in-depth anaysis of historical evidence, but not this one.
“The redesigned AP exams are increasing their focus on essays and open-ended problems, and reducing the number of multiple-choice questions; the remaining multiple-choice questions are shifting to measure not just content knowledge, but content knowledge and the skill to use that knowledge in meaningful ways essential to college and career success in that discipline,” said Trevor Packer, Head of AP at College Board. “There’s not a single exam question now that measures memorization only. They each evaluate skills and the application of knowledge.”
I’m encouraged by this quote:
“I think skills are vastly more crucial to success than content knowledge,” said a faculty member from a AP U.S. History study.
Sounds like the College Board is considering a capstone project, a year-long project of service learning, creativity and depth. Excellent!! Sorry it’ll be too late for my daughter.