“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.

AP Revisited

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 depth
  • 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.

But hopefully, there will be changes. A recent article in Education Week, College Board Improves AP Exams & Supports For Deeper Learning & College Readiness, by Tom Vander Ark, discusses proposed changes for AP exams:

“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.


Interesting article in the StarTribune about teens’ reading habits, “Young Adults Reading on the Go.”

We always hear that kids don’t read anymore, so I was intrigued to see this article. I disagree that kids don’t read – they just don’t read the way I read when I was a kid. They read texts, blogs, Tumbler, Facebook, more.

Kids are also writing all the time — the same as above: texting, blogs, Facebook, etc. They even write papers on their phones!

Taking Standardized Tests for a Living

No one I know takes standardized tests for a living. So, why are we using standardized tests to see if you’re going to be good when we don’t have standardized tests after you take them?

…It’s infected the entire ecosystem of education.

If we can get parents and kids and teachers and administration to talk about it…then change will start to happen.

-Seth Godin

This is a powerful quote for me to see today, as I’m heading off to a district curriculum meeting (a parent “advisory” committee, where, honestly, parent input is sought because they legally have to. I don’t think it makes one whit of difference, but if I don’t participate, I don’t get a voice.)

Tonight, we’re reviewing proposed Advanced Placement courses. I will likely be skewered when I say that I disagree with this approach. I don’t like AP classes because – and this is fully acknowledged – they are teaching to a test. AP classes give a set curriculum to schools that cannot be changed. AP classes are a mile wide and a centimeter deep. As a professional historian, I have worked against courses like this my entire professional life because students take these broad history survey courses and don’t like them. Thus, they think they don’t like history.

OK, that’s a blog for another post. This one is about standardized testing.

I’m an excellent test taker. Give me a standardized test about anything – nuclear physics, calculus, English literature, whatever. I could take it and probably do pretty welll. Do I know anything about the subject? Nope. But I can take tests.

I love this quote from Seth Godin. Check out the entire video posted in a blog by Josh Gans, “Learning Should Fit the Child.” (As Gans acknowledges, the video is by Ericsson and is a little bit marketing, but hey, it still has excellent content.) The video is worth your 20 minutes.

The blog post is worth your time, too. Memorizing isn’t useful. Learning how to find the information is useful.



Unlearning Academic Writing

In this recent blog post, “Blogging is the New Persuasive Essay,” Shelly Wright argues that learning how to write for blogs is just as important (if not more so) as learning to write the ever-present 5-paragraph persuasive essay. I was cheering as I read this post!


In the last few years, I have spent quite a bit of time “unteaching” academic writing. My previous job was training people to maintain websites. Much of the coaching was about how to write for the web. The staff I work with are all college-educated, very well versed in that 5-paragraph persuasive essay. But guess what? That doesn’t work online, as Wright suggests.

Academic writing is the antithesis of good online writing. As Wright says, good blog – or web – writing has short, succinct paragraphs. Quotes and references can be just links. It’s important to not be long-winded. I’m famous around work for the saying: “Write it. Cut it in half. Cut it in half again.” (I cannot take credit for this saying. Credit goes to Ginny Reddish.) You need to think about how you write link text — it is NOT ok to write “click here.”


Digital communication gives us many more tools with which to express our meaning, including images. It is important to include images to convey meaning or to add context to online communications. (I fully admit my blog is not a good example of this. I am a text-based learner, and am trying very hard to add visuals!)

This addition of visual communication opens up the world to many more learning styles. A student who may not be good at stringing words together may be brilliant at conveying meaning by putting visuals together, making a movie, or through music. Expressing meaning through these other modalities is no less complex – I would argue it involves far more higher level thinking skills than just writing a 5-paragraph essay. A documentary requires a script, visuals, and music. The same process has to happen: picking a point, forming a thesis, and supporting your thesis with evidence.


So why limit students to the 5-paragraph essay? I would like to hear a rationale for limiting a student’s means of expression to text when all these other tools are available. The excuse of “we’re preparing them for college” doesn’t hold water anymore (I’ve heard this excuse with my own kids.

It’s the opposite. We owe it to these kids to teach them to express themselves in many modalities. Yes, they should write 5-paragraph essays. They should also be assigned visual ‘persuasive essays,’ such as documentaries, photo essays, exhibits, speeches, etc.

As an employer/employee, I can’t say I’ve written many 5-paragraph essays in the last 25 years. Have I had to “persuade” someone about something? Of course. Have I had to support a point in a meeting or presentation? Of course. The skills of a 5-paragraph essay are essential – but so is learning to present it in 21st century communication styles.

Visual Learning is OK

I think one of the problems with moving to a more integrated technology framework at schools is that people think it implies that students don’t learn like they did before. Kids don’t read. Kids don’t focus. Kids don’t write. Kids don’t….. etc.

Somehow, there is the attitude that if kids aren’t learning like kids learned 20, 30, years ago, then it’s not valid.

But really, do any of us learn and consume information like we did 10, 20 years ago? I doubt it.

Look at newspapers – even if you read a printed paper (and I do – I get two papers delivered to my door every day), the newspaper is different than it was 30 years ago and certainly different than it was 50, 75, 100 years ago. Pictures were non-existent and very rare. Articles were much longer. Print was much smaller. That’s how people got information. Not now – photographs are prevalent, stories are shorter, fonts are bigger, infographics and maps visually represent information that wasn’t possible to communicate before.

How about YouTube? The viral nature of some videos is amazing. If you need to know how to do something? Kids will check YouTube before looking anywhere else. How to tie a tie? Much easier to communicate if you have a video than to describe in a book. Cooking? Same thing. Building something? Same thing. The instructional possibilities of using video are huge.

RSA Animate is a good example. These are excerpts from thought leaders with intricate drawings. Do the visuals detract? Absolutely not. They are a huge plus. Are they popular? You bet. TED Talks are another example. Video of thought leaders giving short, powerful talks.

The list could go on. How about art history classes? Are they still making slides? Or using collections found on many museum sites to build lectures?

So, why are schools (not every school/teacher, thankfully!) so resistant to meeting students’ learning needs through visuals? Why has coursework not moved in the direction of working with increasing visual learning? Why still rely on heavy print texts and assignments?

Moving to visual does not mean dumbing down.

Open Internet Tests

When I was in high school, we lived in fear of open book tests. They were  much harder than “regular” multiple choice tests. The teachers that gave them were also well known for asking us to really think and analyze.

Now, there are open internet tests! Seriously – what a great idea. This post by Jonathan Martin shows exactly why. A theater history teacher did an open internet test with great results. See the post for student comments – seems they all thought it was harder — and better.

…taking the time to think through as a teacher what kind of questions can we ask which will continue to be meaningful assessments when Google and Wolfram Alpha are available is, I think, a highly productive exercise, and, of course, will generate a more authentic assessment experience far more well aligned with the real world of professionals for which we are preparing our students

The teacher’s rationale for doing this test:

did I really need the students to regurgitate information or could I ask them to utilize  Internet resources and their class notes to compose essays based on questions that they helped craft?


It’s a great idea. It’s more closely aligned to what will be expected of them — yes, in college, and ultimately, in the working world. It’s teaching critical thinking, analysis, digital literacy, writing. The list gets long…. much better test of what students know and how they think than picking a letter on a multiple choice test.