Uncovering History

“American Genius!”

Parenting a toddler can yield surprisingly rich metaphors for thinking about teaching history.  My two-year old can identify Bob Dylan on two of my t-shirts (she asked). I have taught her to connect his name with the phrase “American genius.”  This amuses me and confounds her mother who views Dylan as manically self absorbed.  Of course, the child doesn’t know what genius means; and, she also associates “Bob Dylan” with “Bob from mommy’s work”, a competent man who is not necessarily a genius.  But, she would correctly answer a multiple choice question that I might write on Bob Dylan, if “American Genius” was a choice.

The sad news is that multiple choice tests often overestimate what students know.  While reviewing the French Revolution for the AP Euro exam this spring a very bright student admitted that she didn’t know what the Committee on Public Safety was, but that she always gets the question about it correct by associating it with “Reign of Terror.”  Simple association. This shallowness of knowledge is why students so quickly forget so much of what they learn.   This student, btw, closely read primary source texts and was proficient at using them critically in writing and in discussion.  Such is the paradoxic nature of my AP European History class that simultaneously encourages the best and the worst in the study of history.
These two anecdotes are cautionary tales as I prepare for a new school year. Colleagues and I discussed learning targets, formative assessments, etc. at a meeting today.  Important stuff, especially if the knowledge targets are limited and deeper targets are emphasized.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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