Curriculum History Uncovering History

Wisdom Over Knowledge

One approach that I have definitely embraced is to allow students to explore the meanings of concepts before presenting them with labels, i.e. formal definitions curated or generated by me.

Last school year I served as literacy coach for English, Reading, Science, and Social Studies in building. Coaching, like teaching, is a tremendous opportunity to learn and to grow. I learned a lot form observations and conversations with great colleagues in these department; and, the team meetings with other literacy coaches in the district were always generative. During one meeting with curriculum and instruction leaders, participants read a short excerpt from the late, great Grant Wiggin’s article “The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything of Importance.”

It is a terrific article with continued relevance for educators in all settings.

One of the many great passages:

The dilemmas of curriculum and instruction are real, the problems increasingly intractable. There is simply too much for any one of us to know, never mind teach to dozens of students in a crowded day. Such a tragic fact leads to a liberating realization: wisdom matters more than knowledge.

Wiggins 1989

I was student teaching the year that Wiggins wrote this. His insights have been out there my entire career, and yet they are more relevant than ever. Sobering.

Wiggins went on to write the a pair of words that have since become completely unmoored from his intended meaning: “essential questions.”

“The modern educational task is thus to put students in the habit of thoughtful inquiry, mimicking the work of professionals. That naturally implies that essential questions must also derive from students…”

Wiggins 1989

In my tutoring practice I have helped students work through study sheets with more than twenty “essential questions” for one unit in a course. The student had not generated these questions, of course. And, although I learn a lot from my colleagues, I do see some using “essential questions” when they mean daily learning targets.

It is easy to point out these foibles, and the students that I tutor recognize the twenty-plus items can not be “essential” and are relieved to hear that I realize this, too. But, my own practice is not beyond reproach. My students are not generating their own questions. For at least the last half of my long teaching career, I have been struggling with the realization that I have been presenting students with more material than they can find meaning in. Wiggins’s call to “instill in them the desire to keep questioning throughout their lives” applies to me, too.

I wrote this more than a decade ago, and, I do continue to make progress. On my return to classroom teaching this school year, after one year in the coaching role, I am even more determined to use the ideas that I gained as a coach to emphasize student processing and skill building every day.

Meaning Before Label

One approach that I have definitely embraced is to allow students to explore the meanings of concepts before presenting them with labels, i.e. formal definitions curated or generated by me. One approach in my AP World History class has been to present images and quotations around a powerful term and having students start writing their own definitions from these stimuluses. I have materials for five (as of today) concepts in the slide show below. The concepts are not named until the last slide in the sequence, such as on slide eight. I do this no more than once a week, and I have used both terms to which students have been exposed, but not mastered or even operationalized, and sometimes the terms are new to most students.

Another variation has been to use this technique with an unfamiliar topic, such as Tokugawa Japan. The word “Tokugawa” was completely new to almost all students. In this case it is important to prompt them to say the word and to use it in a sentence. One of the most basic vocabulary building techniques that I learned from fellow literacy coaches last year is to get the word(s) into students’ mouths so that they can begin to own them.

I will be working on building more of these during the coming year as a way to help students to make create their own definitions for important terms. The class-time investment also limits the number of vocabulary items I am labeling essential. I am still generating the questions for students, at least most of the time, but I do want to give them space to work through the possibilities. When focusing on a few key concepts I have found that students are asking questions that they perceive to be tangential (based on how they preface them) but actually help us to explore the material.

Happy New Year!

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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