Now that it’s March, I’m going back and forth about what to cover in my American history class for the remainder of the year. Should I prioritize skills or content? Are the two mutually exclusive? Years from now, what do I really want students to still remember and find useful?
Even after a decade in the classroom, I struggle mightily with deciding what to cover and in how much depth. I feel guilty about focusing less on World War I, for instance, to emphasize the 1920s and the Great Depression. If I’m being honest, I often feel inadequate, wondering how much less other teachers would think of me for making that call.
Don’t Try to Cover Everything
Needing advice, I recently sought out Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association and a giant in the fields of history and history education.
Grossman put me more at ease. “You can't cover everything,” he told me. “It’s just not humanly possible. Therefore, different teachers have to make choices as to where they are most likely to engage their students.” More to the point, Grossman said, “It’s not whether you should do X, Y, or Z, but how much emphasis you put on X, Y, or Z.”
For added perspective, I contacted Dan Lang, head of the middle school at Francis Parker School in San Diego. “Too often we believe that a ‘debate can be won’ or a ‘problem can be solved’ when the best path may be to recognize that the perceived ‘problem’ to be solved is actually a healthy tension that needs to be managed well,” he wrote to me in a recent email.
Emphasize Relatable Content
With this tension in mind, Grossman reaffirmed my refusal to force students to memorize a myriad of seemingly endless facts, citing the accessibility of the internet. He reminded me that my students could use their phones to easily get information on people and events.
Grossman urged me to consider what I want students to still know and consider useful years down the road. “I don’t think it’s very often going to be some particular pieces of information, so much as you want them to learn how to think about something,” he told me. This calls for capitalizing on content that students find most interesting, and how and why a particular topic still matters today.
For example, Grossman says, “The Constitution is something that students probably don’t realize constantly matters in everyday life,” and that it could be a wise idea to discuss how a document ratified in 1788 remains relevant in 2017.
Emphasize Relevant Skills
I told Grossman that I was already following that advice. After we studied the Jacksonian Era during election season, for example, I asked my students to respond to the following prompt:
“This is like Andrew Jackson’s victory. This is the people beating the establishment,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani recently told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “And that’s how [Donald Trump] posited it right from the beginning, the people are rising up against a government they find to be dysfunctional. And yes, it’s a defeat for the Democrats, but this is a defeat for some Republicans too.”
In what respects, if any, do similarities exist between President Andrew Jackson and President-elect Donald Trump? What might these parallels reveal? Or is Giuliani off base here? Either way, please compose a well-written, convincing editorial that supports your stance.
I instructed students on how to respond in journalistic form, which they found more engaging and useful than more formal academic writing. One junior, Sophie Lapat, wrote a highly engaging article—“Trump: The New Jackson?”—which I shared on The Gator, a student news site where I work and which I also advise. Several students enjoyed the assignment so much that they enrolled in my journalism class.
It’s comforting to hear of teachers in other disciplines who share my emphasis on introducing relatable content to help reinforce key skills. “I would rather [students] understand how to ask questions and use data to support conclusions than have, for example, memorized the electron configuration of neon,” Amy Banks, a science teacher at the Hockaday School in Dallas, told me via email.
Agree on Skills Taught, Not Content Delivered
When it gets down to it, Grossman said, five historians gathered in a room would never agree on every bit of content to include in the curriculum, “but they can agree on what skills a student has to learn from spending a year indulging in historical thinking.”
Certainly, it’s important for students to gain a foundational understanding of key events, like the American Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement. But at a certain point, it’s not the content delivered that should matter most, but rather how such content can engage students in building upon their understanding of historical inquiry, which will stick with them long after their memorization of facts has faded.
Granted, the majority of teachers are mandated to cover certain content. Still, the pinnacle of instructional success, I believe, is balancing how to make content also relevant to refining critical, lifelong skills—no matter the subject taught. Depending on intrinsic interest in a certain area of study, this is more or less challenging. After chatting with Grossman I’ve come to see that while skills can’t be developed without content, without content that students find meaningful, it’s unlikely that many will remember much of either for very long.