Pistol aimed at Core Content

Napoleon thought that the port at Antwerp was “a pistol aimed at the head” of England.  Likewise, the information revolution is also a pistol, aimed at the core content of the high school survey course in US History.

While waiting for the start of a NJ DOE presentation on the High School redesign project, I’ve been enjoying the early morning silence of Kean University’s student center.  Having learned to steer clear of the Route 78 beast by commuting early, I’m using the extra time to wrestle with my school’s US History I content survey results.  Social Studies teachers poured over lists of names, dates, events, people and laws, and ranked them on a 1 to 5 scale, weighing their importance to the curriculum.  Ultimately, we’re going to have a “must understand ” content list for students and a “may include” content list for teachers.  So I’m averaging the top two categories, organizing the items in categories and themes and compiling lists for every unit in the course.  And, not expectedly, realizing how much I’ve forgotten in the process.

Perhaps is the deterioration of a middle-aged mind, but right there in the middle of the lists, I came to a horrible realization.  I can’t remember a name!

I taught AP US History for years, and remember fondly the lesson that traced the first steps of the independence movement in the colonies because it started with a story.  Lifting A.J. Langguth’s first chapter from his book, “Patriots”, I described the Superior Court of Massachusetts in Boston and the first test of a British law allowing customs officials to search and seize colonial property without a warrant.  Langguth framed his explanation of the Writs of Assistance with the perspective of a young lawyer, John Adams, a spectator at the trial.  Do the “Writs of Assistance” belong in the US History curriculum?    How about the lawyer, who argued the case for the colonists?  He made a passionate defense of liberty and said that a man should be safe in the “castle” of his home.  Without a warrant and a reasonable suspicion of a crime, royal soldiers could not search homes and warehouses of law-abiding colonists.  It’s a great way to start a discussion of the foundation of the independence movement.  But wait…I can’t remember the name of the lawyer!

What the heck?  What was his name?

I know he was overweight, but the only obese colonist I can remember at the moment is Henry Knox, who  was busy selling books at the time of the trial, yet to rise to fame dragging captured British cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to the continental army at Boston.

But there’s hope. I’m in a university student center, the ghost-like “wireless network found” floated on the screen when I logged in.  My ignorance should only last a second.  Opening FireFox, throwing “Writ of Assistance wiki” in to the search box and clicking twice should only take about five seconds.

Curses!  Kean only allows people with accounts to use their wireless.

My ignorance will last as long as my beleaguered brain decays and as long as I am “disconnected”.

Here the point.  Once we get beyond the 1840 railroad internet infrastructure to get to “all access, everywhere, all the time” remembering such facts won’t be important.  Most of the people who are fine democratic citizens and contribute much to our society are ignorant of the facts we insist students remember in high school.  The information revolution proves that process obsolete.

Note to former students reading thus stuff – go ahead and laugh at me.  Live it up.

Meanwhile, I’ll wait for that delicious “ah-ha” moment, when I get reconnected to the cloud and reacquainted with a name.

6 thoughts on “Pistol aimed at Core Content

  1. schledorn October 24, 2008 / 10:37 pm

    I won’t laugh it up, but only because I can’t remember if you told that story way back in 98. It’s been 10 years since I’ve taken your AP US class.

    David McCullough spoke at Elon yesterday and I had the opportunity to take a grou pof students. He mentioned this topic in his lecture. He spoke about how real learning, especially in history, is more than just memorization. It’s more than just names and dates.

    Technically, his actual quote was more along the lines of “Someone who memorizes the World Book isn’t intelligent, they’re weird.”

    I think it was good for high school students to hear, especially the AP ones. It seems to me that many high school students think that finding the answer online is the same as learning the material. If the answer is on the paper then I’ll get my grade and be just fine. Of course the teachers know that no real learning has taken place, but that’s something that this (my?) generation just doesn’t get.

    The name isn’t the most important thing. The date isn’t the most important thing. The implications are important. The outcomes are important. The interconnections are important. Those are things that wikipedia just doesn’t have.

    My $0.02 at least.

  2. Meredith October 25, 2008 / 10:41 pm

    But how can you synthesize information and make “interconnections” or figure out implications without retaining an internalized set of facts? In an academic setting, certain facts must be assumed to be known in order to proceed to theories and conclusions; in a social setting, it behooves one to be able to carry on an intelligent and fact-based conversation without recourse to a laptop or iPhone. And if technology is supposed to make our lives faster and easier, wouldn’t having to look things up online all the time actually slow you down? Sure, testing students on facts may not be productive — my linguistics professor says that giving exams is the best way to make sure your students forget everything they learned — but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taught.

  3. schledorn October 26, 2008 / 10:48 am

    I didn’t mean my post to sound like I thought facts shouldn’t be taught. They’re just not as important.

    Look at the example Steven gave. He couldn’t remember the name of the lawyer. He remembered the case, he remembered the outcome, he just couldn’t remember the name of the lawyer. Which is more important to the lesson?

    Of course things like the Write of Assistance should be in the curriculum. Of course John Adams should be there too. But they shouldn’t be there just as a “what.” What the Writs of Assistance actually say aren’t as important to the non-history major as their implications to the ever evolving definition of liberty.

    Yes there needs to be some kind of basic knowledge of history to truly understand certain events, but going so deep it’s no longer personally relevant kills it for many students. The only way I know to really get students interested in history is to get them to buy into the concepts, get them to pick a side. That’s what a teacher should do. If they really understand the implications of the Writs of Assistance they’ll be much more likely to remember it because they’ve connected it to their life in some way.

    And if they haven’t, wikipedia will still be just a few clicks away.

  4. Meredith October 26, 2008 / 3:45 pm

    Isn’t all this true regardless of the presence of technology?

  5. schledorn October 26, 2008 / 4:38 pm

    I think it’s true, but technology allows students (or Maher) quick access to any fact they may not remember. The internet replaces the family set of encyclopedias.

  6. Steven Maher October 27, 2008 / 11:00 am

    Technology makes this more obvious, simply because of speed. The logging on, getting to Google, typing search and waiting for results is much faster than getting to the books, finding the “N-O” book and flipping pages. Google, hardware and the internet took ten years to get to this point, where we will be in the next ten? It’s safe to guess that it will be even faster.

    Still, I wouldn’t want to hold a conversation looking at someone’s forehead, as they look to find the next word in their sentence.

    But this is really about teaching and course design. Although technology exposes the hypocrisy of memorization as intelligence, the movement against lessons which merely repeat the “telling” of discrete facts has advanced on its own. It can’t merely be a coincidence that I heard Grant Wiggins at Kean that afternoon. Having read his books and heard him speak before, I was primed for his argument for redefining what it means to “know” something.

    In history, that’s particularly tricky question.

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