Academic Crack

I’ve discovered the hydroponics of continuous learning;  Whether trudging my way through the traffic of a daily two-hour round trip commute, or cutting the grass of my significant other’s half-acre backyard of Pennsylvania farmland, I’m learning.  Good readers and good books combine to infect the otherwise barren moments of my life with information. Though I know all about “quiet time” and the regenerative benefits of meditative contemplation, I’m hooked on this lifeline of constant education.  Audio books are academic crack for nerds. 

Since August, I’ve “read” the first volume of Shelby Foote’s Narrative of the Civil War, Andrew Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life and all 57 hours of WIlliam Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  There is no way the to carve out that sort of time in a 21st century lifestyle without audio books.  But as a result of this immersion in history and nonfiction, my views on education haven’t been changed, but rather reinforced in ways I never expected.

For example, William Shirer’s description of the Anchluss and the Sudenten Crisis of 1938 takes about four hours to read even though those events may amount to nothing more than two slides in a teacher’s PowerPoint and a five minute synopsis in an average social studies class. Perhaps there may be homework assignment, an essay on appeasement or even a more elaborate two day role-play project and debate.  Yet how can we claim that we’ve even scratched the surface of this era in history?

Those who defend the primacy of content in history education are shielding an hypocrisy.  The average survey course may be nothing more than a drive-by snapshot of history.  Sort of like a music lesson that teaches students to play the flute by telling them to blow in it on one end and move their fingers along the top. 

Isn’t it amazing that the more we immerse ourselves in history, the less certain we become of any one explanation of it?  The more we learn, the more suspicious we get of simple declarative statements that distill the vast expanse of the human experience into a blue vocabulary word surrounded by a simple sentence.

One way to prove the above is to spell out the way in which William Shirer takes a tire iron to Nevlille Chamberlain in Rise and Fall by describing the way in which a nascent mutiny against Hitler led by General Beck and Franz Halder needed only the slightest gesture of resistance on the part of Britain and France with regard to Czechoslovakia in 1938.  Add to that an analysis of the build-up of the British military between Anchluss and the invasion of Poland to defend Chamberlain’s appeasement.  Or one of Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” podcast episodes from the BBC in which one of his guests describes the first public opinion surveys that showed Chamberlain couldn’t possibly have led the recalcitrant British into another world war in 1938.  Better yet, listen to Margaret Anderson’s spring semester 2007 installment of Berkeley’s History 5 class in which she categorically organizes the many factors at work in Sudeten crisis.

History teachers who are themselves students of history know the foundational belief of their discipline is that there is never one answer to any history question.  Yet they are trapped in state-mandated curricula, enforced by standardized testing based in perfect opposition to this belief.  “Appeasement before World War II was caused by ….”

If you’re the type of person that believes that significant events and eras in history can be crushed into a multiple choice answer shorter than the average 140 character Tweet, you might want to stay away from the academic crack of continuous learning, it will change your mind forever.

Authentic Directions

For over a year, social studies teachers at my school have been struggling with a new US History curriculum.  Having wrestling the Content/Skills octopod of unsolvable  arguments to the ground, we cobbled together an authentic assessment that would drive the main focus of the course, “doing history” rather than “learning history”.  We defined the skills of an historian, wrote rubrics for each and built into the curriculum a portfolio in which students would reflect upon their performance throughout the year.  It’s hoped that course work will assume a different character when students have to reflect on their own performance, identify what needs improvement and establish a process through which they can improve.

The problem (isn’t there always at least one?), was how to explain this task to them.  Asking them to reflect on their work after it’s graded rather than stuffing it into a backback or saving it for June’s ritual burning is hard enough. How are they going to understand what is expected of them if it involves several waves of reflections, rubrics and evidence?

The attempted solution is this video.  All it takes is PowerPoint, Snagit, Audacity, Camstasia and a script that you write.  Will it work?  We’ll see….

A Crime against Nature and Nature’s God

You would be hard-pressed to find a more concept more unpopular than lecture in education today. It is the single, most universally despised form of instruction in the industry. It’s probably safer to wear a Red Sox hat to Yankee Stadium than go to a graduate class and suggest that lecture offers even the slightest hint of value. Graduate students should know they are better off talking about multiple intelligences, differentiated instruction and backward design. Keeping their references to lecture hidden behind innocuous labels like “direct instruction” may not even be enough to insure their safety.

Movers and shakers in this business must always pedal something new and different to sell their books, grab their grants and distinguish themselves from others. So it is not surprising they would criticize such a traditional form of teaching. But let’s be honest, lecture’s bad reputation comes from the fact that there are so many poor examples of it infecting our schools. History teachers are the worst offenders.

Yesterday I sat and suffered with 45 colleagues through the best and worst examples of instruction. The first half of the afternoon was a dialogue with an undisputed expert in antebellum history, followed by a lecture from that same expert. Knowing more about Uncle Tom’s Cabin than should be permitted by law, the professor first engaged the class by asking questions about the book. Citing a series of passages, he led us through a discussion about the characters, images and meanings of the book. You could sense the interest among the participants, and recognize it clearly when their questions to him took his original provocative thoughts in several directions.

After a short break however, we returned to the room for the “lecture” half of the presentation. This lecture consisted of the professor reading one of his articles to the group. There’s simply not enough amphetamine in the world to keep that class conscious. Every interesting and engaging thought from the first half of the afternoon crashed in the train wreck of the second half. Watching the closing eyes and bobbing heads, I was embarrassed, uncomfortable and convinced that there is nothing quite as bad a speaker can do to an audience than to read a scholarly article to them.

Yet, I am convinced that students in history classes benefit from lecture. Tucked in the niche of perhaps 25% to 30% of classtime, well-crafted and well-delivered lectures compliment content delivery with passion, reality and common-sense understanding that text and video alone cannot provide. It is much more a difficult and complex art form than a formulaic lesson plan that can be followed step by step. Lectures fail so often because every element has to be developed, written and performed well in order for it to work. It requires the ability of Ken Burns to find the poignant images and stories to infect it with emotion, the quirky observations and timing of George Carlin, the stage presence of Robin Williams and the organization of a Supreme Court opinion to come even close to success. To push it over the line it has to be rehearsed a couple dozen times as well.

If lecture works, it inspires, informs and leaves the audience on fire. If not, lecture is a crime.