Grant Wiggins asked on Friday, “Really, why do HS teachers lecture so much?” An interesting question. And one I’d like to take up from my own experience as a HS teacher.
Where and when do I lecture the most? In my US History class (for juniors).
Where and when do I lecture the least? My freshman World History I classes (maybe twice per month) and in my senior elective, Violence in America (almost never).
In my senior elective, I give reading to students; each night a group of them is “on duty.” It is their job to write discussion questions prior to class and then to facilitate small and large group discussion, based on that reading, during class the next day.
In World History, I strive to bring in primary sources, projects, games and other activities to keep my freshman moving or discussing. They cannot sit still for a lecture. So I don’t even try.
In US History, I rely on lecture. Why?
The only answer I can come up with is that I feel an INCREDIBLE push to teach the narrative in US History. What happened? When? Where? List, list, list, event, event, event.
In World History I, the material I am supposed to cover spans from early hominids to the Renaissance. I functionally CANNOT cover everything. As a result, I’m forced to be creative. What do we cover? When? Why? How? I’ve begun to approach the course thematically (religion, empire, etc), and work chronology within those themes. It is not a perfect model, but it allows me to privilege historical skill development (close reading, verbal analysis, written analysis, argument making).
I set the curriculum in Violence in America. I am not hamstrung by the needs of a survey course. Instead, I treat it far more like a college seminar in which we closely examine one topic over a series of weeks.
But in US History? Got to get through that narrative. Got to get through that narrative. That happens, in part, because my teaching team includes colleagues who also teach in the AP curriculum (which, in spite its best efforts, is still narrative focused). And their concerns trickle into our class. But there is also a common assumption amongst all of us — and I don’t know where this comes from — that we should be teaching ALL of American history. So content becomes the driving factor. But we can teach ALL of American history no more than I can teach ALL of world history! So why do we think we can? And how can we free ourselves from that?
This is, perhaps, a bigger question than the focus of this blog post. And one I hope to take up later (as soon as the sound and the fury of end-of-year commitments calm). But I do think that the main cause behind HS history teachers lecturing so much is that these courses — consciously or unconsciously — privilege the narrative over historical skills.
History is a discipline rooted in questions. We ask how and why did change happen over time? But we spend so much time teaching students the answers to that question, rather than having students find those answers for themselves. Next time I’ll try to have some thoughts on how to change this in a US curriculum.
But for now, the end-of-year melee calls.