What should school accountability look like?
Listen to my TeachThought podcast interview on school choice, innovation, and accountability

Yes, kids need to know about the American Revolution

I was at a (very fine) workshop for educators recently with a highly-regarded speaker who confidently declared that, "Kids don't really need to know about the American Revolution!" 

His point was that we no longer need to teach kids what to think, because there's a virtual compendium of all human knowledge in our smart phones.  Rather, our job is to now teach kids how to think.

The problem with this approach is that you can't teach kids how to think (especially how to think critically, globally, and wisely) without giving them something to think about.  And the content of what they think about really does matter.

I've been thinking about this issue of "what" (content) versus "how" (pedagogy), and have paid a lot more attention to the pedagogy side, for some time now.  As I wrote last summer:

...The digital natives who occupy America's classrooms now have the entire body of human knowledge at their fingertips.  What they need are thinking skills that help them process this wide world of information and use it to solve problems.   This emphasis on "21st century skills" has been accompanied by a concern for the widely varying developmental needs of children who are often ill-served in schools that have arbitrarily decided that all children sharing the same birth year should be grouped together and taught the same, fragmented curriculum at the same pace.

In response to these concerns, my interests have turned toward Montessori, Sudbury, homeschooling, personalized learning, and other methods that place a much heavier emphasis on the agency of the individual child in the learning process.

I still believe schools must move beyond their 19th-century, industrial, one-size-fits-all model of education.  Teaching must become far more personalized and sensitive to the vast differences in children's readiness levels and preferred pace of learning.  But at the same time, I've become convinced that curriculum does matter immensely if we want students to not only to be critical thinkers and successful competitors in the global economy, but also good citizens and virtuous people.  The world's factual knowledge may be in our smartphones, but that doesn't mean the collective wisdom of Western civilization can be accessed, understood, and lived out via a Google search.

John Hattie, author of the highly influential Visible Learning agrees.  At last year's annual Visible Learning conference, I wrote of Hattie's opening talk:

He [Hattie] discussed how we need to be striving for a much greater balance between acquisition of surface-level knowledge and deeper processing skills.  Schools should be criticized for over-emphasizing surface-level learning (though this is a product of what standardized tests really measure).  But likewise, today's educational innovators should be careful not to also over-emphasize "21st century thinking skills" in the absence of meaningful content knowledge. 

"If students are going to think deeply, they must have something to think deeply about," Hattie said.  He presented a framework that categorized various instructional and intervention strategies along a continuum of learning that starts with the introduction of new knowledge (surface) then proceeds to deep acquisition and consolidation of knowledge - all geared toward helping students transfer that new learning to new contexts and situations (a skill that is virtually unaddressed in most schools).

He offered examples like memorization - a skill that is highly-frowned upon today - but noted that memorization is an excellent technique for embedding new information into memory; but if the student does not move immediately into deep processing of that new information, the value is minimal.  Likewise, higher-ordered activities like problem-based learning are often ineffective when students are lacking sufficient content knowledge, but for the purpose of deep consolidation of information and transfer - it is a powerful tool.

So content matters.  And, I believe, not just any content.  I've become convinced that a classical education - one that focuses on the training of a child's mind by using the great ideas of history and literature - is essential to developing critical thinking and the kind of character and virtue necessary for navigating the politically and economically volatile 21st century.

Perhaps it won't matter if students don't know the significance of General Washington's decision to take his army across the Delaware River (though they will be ignorant about an iconic piece of American art).  But they most certainly need to understand the clash of ideas that drove the American Revolution, how those ideas fit within the broader scope of world history, and how those ideas inform the same kinds of questions that shape our political and economic landscape today.

The same speaker who said kids don't need to know about the American Revolution lamented the emergence of Donald Trump as a leading presidential candidate.  But the American Revolution led to a system of government deliberately designed to restrain the tendency of republics to lurch toward demagoguery in the face of crisis.  Trump's candidacy challenges Americans to not only think about the role of the state and its executive powers, but to make value-laden decisions about such matters. 

Certainly, our traditional approach to teaching history, with its emphasis on a factual narrative with little overarching conceptual structure, must change.  But if we want our students to think and act effectively - and virtuously - about history (which is to think and act effectively and virtuously about the world we currently occupy), what we teach them about history matters a lot.  And the same applies to what we teach them about mathematics, science, literature, art, and more.

Related posts:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Winnie Cohron

Yes, content matters! What is placed within a vessel can enliven it or diminish it. Why would we want to use anything other than the best literature, art and religious thought as learning materials?

What we see, what we hear, what we read...all that we first learn through the senses - these things have the power to move imagination and motivation. The "what" of learning shapes and molds the object of thought and forms the scaffolding that supports the desire for deeper learning.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)