Be. Less. Helpful.

I was going to address the findings of the Horizon Report, but then I watched Dan Myers’ Ted Talk and thought that his take on the state of education had a more fundamental importance and relevance to my practice.

Myers worries that today’s education (and specifically textbooks) have a “Two and a Half Men” approach to problem-solving: they create the expectation that problems should be neatly packaged and the solution readily apparent if given steps are following. In other words, there is too much scaffolding: we are “paving a smooth straight path… and congratulating our students for how well they can step over the small cracks on the way…We don’t involve [students] in the formulation of the problem.” Myers’ solution:

  1. Use multimedia.
  2. Encourage student intuition.
  3. Ask the shortest question you can.
  4. Let students build the problem.
  5. Be less helpful. 

In history class, the kind of reasoning we want to do revolves around constructing a logical arguments supported by appropriate historical evidence. For example:

  • “Why did Chinese dynasties last for so long?” (from World History I)
  • “Compared to other civilizations, could Muslim civilization be considered the greatest?” (from World History I)
  • “The Chinese and Russian Revolutions were neither short nor sweet: they were both long and messy ordeals.” How accurately does this statement describe these two revolutions? (from World History II)

When we construct questions like this, we try to make them evaluative. This is why I’m a big fan of the phrase, “To what extent…” I’ve found that these questions are quite difficult for my 9th and 10th grade students, who seem to arrive in my class at one of four stages of readiness:

  1. Able to make sweeping generalizations that are largely accurate (“They had an organized government and religious tolerance.”) but unsubstantiated with any specific evidence.
  2. Able to make relevant lists of specific evidence that are fairly organized in a five-paragraph format, but without explanation that ties that evidence to the question.
  3. Able to synthesize specific evidence and explanation/analysis into a format that directly answers the question. (This step describes my expectation for my students, and my B+ and A students can do this)
  4. Able to do step #3, but with extensive discussion of that evidence that shows a sense of chronology and historical context. (for 9th and 10th graders, this would exceed my expectation – my unquestioned A students – perhaps 3 in 40 – can do this)

Given stage #4, I find it relevant to quote from Niall Ferguson’s latest work:

“For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated ‘modules’, not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose. In The History Boys, the playwright Alan Bennett posed a ‘trilemma’: should history be taught as a mode of contrarian argumentation, a communion with past Truth and Beauty, or just ‘one fucking thing after another’?”

I scaffold such essay questions in class in a number of ways, as evidenced by this nonexhaustive list:

  1. Providing essay outline worksheets, asking students to brainstorm evidence, then make claims, then a thesis.
  2. Using scored discussions in class that differentiate between arguments that are unsupported opinions, ones that are logical but unsupported, and ones that use specific historical evidence.
  3. Brainstorming evidence in groups, and then individually writing short answer responses that are then evaluated by the class with the aid of my Elmo document camera
  4. Using think-pair-share questions that break up my lectures and ask students to consider historical significance (“If you were a German, would you have felt optimistic in 1919? In 1928?”)

Myers has made me wonder whether I do too much handholding, though. For example, I recall several times where my colleagues and I have made short answers questions MORE specific to clue students in on what evidence to include. In preparation for the Muslim civilization question above, I gave students 6 possible comparisons they could make with other civilizations and asked them to choose two of them with which to write two practice body paragraphs – in other words, I was teasing out the steps to the problem rather than having them do it. In the future, then, I might have students generate a list of possible comparisons (individually, in groups, or as a class, depending on the nature of the particular students). I suppose I’m grappling with the “meaning of life” question in my teaching:


Seeing as how I’m not going to answer this in 800 words, I’ll conclude by throwing out a question to those grade 9/10 teachers reading this: Do your students fall into one of the four categories above? Are my expectations for what they can do appropriate, or lower/higher than what you see? To what extent is their ability to move between steps a function of their mental development rather than my teaching?

Random thought as to how wikis can be applied: it would be AWESOME to have a bank of short answer questions and essay questions – divided by topic and, in the case of the short answer questions, by points. Such questions are the essence of history class (yeah, yeah, all classes, UbD, essential questions, blah blah blah) but we teachers spend an inordinate amount of time duplicating others’ work. If there were a wiki out there that teachers could contribute to, I think it would be rapidly growing and evolving resource that would NOT necessarily lead to a homogenization of the course, since the flexible and editable nature of the wiki would be able to accomodate diverse perspectives.