Discovery Learning, the Revolutionary War & Colonial North America

I shared a story tonight with colleagues about one distinct period in my life that began when I was a pre-adolescent. As a homeschooler, I had a lot of freedom to investigate topics that interested me. As far as I can guess, I think my fascination with revolutionary and colonial North America came from the fact that I lived in New England – a stone’s throw away from Native American tribal lands, Plymouth Rock, the church in Boston with the two lanterns and Williamsburg. We travelled to Washington DC, did the “freedom trail” and made frequent trips to Mystic Seaport.

I lived in an area of the country immersed in this history with life-size, interactive interpretations of this period in time. I was supposed to follow the traditional scope and sequence of social studies moving from neighborhood, to state, to US then world history, but even if I did explore these subjects, what I remember is my revolutionary and colonial history obsession. It was my passion. I went to Plymouth and took pictures of re-enactors sheering sheep and making horseshoes in a blacksmith shop and turned it into a book about Colonial America. I was so proud to “copy write” my book with the little encircled “C” symbol in MS Publisher. I read historical fiction about the revolutionary war and, of course, wore out the pages with the accounts of revolutionaries in passionate embrace as the redcoats approached. I also read accounts of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal and analyzed Washington’s men crossing the Delaware. I even wrote a poem inspired by the Louisiana Purchase.

In any case, this story arose from a discussion we were having about the current unit we were exploring in a Tribes TLC course about constructivism and discovery learning. It reminded me of how deeply torn I am as an educator. As a verbal-linguistic, mathematical-logical thinker (thank you, Howard Gardner), I actually really love standards. I like the idea of having a specific list of targets I’m responsible for that connect and build on one another from year to year. The true geek in me really shines when I’m linking lessons and units in our Atlas curriculum – mapping software with cross-curricular standards and then matching them to assessments. It is actually almost relaxing for me. I love the complexity and the simplicity it creates all at the same time.

On the other hand, I grow deeply saddened sometimes when I think of all I’m giving up with my students by taking this approach. It’s all SO orchestrated, so prescribed. The very existence of content standards combined with curriculum scope & sequence charts (and the fact that I’m so into following them) systematically excludes topics of interest and passions my students may want to pursue. It’s as if I’m talking to a 10-year-old version of myself and saying, “I know you’re really interested in this, BUT we have to study THAT.” All of this actually hit home earlier this week. A rather disenfranchised girl (let’s call her Megan), new to Guatemala and learning to adapt to a being in a new school with less than a quarter to go before the end of the school year followed my instructions to share with a partner questions she’s wondering about our current unit in Social Studies – the Silk Road. Her question? “Why do we have to study this, anyway?”

Well, why do we have to study this? The answer? The standards dictate that I teach my students about how societies interacted through trade, why they traded and how it affected their economies. My school has dictated that “5th Grade” Social Studies units are Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome and Ancient China. Logical conclusion? The Silk Road! It’s perfect! The standards and school expectations align. But the real question in my mind is, Is it enough? If Megan truly has no interest in the Silk Road, will she learn these standards? Or will she coast through doing the minimum to pass unnoticed in our busy and diverse classroom? Is her question coming from a real place of disinterest? A pre-adolescent’s desire to fit in and make a name for herself by dismissing the status-quo? Will a little more content be enough to spark her interest? In reality, I’m not going to know the answer to any of these questions until it’s too late.

Being an educator is a process of constantly undergoing mind-shifts and taking new directions in teaching to see what works and what doesn’t. Last year, I focused much more on process skills and a lot less on specific, universal content that everyone should learn in social studies. I was coming from the mindset of my own background that it didn’t really matter that I spent so many years focused on one topic because I learned the skills of reading, research, analysis and interpretation of historical events. It’s true that I think I have gaps in content knowledge here and there, but as an adult, if I want to know about something, I have the tools to find out about it independently. Then, last summer, I experienced a shift. I read an article called “Learning in Depth” by Keiran Egan while taking an online course on portfolios. One passage really got to me:

Being able to find particular knowledge in the mountains of information in libraries or on the Internet is educationally valuable, of course. However, the downside of the emphasis on such procedural skills is a disastrous underestimation of the importance of actually knowing things and having access to knowledge in the memory—because the imagination works only with what we know (Egan, 1997, 2005).

After reading this passage, my mind started to race. I had definitely noticed that that most passionate my students became was when the “Did you know that…!?” moments erupted. The moments when students would come running up to me or each other and couldn’t wait to share an unimaginable fact they learned. In my fourth grade class it could be, the team who lost a Mayan ball game were sacrificed to the gods or the Aztecs ripped out the hearts of their human sacrifices. Who would have thought it?! I The passion did not come from how good they were at finding information, but rather this skill facilitated the “Did you know” moments.

So, last summer, I reorganized my curriculum units to be half content-focused and half research-focused. The first half, students learned specific content and vocabulary related to the unit all together through hands-on activities and reading. In the second half, they researched a question of their choice related to the unit. I thought I had it really figured out, a perfect balance. And then, tonight, another mind-shift. Why do we have to learn about the Silk Road again? I find it interesting, but will Megan?

In our Tribes course tonight, we briefly reviewed the 5Es of discovery learning: Explore, Engage, Explain, Elaborate & Evaluate with the teacher acting as a guide and facilitator. We touched on them with a plan to go more in depth next week, but even this short introduction got me thinking. IF the philosophy of constructivism guides us in believing that students construct their own realities through actively interacting with content and concepts and building on background knowledge…IF a truly student-centered approach necessitates that students are allowed to direct their own learning and elaborate where their passions take them…IF this is how I remember learning and loved it…THEN what do I do with my Silk Road unit?

I was so proud of the fact that this unit covers 6 social studies standards,

1.5.d  Identify and use primary and secondary sources to examine the past and present.

2.5.c  Explain the major ways groups, societies, and nations interact with one another (e.g., trade, cultural exchanges, and international organizations).

4.5.e  Explain the elements of culture (language, norms, values, beliefs, etc.).

4.5.i  Examine cultural diffusion.

7.5.e  Describe how trade affects the way people earn their living in regions of the world.

7.5.g  Describe primary causes of world trade.

Not to mention countless LA standards and had the potential of touching on more. And not only does it cover standards, it’s following the school’s scope and sequence for social studies topics by grade level – We’re doing Ancient China, like we’re supposed to. I designed the unit as I have before. Content and skill-modelling first, then student research on a chosen topic related to the unit. This time I decided to integrate writing and speaking standards by having them write and present a research paper in a Prezi multi-media presentation.

But now I’m shifting again. I’m not sure it’s so perfect after all. Where is the room to elaborate? In the past, I thought I was allowing students to elaborate when they could choose their own research topics connected to the unit. There IS an element of choice in that approach, but what about real-world applications? What about Megan?

The fact remains that going in a new direction with this unit, and with the whole way I teach social studies will ultimately necessitate letting go of standards we don’t get to and allowing flexibility in topics. The question I would pose to our curriculum director is, “What do you think? Can I try it?”

I don’t have it fully fleshed out yet, but what if, instead of the Silk Road Unit, it was the Trade unit?

It could look something like this…

Theme: Trade

Objective: Explain why, how and what people trade, how it affects economies and sharing of ideas.

Task: All schools supplies are divided up by type, and each table group in the classroom has ownership over a particular supply: glue sticks, pencils, scissors, calculators, erasers, paper, books, iPads etc. Each team is given a task to complete, like make a poster about the Silk Road, and they must trade to get the necessary supplies to complete it. One concept from the Silk Road is the “Relay System” of the road that allowed goods from China to travel long, dangerous distances all the way to Rome. One day, we could impose the restriction that you could only trade with tables next to you. In the process, each team keeps a “Trading Journal” of what they traded, why and for what. Trades can include ideas and skills in addition to materials.

Content/Social/Collaborative Reflection: What did you trade for? Why? What did it cost you? Were some items more difficult to get? Why? What strategies did you use to get the things you wanted? Did you share anything besides materials, ideas, skills, etc.?

Inevitably, at least I hope, in the reflection process, students will be able to identify the why, what and how of trading and in the process perhaps connect to some historical content about the Silk Road. I wouldn’t be able to help but include some reading and research skill modelling in here somewhere, and we would also look at how we interacted in terms of respect, and examine any breakdowns in the process, etc.

Because it’s so much more open-ended and would look totally different with different groups of learners, however, there’s no real telling what the “learning” would be. I constantly question myself when I come up with ideas like this. Will this be valuable? Are they getting enough content and skills? Are we just wasting time? I don’t really know the answer to those questions and perhaps they would be different with different groups of learners. There’s no doubt, however, that the social interaction could potentially spark some really interesting conversations. My hope would also be that through this process students would be able to construct their own understanding of what trade really means and how complex it can be.

Perhaps, this exploration and engaging in an activity from the get go, could inspire Megan and her classmates’ interest in the Silk Road, but if not, the next step would be for groups to develop questions about trade in general and to do further research. Perhaps groups could study contemporary trades or trades between other cultures of the past or why we switched from barter to a money-based system, etc.

Now the standards fan and curriculum follower inside balks at the idea of having the content be so free and fluid. What if they don’t learn what I expect them to or think they should? What if we totally get off the topic of Ancient China? What if students start getting off trade all together and start looking at innovations or fighting techniques or the Mongol hoards (the boys would definitely do this) or how the Chinese made gunpowder. Or it could lead in some other wild, unexpected direction. I wonder, however, if that’s exactly what we as educators should be looking for. Could it get me closer to exchanging teaching for facilitating? Or closer to what I remember about learning as a 10-year-old in love with the American Revolution and Colonial America. Could be.

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