Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum
Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum
Authentic Intellectual Work in Social Studies: Putting Performance before Pedagogy
Some critics of social studies education argue that U.S. students spend too much time in unfocused discussions and unproductive group work-and not enough time learning the facts of history, geography, or government. Other critics contend that students spend too much time absorbing and reproducing trivial information conveyed by textbooks or teachers-and not enough time interpreting documents, evaluating perspectives, and thinking for themselves.
Teachers who agree with the first critique tend to adhere to a "transmission" approach to instruction.1 They expect students in their classrooms to memorize a preordained canon of information and to master a set of discrete intellectual skills. Unfortunately, such mastery offers little assurance that students have achieved a deep level of conceptual understanding, or that they will be able to transfer knowledge and skills to situations outside of school.
Teachers who accept the second critique often adopt "constructivist" approaches to instruction. WhiIe varying, these approaches share the basic assumption that students learn best when they analyze and interpret the meaning of new information in relation to past experience. These teachers may design discovery projects, cooperative group activities, or lessons where students spend many hours on the Internet in the name of "active learning.” Although students exposed to these "student-centered" techniques often display greater enthusiasm than those in more conventional "teacher-centered" classrooms, this is no guarantee that quality learning is taking place.
Rather than assume that either response-"transmission teaching" or "doing constructivism"-will achieve the goals of social education, we believe it is necessary first to articulate criteria for authentic intellectual achievement, and then to see what practices tend to result in student performances that meet these criteria.
Researchers at the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools (CORS) have established three criteria for authentic intellectual achievement in social studies.2 They have also described standards within each criterion to guide teachers in evaluating their own and students' work (see Table 1). The purpose is not to prescribe general methods of instruction, such as the portfolio assessment often associated with the push for constructivism, or techniques for helping students retain information that supporters of the transmission approach might seek. Indeed, CORS research indicates that any teaching methods can be employed and still result in weak intellectual achievement.3
Criteria for Authentic Intellectual Work
Attorneys who appear before the court must possess a deep knowledge of essential ideas in constitutional law. One such idea is stare decisis -"out of many, one decision"-a concept by which past cases are integrated into a body of legal opinion known as common law. As both inheritors of and contributors to legal precedent, attorneys examine the context and subtext of prior cases, interpret historical details, and reason by analogy to determine what past decisions are applicable to the case at hand. They often incorporate scientific, medical, ethical, or psychological knowledge and perspectives into their arguments. They also pay attention to the social, political, and moral zeitgeist of the community in which the case is being heard.
During this process, attorneys
are bound by disciplinary constraints. Their arguments must be consistent
with legal concepts understood by
their profession, and they must follow procedures for accumulating evidence
and seeking appropriate judicial remedies. The outcome of a Supreme Court
case has important implications outside the courtroom. Its majority opinion,
along with the dissenting and concurring opinions of the justices, provides
attorneys and judges with resources for reasoning about future cases.
And these opinions may influence the beliefs and behavior of the nation's
Unfortunately, students following a conventional social studies curriculum are seldom asked to construct knowledge in these ways. More often, they are required merely to replicate the work produced by others. For example, a student may be able to describe the actions of various participants in an event or to match presidents with accomplishments generally considered noteworthy. This reproduction of prior knowledge does not constitute authentic intellectual achievement, since it does not involve the thoughtful application of knowledge found in the activities of adults.
Disciplined inquiry includes a command of the facts, vocabulary, concepts, and theories used in a domain. More importantly, the inquirer must have an in-depth understanding of particular problems in the field of study, and the ability to express that understanding in ways acceptable to experts. For example, a geographer may consider the relationships between physical phenomena, adaptive or maladaptive cultural traditions, and evolving technologies in order to predict future demographic patterns. Or, an economist may produce symbolic charts and graphs to show how a particular monetary policy is likely to influence key economic indicators in the future.
Conventional schoolwork seldom engages students in the kinds of inquiry and communication practiced by members of a discipline. More often, students memorize isolated facts about a topic, and then use those facts to complete short-answer worksheets or items on a test. Geography students may be asked to locate place names on a map. An economics teacher may be satisfied if students can draw a graph to demonstrate the principle that "prices increase when demand exceeds supply.” These activities may reflect considerable accumulation of prior knowledge; but not until students explore the issues, relationships, and complexities that form the context of a focused problem will they be demonstrating disciplined inquiry. Authentic intellectual performance includes the use of written, visual, or symbolic language that captures the essence, nuances, and analogs of a particular topic.