Which of the following makes for a good history lesson about the underground railroad?
- A traditional lesson in which the background of the underground railroad is presented, major players in the story are introduced, an explanation is given of the politics of the time, and the conditions that escaped slaves went through to get to freedom are presented.
- For a fourth-grade classroom, have the students bake biscuits, which were a common staple on the underground railroad, in order to gain an understanding of what runaway slaves did and ate.
- Give tenth-grade students original documents from the underground railroad that they use to draw and debate conclusions about the underground railroad (like real historians do).
- Run a class discussion in which students are asked questions to elicit their understanding of life within the underground railroad. How did runaway slaves obtain food? How were they able to prepare it? How were they able to pay for it? What might the consequences have been for someone who housed runaway slaves? And so forth.
Easy answers: (1) sounds fine if you need to transmit lots of knowledge, but boring. A good lecture will communicate facts as well as connections between those facts, and it will build important neural connections to help students remember and process data.
Option (2) is nonsense. The students will spend their time thinking about measuring flour, not the underground railroad. (Math teachers, take note—this happens in your classes, too!)
Option (4) is great. It prompts students to reflect on what they have learned and it leads them to make connections between topics. By giving each of these items real thought and relating it to other facts they might know about the time period, their overall understanding will be greatly strengthened.
In his fascinating book Why Don’t Students Like School?, Daniel Willingham argues that option (3) is a mistake unless your goal is building student excitement. But… surely not, you say! Is this not what real historians do? If history class was about analyzing real documents, would that not more deeply engage students’ minds and show them what the field was really like?
Not so, says Willingham. This kind of exercise is asking students to think like experts. However, he says, the cognition of experts is fundamentally different from non-experts. Here’s how:
- Experts think in terms of functions or deep structure, while novices think in terms of surface features. For example, suppose you ask novices and expert chess players to memorize a chess board. When replacing the pieces on the board, the novices will put them down in clumps organized by location on the board. Expert players will put them down in clumps organized by function—pieces that are threatening each other will go down all at once, even if on different ends of the board.
- Experts’ focus on deep structure allows them to ignore unimportant details and immediately see the useful information.
- Experts have procedures that are essentially automatic from repeated practice, so they can execute those procedures/thought patterns without the mental overhead of novices.
Willingham then notes that becoming an expert takes 10,000(ish) hours of practice. He reflects on judging science fairs where students churn out lots of basically useless science experiments, with huge flaws in experimental design of which they are blissfully unaware. Besides, for this particular history exercise, students don’t have nearly the background knowledge to make useful connections; they’ll never get into the deep structure, and will instead be stuck on surface features of the documents.
I’ve been wrestling with the idea that we should not challenge students to think like experts.
On the one hand, when I look at the classes I teach, I don’t generally challenge students to think like experts. I’m not asking students to discover new mathematics in my math classes, and with good reason—I don’t think most discovery problems encourage reflective practice.
On the other hand, I don’t believe the 10,000 hours claim, because it fails to look at why someone would spend 10,000 hours playing chess. They will probably only do so because they see some of the deep structure of the game, which inspires them to want to explore it further. Someone’s decision to pursue a topic is a complicated interplay of factors. To become an expert, you need to feel like you’re already on that track. So if we want students to pursue expertise, we must challenge them sometimes to achieve it and give them experience with how an expert thinks.
Also, the science fair conclusion seems totally wrong to me. Just because students do not do something well does not mean that there isn’t value in doing it!
Which leads me to conclude: challenge students to think like experts, but rarely and judiciously. Option (3) is appropriate, but only after students have built up enough background knowledge of the underground railroad that they have connections and context to draw on. If you can build up enough experience with that aspect of history that students can work with the documents, then they might be able to draw some new conclusions and learn from the experience. But most of the class can’t be structured this way, or the basic connections students require to set documents in context will never have time to develop.