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What should students learn

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It is important to know how not to teach them. But if they don’t know the basic facts, they won’t have the ability to think.

S.OR Tom Hanks did not know what the Tulsa racial massacre was, and we are told that it is an accusation of improper treatment of our racial history in schools. Well, next to Hanks, two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was, and only two fifths of Americans could name all three branches of government, one in five couldn’t name just one. More broadly, less than a quarter of students demonstrated proficiency in civic education, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

If our curricula have gaps in our racial history, perhaps it is indicative of a deeper and more pervasive mediocrity. The Fordham Institute conducted a full review of school curricula across the country to investigate such deficiencies and found that schools too often

providing too broad, vague, or insufficient guidance for curriculum and instruction;

Omitting or seriously underestimating issues that are essential to informed citizenship and historical understanding.

The curriculum in my own state of Wisconsin exemplifies both weaknesses. Regarding the first point, one section asks students to “analyze significant historical periods” and “evaluate a variety of primary and secondary sources.” Regarding the second point, where the curriculum tries to provide topics for learning, the standards list things like “Meeting of peoples and cultures” and “The modern era.”

These give me, as a teacher, as much guidance on what to do in my classroom as an atlas would without road numbers and city names. Students can accomplish these goals with the words of the constitution or a tweet in hand. Without sequenced time periods or events to cover, multiple teachers could end up teaching, in two or three different grades, labor history during the industrial revolution, and one student never came across Auschwitz or the basic structure of our federal government. Given that, they are left with large knowledge gaps of what we would reasonably expect any citizen to know.

Such vagueness is also not the result of sheer incompetence, but rather has an ideological basis. At the beginning of the 20th century, John Dewey popularized “progressive” education, claiming that no content is worth learning in itself, not Shakespeare or Langston Hughes, germ theory, or individual rights. Rather, content such as literature, historical facts, or scientific theories should be used only as a minimum to teach students how to assess, analyze, and practice other academic skills. Let the student choose the content and the teacher can adapt it to fit the skill.

After Dewey came critical pedagogues, such as Paulo Freire, who think of schools not as places of learning as we traditionally conceive them, but rather as places of social action. They were Deweyites with a radical bent, replacing student-led projects with advocacy. In practice, this looks like civic action, in which students identify problems in their communities and write proposals for local legislatures.

Both the progressive and critical approaches to education suffer from the same flaw: certain subjects deserve to be learned in themselves. Surely as a work of literature “What is the 4th of July for a slave?” is higher than Divergent. In addition to my curriculum requirement that students “compare primary and secondary sources,” they must also specifically read the Constitution and Declaration.

The value of certain content does not lie solely in its independent aesthetic value. Cognitive science has discovered that our ability to think is not an abstract ability as Dewey describes it, but a process that depends on knowledge. A biologist, an engineer, and a historian can think critically about an organism, a bridge, or an epoch, not because they have some abstract ability for critical thinking, but because they bring a great deal of knowledge within their specific domain to solve the problems at hand. . your field.

Students, compared to experts, need a broad curriculum of specific knowledge to critically consider the present. For example, if students are to analyze an impeachment process, any practice of any academic skill would pale in comparison to having read our nation’s founding documents, case details, and contrasting contemporary articles. Once they are aware of these documents and arguments, only then can they really think critically about impeachment.

Even if our goal is to improve the teaching of our racial history in schools, students would benefit the most if teachers walked them through a curriculum that requires learning specific topics such as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” of slaves in the Atlantic and Tulsa. slaughter. If instead our curricula give teachers vague instructions, such as interrogating structures that create inequalities or using race as a lens for understanding history, who knows if students will get substantive readings and factual history or activities. crude, like classifying themselves in so-called privileges points?

ED Hirsch, a fundamental teacher of education, has meticulously documented how the world’s most successful school systems lead their students through a sequenced curriculum of what he calls basic knowledge: clear topics and readings worth covering. Contrary to describing a curriculum as lifeless lists for memorization in red, many of our nation’s successful “no excuses” charter schools base their curriculum on Hirsch’s ideas, producing thoughtful and academically engaged students.

Our American claims reject such prescriptive tendencies. Clichés abound that suggest we teach the student, not the content, that we should teach students how to think, not what to think. In reality, however, if our students do not know the basic facts, what the Emancipation Proclamation did or how viruses spread, they will not be able to think. Learning to think actually begins with learning what to think, so our curriculum should give students something concrete to think about.

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