Friday, November 22, 2013

History is the process of leaving things out

One of the first lessons I try to teach my students, and one they often have the hardest time with, is that history (at least modern history history) is the process of leaving things out.  For so many years, students think of history as a building process.  They add, add, add, knowledge by memorizing facts.  But eventually (for my students it's right around 9th or 10th grade) they hit the point where there is too much information to memorize.  They feel overwhelmed.  It's at this point that I start with the "History is the process of leaving things out" mantra.  Often they don't believe me.  But there's a fairly simple exercise to prove it.

About two minutes ago, give or take, you started reading this blog post.  Let's think about all the things that need to go into what would make for a complete history of that time.   There's you, reading the post.  And your internal monologue while you read it.  Ok, that's easy enough.  There was me writing the post.  That's still not too much information.  But you are reading it on the internet.  You found the post somehow.  You have to include that info.  And how did I come to have a blog?  And what about the history of the internet?  And of course, there is the whole intellectual history that informs this.  We've got a lot of stuff to think about now.  Too much.  We have to decide what questions are most important and limit the information we seek out to answering those questions. 

So in most of my 9th and 10th grade classes I'm trying to guide my students away from trying to get right answers to trying to get to the right questions.  If you have the right questions, the answers are relatively easy. 

This process tends to make my students very unhappy in the short term.  There are no study guides before tests (you need to make your own) and increasingly I don't even ask questions, I make them ask the questions.  They find it very frustrating.  And yet, as the year goes on they get better and better at leaving out the irrelevant, at focusing on key concepts and figuring out those concepts for themselves. 

Getting them to make that shift is hard, but it's worth it.

Unfortunately, a lot of teachers don't get this.  When I was on the AP World listserve there was a post that used to pop up about once a month that was some variation of this:  "Hi, What are the 100 facts my students need to know for the AP Exam".  And no matter how many people responded with "Make your students figure that out and justify their choices, it's excellent review" and other such kind suggestions, the query would come back again and again.  Sometimes from the same people.  They really believed there were 100 facts in World History that were the top 100.  They couldn't start with a question.  And their students will continue to think in terms of names and dates and stuff to be memorized.  Poor students.