The silence is deafening. Perhaps other observers have noted calls for major school reforms, I have not. The pandemic’s closure of public schools in March 2020 and the partial re-opening of schools in fall 2020 and full return to face-to-face instruction in winter 2021 have grabbed mainstream and social media attention. Especially for the rapid expansion of remote instruction and the Zoom marathon that all of us are running.
No reform agenda, however, have I seen for bettering the nation’s public schools. I have yet to detect any groundswell for altering the familiar school organization, Common Core Curriculum, and existing accountability measures already in place. There is much reform talk, of course:
Consider the words from a recent report of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights of the disparate effects of the pandemic on white and minority students:
[W]e have a rare moment as a country to take stock and to begin the hard work of building our schools back better and stronger—with the resolve necessary to ensure that our nation’s schools are defined not by disparities but by equity and opportunity for all students.
Or the head of a major administrators’ professional organization:
“There are a lot of positives that will happen because we’ve been forced into this uncomfortable situation,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the school superintendents association. “The reality is that this is going to change education forever.”
Talk is one thing, however, action another. Reform-driven policies have notably been absent from most of the 13,000 school districts spread across 50 states and territories during and after the pandemic, particularly when it comes to repairing inequities prior to and during the Covid-19 crisis.
Consider state and national testing. During the pandemic, the then U.S. Secretary of Education postponed the federally-required National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) until 2022. The current administration has called for standardized tests to be administered in the fall of 2021.
Apart from temporary suspension of nation and state tests, I have yet to hear of or read about any coalition of reformers offering concrete policies that can reduce the stark differences in funding and staffing schools in urban and suburban districts that have become, in a word, re-segregated. Progressive educators and their allies have surely called for such changes before, during, and after the pandemic’s closing of schools, but beyond exhortations, I have not noted an emerging coalition of school reformers at either the state and federal levels not only endorsing but also funding such efforts.
In fact, as Republicans have taken over most state legislatures–they now control 62 percent of them–, the appetite for funding schools and igniting school reform have shrunk considerably. Although conservative state legislators have called for more teaching of patriotism and less teaching about race, keeping schools as they are remains strong.
Progressive rhetoric for reducing inequalities in funding districts, ending disproportionate assignment of inexperienced teachers to high poverty, largely minority schools, and increasing “ambitious” teaching remains high in mainstream and social media but has yet to lead to substantial adoption of such policies, and most important their implementation in schools and classrooms.
Of course, lack of concrete reform-driven policies and their implementation does not mean that reforms begun prior to the pandemic and then put on hold have disappeared. Those reforms seeking the expansion of remote instruction have gained ground with the sudden switch from face-to-face to screens in March 2020. While surely distance learning now has a secure niche in a school district’s kit-bag of “solutions” to emergency closures, becoming more than an option for parents to choose is, well, doubtful (see here and here).
Remote instruction, then, is, by default, the coercive reform du jour. Yet frequent reports of test score decline and loss of academic skills especially among minority and poor students during the pandemic have yet to push the “pause” button on distance instruction as a choice for parents to have should they reject face-to-face instruction in school classrooms (see here and here).
With the spread of remote instruction as a school reform, what has thus far emerged from the pandemic emergency are not big-ticket, comprehensive overhaul of public schools aimed at reducing inequities among American children and youth but a shrunken version of what the past 18 months have offered.
And that is why I titled this post: Downsizing School Reform after the Pandemic.
In 2009, I tried to peek around the corner and predict what classrooms and technologies use might look like in 2020. That post forecasted a few changes that I then saw emerging. So there is nothing magical about that or what I predicted. The questions I asked at the end of the post, however, I still believe are most relevant in 2021.
I offer this twelve year-old post simply because re-visiting what I predicted can keep one humble. I have been way off on many earlier forecasts and laughed at how narrowly I looked ahead to the spread of classroom technologies, especially during the 2020-2021 pandemic–a traumatic event that appared in no one’s crystal ball.
However, on a few occasions, I was accurate. At least in part.
I just read a list of high-tech tools that have become obsolete in the past decade (e.g., floppies, fax machines). I used many of these myself and remember junking them, saying to myself: hey, these were highly touted, I bought the second- or third-generation version and now I am dumping them (of course, in an ecologically correct manner). Still the number of high-tech machines and applications that hit their expiration date so quickly stunned me.
Then I read another list of high-tech predictions for 2020 that was equally entertaining about the future of schools, well, not schools as we know them in December 2010. This list posted by a high-tech enthusiast who yearns for a paperless society and totally customized instruction with smaller, greener schools tickled me because while I do agree with some of the items, others are, well, dreams. I have been reading such lists (here) for years with high-tech devices having different names but a glorious future just around the corner. Last year, I posted my predictions for high-tech in schools in 2020. Here is, in part, what I said in 2009.
“Clear trend lines for U.S. classrooms in the next decade are hand-held mobile devices (iPhone, Blackberry, e-book variations) and online learning (distance education).”
Handhelds will permit the digitizing of texts loaded on to the devices. Student backpacks will lighten considerably as $100 hardbound books become as obsolete as the rotary dial phone. Homework, text reviews for tests, and all of the teacher-assigned tasks associated with hardbound books will be formatted for small screens. Instead of students’ excuses about leaving texts in lockers, teachers will hear requests to recharge their Blackberries, iPhones, etc.
Based on current Twitter and other future social networking traffic, shorter and shorter messaging will also become a mainstay of teacher-student communication. Some sample Twitter messages:
*In a college course on consumer sciences, the professor asked his 250 students to post questions on Twitter. On the topic of car insurance for those under 25 years of age, a student asked: ‘What happens if you get married and then get divorced at 24? Would your insurance go up?’ ”
*In the same course, during an exam, a student tweeted a fellow student and asked for the answer to a question. Teacher caught the student because although the software said “anonymous” on the handheld, the name of the student showed up on the teacher’s screen.
Proponents talk about how this form of teaching and learning as a powerful innovation that will liberate learning from the confines of brick-and-mortar buildings. Estimates (and predictions) of online learning becoming the dominant form of teaching turn up repeatedly and, somehow, fade. Surely, there will always be students and adults drawn from rural, home schooled, and adult populations that will provide a steady stream of clients for online courses. Nonetheless, by 2020, well over 90 percent of public school students will be in places called schools going at least 180 days a year to self-contained classrooms where a teacher will be in charge.
The error that online champions make decade after decade (recall that distance learning goes back to the 1960s) is that they forget that schools have multiple responsibilities beyond literacy. Both parents and voters want schools to socialize students into community values, prepare them for civic responsibilities, and yes, get them ready for college and career. Online courses from for-profit companies and non-profit agencies cannot hack those duties and responsibilities.
So by 2020, uses of technologies will change some aspects of teaching and learning but schools and classrooms will be clearly recognizable to students’ parents and grandparents. Online instruction will continue to expand incrementally but will still be peripheral to regular K-16 schooling. End of prediction.”
Of course, I could be just another one of those benighted folks who predicted that automobiles, planes, and television were mere hype and would never replace horse-drawn carriages, trains, and radio. Here is a list of those failed predictions to chuckle over as you ring in the new year.
Whatever your guesses are for next year or for 2020, the questions that need answers are not about the rapid expiration dates of the next newest device –including the “revolutionary” iPad–nor to what degree technology will be ubiquitous in home and school nor even how new technologies will be used by the next generation of teachers and students. No, those are not the questions that need to be asked.
Instead, fundamental questions have to deal with matters of educational philosophy–what knowledge is most worth? Why? What are the best ways of teaching and learning? These questions, in turn depend on broader moral and political questions about what is the “good” life and how does one live a useful and worthy life. When these questions are asked and answered then, and only then, can new technologies play their proper role in schools and classrooms.
Beginning in early March 2020 when the pandemic struck, my 10 year-old grand-daughter who lives with her Mom in a large city in the Northwest stopped going to school. A fifth grader, she has since received instruction at home from two teachers. She uses a school-issued tablet loaded with Microsoft Teams software (instead of Zoom). In April 2021, she returned to in-person learning for two hours a day, four days a week .
In early May, I stayed with them a week and they returned with me to stay at my home for another week. In that period of time, I sat in the bedroom or dining room while she worked on her lessons–yes, she gave me permission to do so.
What follows is what I observed about how the two teachers taught and how my grand-daughter responded to that approach. Keep in mind that this is an N=1. I will not be generalizing to all children and youth either in this Northwest city’s schools or other districts that went completely remote during the pandemic. I am just describing what I observed.
The fact that instruction is remote (I avoid the word phrase “remote learning” because I cannot verify whether what was transmitted from teacher to student and student to teacher was actually learned) is, of course, crucial.
The very medium of instruction, that is, from either a school classroom or a kitchen, teachers teach at a distance unintentionally encouraging the dominant mode of classroom instruction in the U.S., that is, teacher-directed (see here). For those teachers who want student-directed learning, that is, for children to participate more in lessons, to make decisions, and to work with class-mates in small groups, well, the screen medium makes that especially difficult, if not impossible. Whole group instruction occurs over Zoom or Teams as does independent learning but not small group activity except for those teachers who have mastered the intricacies of different teaching platforms.
What I saw of these two teachers working with my grand-daughter’s class was the enormous amount of work they put into finding videos, worksheets, questions, and activities that this fifth grade class could cope with. They spoke in what I call teacher-voices that were friendly and demanding. They appeared to me as being well prepared, creative in ways, and determined to cover the fifth grade district curriculum to prepare these 10 and 11 year-olds to move into the sixth grade.
What I observed during these instructional sessions–two hours long–was an antsy, responsible 10 year-old trying her darndest to pay attention and do what the teacher requested. It was hard, however, as she moved from the bed in her Mom’s room to the floor and then to the kitchen table ending up on the rug in the sun room. Her attention span expanded and shrunk before my eyes as this active youngster tuned in and tuned out within a few minutes. She secretly watched online YouTube videos when there were lapses in teacher directions, technical difficulties with the hardware connections or software glitches.
She completed every assignment that the teacher gave and submitted it electronically only after her Mom checked out the work, particularly the math problems. That was part of the regimen that my grand-daughter followed when she logged into the daily lessons four days a week.
The district finally began in-person classroom instruction for K-5 children in mid-May 2021. My grand-daughter went for two hours a day four times a week relishing the contact with other children albeit only a dozen or so classmates were there. While I did drive her to school and pick her up afterwards during the week I was visiting, I did not observe her in class.
Media reports on students’ learning loss during school closures and installation of remote instruction underscore the academic content and skills that students missed while at home or in hybrid settings of in-person and distance instruction (see here and here). Experts predict that such erosion in test scores, especially for low-income minority students including English Language Learners, will show up when standardized tests resume in 2021-2022.
The science of predicting “learning loss” of children after weeks and months away from formal in-person instruction (apart from summer vacations) remains dicey. What is not picked up by standardized tests, of course, is what students learned outside of school, at home, on the street, in the neighborhood, from extended family members, excursions, watching TV programs (beyond cartoons), and work-for-pay. Many young and older teens , for example, entered the job market as vaccinated population increased and businesses re-opened. Small businesses including restaurants, amusement parks, and service-driven industries gobbled up teenagers to fully accommodate customers (see here).
Standardized tests are woefully inadequate tools to assess what is learned outside of school. My grand-daughter, to cite only one example, carefully wearing her mask whenever outside or in shops, read many books taken out from the neighborhood public library, went camping with her Mom and friends numerous times in the waning months of the pandemic. She visited family in California staying over a month in the Monterey area, beachcombing, drawing, and building paper mache projects. She became technically proficient with the tablet she used for school, her mother’s smart phone, and anything else that had a swipe screen or dashboard. She built robots out of paper and cardboard installing triple A batteries in them so that cute robot dog could march across the living room floor. She built houses, again of paper, to make a village in which she put bakeries, grocery stores, a bank and a post office. She drew a map of the village as well. And she did far more than I can include here.
Did she learn a lot from remote instruction during the pandemic? I cannot say. But I can say–from observation and conversations–that she learned a lot informally. Can that learning be captured by existing assessments? Hardly.
There are critics who maintain that teaching has hardly changed over the past century. Such critics know little of the history of schooling, particularly how teachers have taught. Teaching requires tools just as learning does. As long as there have been age-graded schools with one teacher and and a group of students distributed through a building, teachers and students needs tools, i.e., technologies, to instruct and learn. Enter the slate blackboard in the early 19th century. Classroom technologies from the slate blackboard to present-day student-held computer devices have altered incrementally, not fundamentally, how teachers teach. This guest post documents the changes that have occurred in a historic and basic classroom tool, one that long ago went by the name: blackboard. And do not forget chalk and erasers accompanying this ubiquitous technology.
Kim Kankiewicz is a Seattle-based writer who has published articles in Pacific Standard, Salon, The Washington Post, and McSweeney’s. This piece appeared in The Atlantic, October 13, 2016.
In 2015, the construction crew renovating an Oklahoma high school uncovered an unusual time capsule. Beneath newer wall coverings, the workers discovered slate blackboards marked with schoolwork and colorful chalk drawings from 1917. Multiplication problems appeared beside a treble staff denoting an A-major scale. A spelling list, written in cursive, included the words “whoa” and “notion.” Drawings of Thanksgiving turkeys and a girl blowing bubbles adorned the spaces between the lessons.
Reports of the discovery spotlighted the chalk, acknowledging the blackboards merely as surfaces for the drawings. But slate blackboards, and the green chalkboards that replaced them, are themselves relics of a bygone era. Even small schools in rural communities, like the elementary school I attended in Nebraska in the 1980s, have exchanged chalkboards for whiteboards and interactive Smart Boards.
I never considered the chalkboard’s prominence in my education until I visited my old school in 2015. It shouldn’t have surprised me to find a whiteboard where the chalkboard had been, but the change was startling. No matter how young, most parents today still conjure the image of a chalkboard when they imagine a K-12 classroom. In popular culture, chalkboards are a visual shorthand for school. They appear in stock photography accompanying articles about education and in movies and television shows set in schools.
By the end of the 1990s, whiteboards outsold chalkboards by a margin of up to four to one. Even digital whiteboards—computerized display boards with interactive features—outsold chalkboards by the turn of the millennium. Since then, chalkboards have all but disappeared from schools. Why, then, do they remain such potent symbols for education? Perhaps it’s because of what they represent: the idea of stable knowledge in a rapidly changing digital age.
* * *
In the early 1800s, slate blackboards represented change. For centuries, students had used handheld tablets of wood or slate. Teachers moved about their classrooms, writing instructions and inspecting students’ work on individual slates. When the Scottish educational reformer James Pillans became the rector of Edinburgh High School, in 1810, his use of a blackboard was revolutionary. He explains in an 1856 memoir, Contributions to the Cause of Education:
I placed before my pupils, instead of a crowded and perplexing map, a large black board, having an unpolished non-reflecting surface, on which was inscribed in bold relief a delineation of the country, with its mountains, rivers, lakes, cities, and towns of note. The delineation was executed with chalks of different colours.
Widely recognized as the inventor of the blackboard, Pillans doesn’t specify how he constructed the apparatus. Popular lore, as recounted in Lewis Buzbee’s Blackboard: A Personal History of the Classroom, holds that he connected several handheld slates to form a single large surface. Pillans used his innovation to teach Greek as well as geography, noting, “The very novelty of all looking on one board, instead of each on his own book, had its effect in sustaining attention.”
By the mid-19th century, blackboards were in common use. As is the case for all technology, they came with a learning curve. Manuals like Josiah Bumstead’s The Black Board in the Primary School (1841) and William Alcott’s Slate and Black Board Exercises (1842) helped teachers adopt blackboards as instructional tools. The manuals offered lessons like this one, from Bumstead:
The teacher, after making a single mark on the board, thusinquires,
How many marks have I made?
Adding another mark,
How many marks have I made?
Slate blackboard manufacturing began in the U.S. by the 1840s, and rail travel soon made it possible to ship blackboards across the country. In a single year during the 1890s, 11 factories near Slatington, Pennsylvania, produced nearly a million square feet of slate blackboard, according to mineral industry statistics published in 1898.
Whiteboards had been available for decades before educators embraced them. In the 1960s, catalogs for hardware retailers advertised the wet-erase Plasti-Slate, an “always-fresh writing board for home or office.” The corporate world got on board when dry erase markers became available in the 1970s.
But whiteboards didn’t start appearing in schools until the 1990s. The reason for their adoption? Computers. Late-century articles heralding the advent of the classroom whiteboard all cited the effect of chalk dust on computers as the impetus for eliminating chalkboards. Chalk dust was a rising concern as the average number of computers in public schools increased from a ratio of one computer for every 30 students in 1988 to one for every five in 1999. By that year, chalkboards were scarce enough that the Chicago Tribuneinterviewed fifth graders who had never seen one in real life.
* * *
Enthusiastic adopters appreciated the whiteboard’s smooth surface and the contrast between dark-colored markers and white background. They said good riddance to dust on their clothes and the squeaky sound of chalk against chalkboard. Other educators held onto their chalk. My mother, who became a teacher in 1971, was a chalkboard devotee. When the middle school where she taught was renovated in 2001, teachers
were asked to choose between chalkboards and whiteboards. My mom opted for a chalkboard and used it until she retired in 2012, at which point the district installed a whiteboard.
For teachers like my mother, the chalkboard’s appeal is largely aesthetic. My mom found chalkboards easier to clean and considered their green color more calming than white. (This perceived calming benefit is among the reasons chalkboards remain popular in Japan, where they are still present in 75 percent of K-12 classrooms.) Likewise, my mother enjoyed the feel of the chalk in her hand and liked how her handwriting looked on the chalkboard.
Of course, handwriting itself is disappearing from school curriculums, made less relevant by the same digital technologies that have rendered the chalkboard obsolete. As author Anne Trubek observes in The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, handwriting is increasingly valued more as an art than a practical skill. Brides hire calligraphers to address their wedding invitations, graphic designers study lettering books, and restaurants display hand-lettered menus—typically written on chalkboards. These days, most chalkboards are sold to restaurants, not to schools.
The link between whiteboards and digital culture helped many U.S. schools adopt smartboards. By 2014, 60 percent of K-12 classrooms had interactive whiteboards, a figure that’s expected to increase to 73 percent by 2019. Interactive whiteboards, or IWBs, are a topic of debate in education journals and among teachers. Proponents cite their potential to engage tech-savvy kids, encourage class-wide participation via remote clickers, and expand access to lesson materials. For example, my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher delivered a geography lesson that would have astounded James Pillans. Projecting a Google Map of the state of Washington onto the whiteboard, he zoomed in on various regions and alternated between map and satellite views. He used Street View to conduct virtual tours of points of interest, like the State Capitol, in Olympia, and the University of Washington campus.
But critics question the academic benefit of such features over the tried-and-true functionality of chalkboards. At a cost of up to $5,000 per classroom, schools invest far more in installing interactive whiteboards than in training teachers to use them. Detractors regard IWBs as glorified chalkboards that at best replicate teacher-centric instruction and at worst idle in sleep mode most of the day. Indeed, the new building where my son attends middle school does not have interactive whiteboards because in the old building teachers were not using them.
* * *
Used to their potential, interactive whiteboards are not so much display surfaces as portals to a vast array of information. In the internet era, information proliferates more rapidly than we can access it. Knowledge feels vast and messy, something to be explored and revised; computer-powered whiteboards become students’ connection to the scrappy, idea-driven world of technology. As Ken Robinson puts it in his TED talk on creativity in schools, education is “meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp.”
Exciting as that may be, perhaps it also makes us uneasy. IWBs are unlikely to replace chalkboards or whiteboards as symbols any time soon, because chalkboards still remind us of a time when it was possible to believe that everything a child needed to know was containable on a flat surface. They represent a view of knowledge as finite, something to be transmitted and received. They’ve even lent a name, “chalk and talk,” to the traditional teaching style derived from this view of knowledge.
My daughter hopes to become a teacher. The very idea makes me imagine her at the front of a classroom writing on a chalkboard, but of course this is fantasy. Teachers of the future are perhaps likelier to use robots than chalkboards. (Some worry that teachers will be replaced by robots, though scientists assure us this will not happen.) Wall-mounted display boards will be unnecessary for teachers who use technology to interact with students remotely. Creators of such technology understand the power of the past to reassure us about the future. A leading vendor in the e-learning market reveals as much in its name: Blackboard.
Rick Hess is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of Education Policy Studies.
The public view of education technology has evolved over the past 12 months. When schools shut down last spring, frustration with the availability of devices, amount of instruction, and quality of teaching seemed nearly universal. During this past year, there appeared to be some rough consensus that virtual learning—while mostly still mediocre—has clearly improved from last spring.
But that’s all in the past. What I’m far more interested in, looking forward, is how bad ed-tech habits that formed during the shutdown risk compromising instruction and even slowing the return to school next fall.
After all, examples of misused technology are manifold at the moment. There’s the much-derided “Zoom in a room,” where schools nominally reopen their doors for kids—but then have kids sit in a classroom, masked and socially distanced, with Chromebooks and an “adult monitor” (read: babysitter), while the teacher instructs remotely from home. To no one’s surprise, kids find this tedious and stultifying, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that students would rather be home—where they can go maskless, relax, and grab a snack.
There are also the reports that thousands of districts are looking to do four-day weeks in the fall to allow for cleaning, amidst evidence that this is nothing more than hygiene theater running amok. As Robin Lake and Georgia Heyward have observed, “There is real danger that school systems and teachers are getting attached to the four-day week and may lobby to retain the schedule next school year, even after students are largely vaccinated.” They make the obvious point: “We cannot afford to throw away an entire day of learning and student support based on a false scientific premise.” Yet, this schedule is made far easier to justify by the fig leaf of “asynchronous” instruction, which excuses haphazard instruction by allowing for the comfortable illusion that schools are full time.
And there seems to be a newfound comfort with the idea that learning on Chromebooks or iPads is utterly normal. I’ve heard from dozens of parents and teachers who are troubled by the expectation in some schools, even in the earliest grades, that students will spend most of the school day involved in app-based instruction. In fact, I suspect that growing comfort with remote learning helped explain the slow roll on returning to school, as two-day-a-week and four-days-plus-an-asynchronous-day seemed more acceptable because . . . technology.
All of this seems wildly off-base. The point of getting kids back into schools is not so they sit six feet apart and stare at a screen—it’s so that they can interact with classmates and teachers, develop friendships, and receive mentoring. If the ubiquity of digital tools makes schools move more slowly to reclaim the humanity of the schoolhouse, that’s a big problem.
It also misses the point about what technology does well. Tech isn’t a replacement for the human face of schooling; at its best, it augments and supplements it. The goal is to give teachers more time and energy to get to know their students, to put a hand on a shoulder, to ask the right question, to engage a disengaged learner. It’s hard to do all that in the best of circumstances—it’s that much tougher when schools are using tech to normalize remote learning, asynchronous days, or eyeballs glued to devices.
The true potential of ed-tech lies in its ability to do the routine stuff more effectively and efficiently so that educators can devote more time to the human stuff. But rather than seeking ways to use tech more humanely, schools appear headed in the opposite direction right now—relying on tech in ways that threaten to suffocate the human core of the schoolhouse. It’d be a bitter irony if the big result from the COVID-inspired push to universalize access to ed-tech is the entrenchment of the pandemic’s worst, most dehumanizing classroom practices.
Following up on my recent post, Whatever Happened to Current Events, this op-ed by Frederick Hess who interviewed Stanford University Professor, Sam Wineburg, goes to the crucial intersection of children and youth learning how to sort accurate from inaccurate information. Digital literacy in dealing with mainstream and social media, according to Wineburg, spans all academic subjects that children and youth take during their student careers of 13-plus years in schools.
Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies and writes about K-12 and higher education. This article appeared in Forbes magazine April 13, 2021.
One of the great educational conundrums of the moment is how to help Americans navigate a digital landscape filled with fake news, dubious claims, and rank disinformation. Educators, like the rest of us, are searching for practical strategies. That’s what makes Stanford University’s Sam Wineburg so interesting.
Wineburg, Stanford’s Margaret Jacks Professor of Education, studies how people judge the credibility of digital content. A former history teacher with a PhD in education psychology, he’s perhaps the nation’s leading scholar when it comes to helping people figure out what’s actually true on the Internet. I recently had the chance to talk with him about his work and the practical lessons it holds.
Wineburg approaches his work with a simple guiding principle: “If you want to know what people do on the Internet, don’t ask them what they would do. Put them in front of a computer and watch them do it.”
He recounts a 2019 experiment studying how high school students evaluate digital sources, in which 3,000 students performed a series of web tasks. One task asked students to evaluate a website about climate change. Wineburg notes, “When you Google the group behind it, you learn that they’re funded by Exxon—a clear conflict of interest. Yet, 92 percent of students never made the link. Why? Because their eyes remained glued to the original site.” In other words, looking into the source of information is essential to judging its veracity—and yet, students didn’t make that leap.
In another study, Wineburg compared how a group of PhD students and Stanford undergraduates stacked up against fact-checkers at leading news outlets in New York and Washington when it came to assessing the credibility of unfamiliar websites. He says that fact-checkers speedily “saw through common digital ruses” while trained scholars “often spun around in circles.”
Why? Wineburg concludes, “The intelligent people we’ve studied are invested in their intelligence. That investment often gets them in trouble. Because they’re smart, they think they can outsmart the Web.” The result is that when they see a professional-looking website with scholarly references, they conclude it’s legitimate. “Basically,” he says, “they’re reading the web like a piece of static print—thinking that they can determine what something is by looking at it . . . On the Internet, hubris is your Achilles heel.”
Fact-checkers employ a different approach, one that Wineburg terms “lateral reading.” This involves only briefly looking at a website, then leaving it to search for background information on the organization or group behind the original site to determine if it is worth returning to. “In other words,” he says, “they learn about a site by leaving it to consult the broader Web.”
The problem for educators, according to Wineburg, is that this goes against the grain of how teachers usually teach students to evaluate a text. Usually, students are taught to read carefully and fully, and only then render judgment. “Yet, on the Web, where attention is scarce, expending precious minutes reading a text, before you know who produced it and why, is a colossal waste of time,” Wineburg says.
In fact, the usual methods teachers use for addressing online credibility are mostly unhelpful. Wineburg laments that we often approach the subject like a game of twenty questions. We ask, “‘Is the site a .org?’ If so, ‘It’s good.’ ‘Is it a .com?’ If so, ‘It’s bad.’ ‘Does it have contact information?’ That makes it ‘good.’ But if it has banner ads? ‘It’s bad.’” The problem, he says, “is that bad actors read these lists, too, and each of these features is ludicrously easy to game.”
To help teachers wrestling with all this, Wineburg and his collaborators have created a “digital literacy curriculum” with 65 classroom-ready lessons and assessments, a complementary set of videos, and an online course on “Online Civic Reasoning” done with MIT’s Teaching Systems Lab. Wineburg notes that all of these materials are free and can be downloaded by registering at sheg.stanford.edu.
Wineburg thinks we should be teaching these skills from “the moment we give [kids] a smartphone” and that “we’re deluding ourselves” if we imagine that schools adding “an elective” will be enough to “drag us out of this mess.” Rather, he wants educators to ask: “How, in the face of our current digital assault, do we rethink the teaching of history, science, civics, and language arts—the basics?”
Ultimately, Wineburg says, “On every question we face as citizens—to raise the minimum wage, to legalize marijuana, to tax sugary drinks, to abolish private prisons, you name it—sham sources jostle for our attention right next to trustworthy ones. Failing to teach kids the difference is educational negligence.”
I will have a new book published by the end of this year called Confessions of a School Reformer. How an idea becomes a book even after all I have written, remains mysterious to me. In reconstructing the process which often means demystifying what occurs and making it appear linear and logical, I remain uncertain of exactly how I got the idea and how that idea morphed into a book proposal and then a contract with a publisher and voila!, the book appearing on my doorstep.
Here is what I believe occurred.
I had finished Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools (2020) and was thinking of my next project (yes, I need to have projects to look forward to). The theme of Chasing Success was how ideas of success and failure in public schools have a long history in American life and showed up repeatedly during three major reform movements that blanketed the 20th and 21st centuries. I wrote the book but I could not get these surges of reform that roiled the nation and schools, and to my surprise, my entire life, out of my head.
A century ago, the Progressive movement swept across the nation’s schools and faded away by the 1950s only to be followed by the widespread quest for equality central to the civil rights movement that then gave way in the late-1970s to business-inspired reforms tying school improvement to the nation’s changing economy. The latter efforts resulted in the standards, testing, and accountability reforms that have marked the closing years of the 20th century and have continued into the opening decades of the 21st century.
But I was stuck intellectually. I didn’t know what to do next. Slowly, I became unstuck as I began thinking of my life as a child, as a teacher, superintendent, and professor. I am in my late-80s and realized—not in any epiphany or dream—that I had actually experienced all three of these 20th century reform movements: I had attended elementary and secondary schools in the latter-years of the Progressive movement. I had been a history teacher during the civil rights era, and, finally, I served as a district superintendent during the early years of standards, testing, and accountability reforms, and then as a professor doing research on this reform movement that remains intact in 2021. Could I tie my personal experiences to these larger movements? Were my life experiences affected by these national reforms? The answers to these questions have become Confessions of a School Reformer.
How that sequence of events happened, however, remains mysterious to me.
And now I am trying to figure out what to do next. No dreams or epiphanies have yet occurred. But I do know that I want to write about the act of teaching because it has been central to my life as professional and as a person. I wanted to take a deep dive into teaching, its successes and failures, its uncertainties about outcomes for both teacher and students, and how it actually occurs daily in the nation’s classrooms.
I usually start with a big question that has no easy answer to it. I think a lot about that question and hope that the outline of a possible answer appears. It seldom does in any organized fashion. I have a few insights drawn from my direct experiences of teaching in high schools, leading university seminars, and teaching one-on-one with family members and friends. Also, over the past decades as a researcher in classrooms and schools, I have learned a great deal through observations and interviews. But how exactly to pull together all of that experiential and research-produced knowledge and say something that might illuminate the complex act of teaching for policymakers, practitioners, parents, and wannabe reformers, well, that continues to puzzle me.
So I sit at the dining room table surrounded by the best books in my home library about teaching to see if dipping into them and deciphering my notes on page margins, something will magically form in my mind and become my next project. So which books do I have on my table as I prepare to click away on my laptop?
*Williard Waller, The Sociology of Teaching (1932)
*Philip Jackson, Life in Classrooms (1968)
*Seymour Sarason, The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (1971)
*Dan Lortie, Schoolteacher (1975)
*Rebeccas Barr and Robert Dreeben, How Schools Work (1983)
*Richard Elmore, Penelope Peterson, Sarah McCarthey, Restructuring in the Classroom (1996)
*David Cohen and Heather Hill, Learning Policy (2001)
*Mary Kennedy, Inside Teaching (2005)
*Jack Schneider, From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse (2014)
Also staring back at me are histories of teachers and teaching in my home library that document both change and stability in classroom teaching over the past two centuries
Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught (1984)
Barbara Finkelstein, Governing the Young (1989)
Richard Altenbaugh, The Teacher’s Voice (1992)
Kate Rousmaniere, City Teachers (1997)
I am sure that scholars and practitioners reading this post have in their home libraries different books or would point to some in public libraries about teachers and teaching that do not appear here. No surprise since there is much scholarship and personal accounts missing from my list that others would swear by. So be it. Yet this is how I start.
Perhaps there are shortcuts in shaping my next project to pose a serious, worthwhile question that sinks its hooks in me–as other projects have done–but I don’t have such time-savers or single click alternatives to outflank the mysterious and circuitous journey I have traveled in writing book then and now.
So faithful readers of this blog, you now have a sense of how I go about shaping a project that, I hope, will become my next book. Should you have suggestions for books and articles to read, please send them along.
Two decades ago, research I had done on schools and classrooms in Silicon Valley during the 1990s was published as Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms. In 2018, The Flight of a Butterfly or Path of a Bullet, another book researching 41 exemplary Silicon Valley teachers who had integrated technology appeared. Since then, I have visited many classrooms where teachers used electronic devices seamlessly in lessons until the pandemic hit. Then remote instruction became the primary medium of teaching and learning.
What similarities and differences do I see between the two periods of intense activity in getting hardware and software into schools and classrooms?
The similarities are easy to list.
*At both times, policy elites including donors and computer companies urged districts and schools to get desktops and laptops into classroom teachers’ and students’ hands.
The hype then and now promised that students would learn more, faster, and better; that classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized–the word today is “personalized”; and that graduates would enter the high-tech workplace fully prepared from day one.
*Teacher and student access to the new technologies expanded.
For example, in the mid-to-late 1990s, Silicon Valley companies and philanthropists gave desktops and laptops to schools while districts also purchased loads of personal computers. The influx of machines was often distributed within schools to computer labs and media centers (formerly libraries) with most teachers having at least one in their classroom and a couple for students in academic classes. Some software, mostly adaptations of business applications, were given to schools and also purchased. Students had far more access to desktops in labs and classrooms a few times a week, depending upon availability and the lesson content, than ever before.
Nearly twenty years later, that expansion of access student access to digital devices and software is nearly ubiquitous. Most labs have disappeared in leiu of classroom carts holding 25-30 laptops or tablets. Many districts now have a device available for each student. As access has increased, so has teacher and student use in lessons.
What about differences?
* Goals for using digital tools have changed.
The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve, reformers thought. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to accelerate the improvement of U.S. schools and to thereby strengthen the economy.
The preschools and high schools that I visited and observed in action in 1998-1999 (including schools across the country) pursued these goals. The evidence I found, however, that increased access and use of these technological tools had, indeed, achieved those goals was missing. Student academic achievement had not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) had not materialized. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school did not necessarily step into better-paying, entry-level jobs.
But in the past decade, those initial goals in the 1990s generating the expansion of access to digital tools have since shifted. Seeking higher academic achievement through using digital tools is no longer a goal. Instead, new devices and software now have the potential for engagement (educators assume that engagement leads directly to higher academic achievement) through “personalized learning.” Moreover, the technology and software are essential since students take state tests online (and during the pandemic were a necessity). And the continuing dream of graduating students marching into high-tech jobs, well, that goal has persisted.
*Combined similarities and differences across time.
The Path of a Butterfly describes and analyzes the observations I made and interviews I conducted in 2016 of 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons. I found both similarities and differences with the earlier study I did and prior historical research on how teachers taught in the 20th century.
These Silicon Valley teachers that I observed in 2016 were hard working and used digital tools as familiarly as paper and pencil. Devices and software were now in the background, not foreground–as were the previous generation of teachers using devices in computer labs and media centers.
The lessons these 41 teachers taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in how they managed administrative details quietly and effortlessly in taking attendance and communicating with students, colleagues, and parents. They saved time and were more efficient using these digital tools than the earlier generation of teachers. For their lessons, they used these tools to create playlists for students, pursue problem-based units, and assess student learning during the actual lesson and afterwards as well. All of this work was quietly integrated into the flow of the lesson. I could see that students were intimately familiar with the devices and how the teacher wove the content of the lesson effortlessly into the different activities. They surely differed from their comrades who I had observed two decades earlier.
But I also noted no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of their lessons such as setting goals, designing varied activities and groupings, eliciting student participation, and assessing student understanding. The format of lessons appeared similar to the earlier generation I observed 20 years ago and experienced peers a half- and full century ago whose classrooms I had studied through archival research.
These contemporary lessons I observed were teacher-directed and post-observation interviews revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Sure, the content of lessons had changed–students working with DNA in a biology lesson differed from biology classes I had observed earlier. But the sequence of activities and what students did over the course of a lesson resembled what I had seen many times earlier. Again, stability and change in teaching emerged clearly for me as did the pervasive use of digital tools.
I am an education writer, an independent scholar, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and ed-tech’s Cassandra.
“It’s a long story,” I often say. You can catch snippets of it, if you pay attention. I’ve got a CV if you care about such formalities. And I wrote an FAQ if that helps.
I love science fiction, tattoos, and, some days, computer technologies. I loathe mushy foods and romantic comedies. I’m not ashamed to admit I like ABBA and dislike Tolkien. I am somewhat ashamed to admit I’ve not finished Ulysses, and I’ve never even started Infinite Jest. I prefer cake to pie, unless we’re talking pastry projectiles. I pick fights on the Internet. I’m a high school dropout and a PhD dropout. I have a Master’s degree in Folklore and was once considered the academic expert on political pie-throwing. I was (I am?) a widow. I’m a mom. I have a hard stare that I like to imagine is much like Paddington Bear’s and a smirk much like the Cheshire Cat’s. I am not afraid.
I travel as much as I possibly can. “Home,” at least according to my driver’s license, is Seattle, Washington.…
I was a recipient of a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University School of Journalism for the 2017-2018 academic year.
Watters’ post on the future of education was a talk delivered at Ryerson University. The post appeared February 19, 2015
It’s a refrain throughout my work: we are suffering from an amnesia of sorts, whereby we seem to have forgotten much of the history of technology. As such, we now tell these stories about the past, present, and future whereby all innovations emerge from Silicon Valley, all innovations are recent innovations, and there is no force for change other than entrepreneurial genius and/or the inevitability of “disruptive innovation.”
This amnesia seeps from technology into education and education technology. The rich and fascinating past of education is forgotten and erased in an attempt to tell a story about the future of education that emphasizes products not processes, the private not the public, “skills” not inquiry. The future of education technology therefore is the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities because the history of education technology has always been the story of Silicon Valley and a handful of elite private universities. Or so the story goes.
I’ve been working on a book for a while now called Teaching Machines that explores the history of education technology in the twentieth century. And this year I’ve started a series on my blog, Hack Education, that also documents some of this lost or forgotten history. (I’ve looked at the origins of multiple choice tests and multiple choice testing machines, the parallels between the “Draw Me” ads and for-profit correspondence schools of the 1920s and today’s MOOCs, and the development of one of my personal favorite pieces of ed-tech, the Speak & Spell.) See, I’m exhausted by the claims by the latest batch of Silicon Valley ed-tech entrepreneurs and their investors that ed-tech is “new” and that education — I’m quoting from the New York Times here — “is one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology.” Again, this is a powerful and purposeful re-telling and revising of history designed to shape the direction of the future.
Of course, these revisionist narratives shouldn’t really surprise us. We always tell stories of our past in order to situate ourselves in the present and guide ourselves into the future. But that means these stories about education and education technology — past, present, future — really matter.
I’m particularly interested in “the history of the future of education,” or as what Matt Novak calls his blog, the “paleofuture.” How have we imagined the future of teaching and learning in the past? What can we learn by looking at the history of predictions about the future, in our case about the future of education? Whose imagination, what ideologies do these futures reflect? How do these fantasies shape the facts, the future?
This is perhaps one of the most cited examples of the “paleofuture” of education technology.
This 1910 print is by the French artist Villemard and was part of a series “En l’an 2000” (“In the Year 2000”) from around the World’s Fair and the new century that was packaged in cigar and cigarette boxes. Here we see the teacher stuffing textbooks — L’Histoire de France — into a machine, where the knowledge is ostensibly ground up and delivered electronically into the heads of students. Arguably this image is so frequently cited because it confirms some of our beliefs and suspicions (our worst suspicions) about the future of education: that it’s destined to become mechanized, automated and that it’s designed based on a belief that knowledge — educational content — is something to be delivered. Students’ heads are something to be filled.
The other prints in this series are pretty revealing as well.
I’m fond of the flying firefighters.
In these images, we see the future imagined as humans conquering the sky and the sea, as more and more labor is done by machine.
It’s worth noting that quite often (but not always) the labor we imagine being replaced by machine is the labor that society does not value highly. It’s menial labor. It’s emotional labor. The barber. The housekeeper. The farm girl. So it’s interesting, don’t you think, when we see these pictures and predictions that suggest that more and more teaching will be done by machine. Do we value the labor of teaching? And also: do we value the labor of learning?
Thomas Edison famously predicted in 1913 that “Books will soon be obsolete in schools” – but not because books were to be ground up by a knowledge mill. Rather, Edison believed that one of the technological inventions he was involved with and invested in – the motion picture – would displace both textbooks and teachers alike.
“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks,” Edison asserted in 1922. “I should say that on the average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture… where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency.”
100% efficiency. Efficiency. What does that even mean? Because unexamined, this prediction, this goal for education has become an undercurrent of so many predictions about the future of teaching and learning as enhanced by technology. Efficiency.
It gets to the heart of that Villemard print too: this question of how we get the knowledge of the book or the instructor into all students’ brains as quickly and cheaply as possible.
The future: cheaper and faster. More mechanized. More technological.
This is the history of education technology throughout the twentieth century. It is the history of the future of education.
Radio. Radio Books. Lectures via television (This image is from 1935). Professor as transmitter. Students as receivers.
From a 1981 book School, Work and Play (World of Tomorrow):
“If we look further into the future, there could be no schools and no teachers. Schoolwork may not exist. Instead you will have to do homework, for you will learn everything at home using your home video computer. You’ll learn a wide range of subjects quickly and at a time of day to suit you. … The computer won’t seem like a machine. It will talk to you just like a human teacher, and also show you pictures to help you learn. You’ll talk back, and you’ll be able to draw your own pictures on the computer screen with a light pen. This kind of homework of the future will be more like playing an electronic game than studying with books. …Eventually, studying a particular subject will be like having the finest experts in the world teaching you. Far in the future, if computers develop beyond humans in intelligence, then the experts could in fact be computers, and not human beings at all!”
I didn’t have this book growing up, but my brother had something similar: The Kids’ Whole Future Catalog, published in 1982. We spent hours pouring over its pages, imagining what our “whole future” would entail. Flying cars and moon colonies.
Education is, quite arguably, caught in a difficult position when it comes to these sorts of predictions about the future – and it’s a position that makes education seem intransigent. See, education is – almost necessarily as we have the system constructed today – trapped by being both backwards-facing and forwards-facing. That is, education institutions are tasks with introducing students to domains of knowledge – all of which have history, a past – all the while are tasked too with preparing students for the future – a future in which, according to some stories at least, knowledge is still unknown and undiscovered. As such, there is this inevitable panic and an inevitable tension about education, knowledge, conservation, and innovation.
This image from 1982 was part of a series about the future of computers commissioned by Alan Kay when he went to work for Atari. Here we see some of the earliest visions from Silicon Valley of the personal computer in the classroom. The future of education here is technological. It is branded. It is game-based. There are still desks in rows and clusters. And students still rebel.
When we look back at all these predictions from the past about the future of education – the history of the future of ed-tech– the point (my point) isn’t that our education systems are reluctant to change. My point is not that schools have failed to fulfill the sci fi imagination. Indeed, I’d argue that schools have changed a lot over the last hundred years thanks to the law, not to technology: mandates for desegregation for example that would not have come from “code.” My point is that the imagination about the future is so very intertwined in our notions of the past and the present. And if we let Silicon Valley, for example, erase the history of education technology, if we allow Silicon Valley to dictate the present terms for education technology, then we are stuck with its future, its corporate, libertarian vision. The same could be said, of course, of the imaginations of other powerful institutions: Hollywood’s vision of the future, Hanna Barbera’s, Harvard’s.
All the visions of the future of education, the future of teaching, the future of work, the future of learning are ideological. They are also political. As we hear the visions of politicians and entrepreneurs, as we listen to the visions of the rest of today’s speakers, we need to remember that. Predictions about the future are not neutral. They are not objective. They are invested. Invested in a past and a present and a future. Invested in a certain view of what learning looks like now, what it has looked like before and what – thanks to whatever happens in the future – what it might look like going forward.
Sam Wineburg is a professor of education and history at Stanford University, He along with Susan Ramiraz and Peter Stearns authored Human Legacy, a high school world history textbook.This appeared in Education Week, June 5, 2007
History textbooks have long merited special scorn. Thicker than a Duraflame log (and weighing more), today’s books feature pages that rival news Web sites (think CNN) for busyness and clutter. Artwork with multiple call-out boxes, tricolored pictures with captions of “How to Read Me,” and pointers to end-of-chapter test questions cued to state standards (with special editions produced for your state) dominate the text like the bun that smothered the patty in that famous burger ad.
Years ago, when I first started teaching future history teachers, I urged them to do what I had done as a young teacher: Ditch the book in favor of primary sources. Now, with Google, the job of finding sources is infinitely easier than in my day.
I soon found, however, that of my yearly crop of 30 future teachers, maybe one was practicing anything remotely like what I preached. The vast majority were just trying to survive. Enough desks for each student, a working computer (Apple IIs do not count), a blackboard: This was a high bar. But in 2004, things got better in California. That’s when Eliezer Williams et al. v. State of California, a class action filed on behalf of the state’s poor children, was settled, requiring Sacramento to spend $138 million to buy every child basic learning materials—including textbooks.
I quickly realized that by exhorting my novice history teachers to renounce textbooks, I was failing to teach them to use the one classroom tool—flawed, problematic, overly flashy, and did I mention how heavy they are?—they could expect to find once they got there.
So, I revamped my Methods of Teaching History course. I now begin with a lecture called “Textbooks Are Your Friends.” True, I admit, textbooks are often written in that third-person voice that makes Muzak sound scintillating. But this is not the main problem. Even lively textbooks pose a threat. The main problem of history textbooks is not how they’re written.
The main problem is their very existence.
History’s complexity requires us to encounter multiple voices. A single voice can spellbind us with gripping narrative. But “history” has at its root the Greek istor: to inquire. True inquiry admits no easy answers. The textbook achieves its synthetic harmony only by squelching discordant notes. That’s Muzak, not history.
Which is exactly what I told the two executives from Holt, Rinehart, and Winston who asked me to write a feature called “Reading Like a Historian” for their new high school series. “Well,” I said, munching gnocchi over dinner, “to read like a historian means challenging your book’s narrative. It means uncovering places where interpretations are treated as facts and facts as timeless truths.” Pouring more chianti, I told my hosts that no attempt to teach students “how historians read” can coexist with a textbook’s voice-from-on-high narrator (even higher than mine was at that moment).
My hosts nodded. “That’s why we want you to write it.” I nearly choked on my ciabatta.
Two months later and contracts signed, I got to work. To write these “Reading Like a Historian” essays, one each for every chapter of a U.S. and world history textbook, I drew on 20 years’ experience as a researcher of historical cognition, in which I have spent approximately 1.2 gazillion hours interviewing, probing, taping, transcribing, coding, analyzing, writing about, and generally hanging out with people who call themselves historians. All of this in an attempt to identify something common and generative to how historians—rather than, say, literary critics, electrical engineers, or horse whisperers—read.
Historical narratives are powerful devices for structuring detail, and for that reason, story is a teacher’s greatest asset. But what makes story so powerful is what also makes it seem impervious to scrutiny.
Together, my 70 essays span 5,000 years of human history. Some directly challenge the main text’s interpretation of key events and offer alternative accounts of, say, the 1929 stock market crash or al-Qaida’s attack on the Twin Towers.
In other essays, I alight on conclusions that the main text announces en passant and ask, how does the book “know” what it claims to know? For example, we are told that skilled Egyptian workers, not Hebrew slaves, built the pyramids. What gives historians the chutzpah to demolish in one sentence 40 chapters of Exodus and three hours and 39 minutes of Cecil B. DeMille?
Still other essays take up the issue of historical argument. (It’s a secret to many students that historians argue. To them history sprouts from the ground. Historians merely transcribe.) For example, the book alludes to views about why the Industrial Revolution occurred in 18th-century England. My essay throws these explanations into bold relief, pitting the now-fashionable “contingency theory” (available coal plus that unique Western ability to colonize, enslave, and reap profit from cheap cotton) against the more traditional “brilliance of the West” theory (Remember? Scientific inquiry, stable legal and economic institutions, a culture that prized initiative, thrift, and powdered wigs). These arguments are never resolved, but become thicker and more nuanced with each pass. This thickening—not consensus—constitutes progress.
What each of my essays tries to do is help students see their textbook itself as a historical source. In order to do this, students have to yank those iPods from their ears long enough to hear how language works, how it massages our understanding even before we’ve reached the first “fact.”
In a chapter on the Crusades, the text describes the contest between Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted: “Although Richard won several battles against the Muslims, he was not able to drive them out of the Holy Land or take Jerusalem. In the end, he had to admit a draw and return to England.” Pausing on this sentence, I raise the issue of positionality—not by quoting Derrida to 10th graders, but by taking the concept literally. What direction does the text point you in? With whom are you marching? Positioned at Saladin’s back, how would you change the narrative?
Similarly, I try to get students to think about how narratives begin, for historians know that beginnings shape interpretive structure, and that any story of consequence yields multiple openings. The textbook introduces American involvement in Southeast Asia with the 1954 Geneva Peace Conference. Until then, the narrative suggests, the conflict in Vietnam was largely a French affair.
In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices.
My essay provides readers with alternative starting points: January 1944, when, writing to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Franklin D. Roosevelt remarked that “Indochina should not go back to France,” a colonizer that had “milked it for one hundred years”; the foggy days after the Allied victory, when Ho Chi Minh appealed to Harry Truman (by writing eight letters—some not declassified until 1972) expressing a desire for “full cooperation with the United States”; or August 1945, when Truman met Charles de Gaulle and laid the groundwork for $15 million in military aid to an American-advised and American-equipped French force at Dien Bien Phu. Each of these options fundamentally changes the texture of the ensuing story.
The goal of “Reading Like a Historian” is not vocational, but liberal, as in the trivium of the liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. I am most interested in those qualities of mind that history is able to cultivate long after the details of the Tang dynasty or the Treaty of Ghent have faded.
Historical narratives are powerful devices for structuring detail, and for that reason, story is a teacher’s greatest asset. But what makes story so powerful is what also makes it seem impervious to scrutiny. Stories create entire worlds. But these worlds become oppressive and all-encompassing if we view them as God-given, rather than the products of our own hands and, thus, open to question and scrutiny.
Listen, I have no illusions about the little feature I have written. But I took on this assignment because I believed in its basic idea. Including at least one other voice in the same book—a printed court jester who pokes at readers, reminding them to slow down, to listen to words, to notice how the text spins them, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey-like, in a given direction—is more than another frill in today’s frilly world of textbook publishing. When students hear a second voice questioning the first, they learn that maybe their job is not to memorize after all. Maybe their job is to find their own voice.
We live in an information age. But it is also an age of boundless credulity. In an era when young people meet misinformation at every turn, we must do everything in our power to cultivate their questioning voices.