In the Classroom: Nothing But the Facts

A few days back I was in a rollicking debate with Marc Aronson at his blog over the recently released results of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), this one focusing on history.  Disgusted by the 4th grade test I wrote in one of several comments:

I’ve been studying the questions for the fourth grade test and they got me crazy. I want to know at one point in the school year the test was given, did the kids study, etc etc. As for the Chicken Little “The sky is falling because they don’t know what Lincoln did” business, as Gary Nash and others have pointed out in various publications over the years, it was ever thus.

My curriculum is history-centered, but it is deep engagement and not the sort of superficial kind those fourth graders would have had to do well on that assessment. Teaching to this particular test isn’t going to make for better citizens, people, etc etc that I assume is what people want in the long run (or do they just want kids to be able to say what Thanksgiving is about evermore)?

I have not noticed a focus anywhere on memorizing and retention of facts when people fuss about schooling today. Some of the questions actually asked the kids to think, but far too many of them are simplistic fact-based ones.

At my school teachers sometimes express SHOCK when a class of fourth graders doesn’t know something in history, say indeed details about Lincoln, and my response is why should they? We don’t do a massive US history survey in third or fourth grade where they’d be exposed to Lincoln and I bet even if we did there still be many who wouldn’t remember. In my opinion what would make them remember would be the sort of deep engagement Myra [Zarnowski] is talking about and that ain’t gonna happen if they have to be ready for a test with questions such as these.


And so I’m now gratified to see Nick Paumgarten’s equally skeptical take on it in The New Yorker with the money quote from one of my favorite thinkers about kids and historical thinking:

“We haven’t ever known our past,” Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, said last week. “Your kids are no stupider than their grandparents.”


Filed under History, In the Classroom, Teaching

6 responses to “In the Classroom: Nothing But the Facts

  1. Carol Niederalnder

    Yes, but it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. I taught English in a community college, where the lack of a common base of knowledge–even knowing such things as what countries are directly north and south of the USA–was a huge impediment to learning. When teaching short stories, the first questions I’d ask were WHERE is this happening? and WHEN is this happening? To understand either Faulkner or James Baldwin, you do need to know a little history–much less Mark Twain (and that’s just giving examples from American culture). IDEAS are the most important thing, but explorations of them often need to be anchored in the context of history and factual information. I think getting educated means moving up and down an “abstraction ladder,” from concrete to abstract and back again. And again.


  2. Carol, I agree completely. My problem is that this particular test had so many factual questions from a wide variety of historical periods and events that the kids would have not been able to ground them in any sort of way. That is, I believe you learn and retain factual information when it is embedded into a larger meaningful framework of ideas.


  3. Monica:

    Carol is bringing up a point that I also see, as do many other professors I know who are teaching in 4-year and community colleges. We have students who are training to become teachers, to become librarians, and they have never learned really basic facts. And while your idea of broader context would be wonderful, it is like leaping from zero to 60. You are teaching very good students in a very good school. That is not the broad base of what is going on out in the wilds. And we do need to be worried about average kids in average schools with average teachers — how can we reach them?


  4. Marc, I like to think any kid anywhere would do well with decent teaching and curriculum. But most of all I stick with my original point on your post, the same one Sam Wineberg made — it was every thus. The focus on thinking historical should be on that — thinking…about the facts rather than mindless memorizing them for a test only to forget them after that. I really wonder how well most adults would do on these tests.


  5. Carol Niederalnder

    Nobody can learn the “facts” about everything, everywhere–but some basics about American and World History–perhaps things most relevant to American and Western society as well as at least some basics about Eastern ways of thinking–ought to be part of a “core” education. Knowing the context IS, I think, the way we remember at least some of the facts–and teaching needs to provide that context. Monica is so right about that. But what I’ve seen time and again from students coming through the public schools is that they are “lost in time and space.” I think Marc has, unfortunately, a good point about some core diffrerences in typical public (esp urban and rural) education as opposed to private (and quality suburban) classrooms. Carol


  6. I’ve been toying with the idea of learning history backwards. Start with current events, and ask why that is so. E.g., Supreme Court rules that corporations have free speech. What does that mean? Have we always had it? Who thought it was important? Why?


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