On Meaning-Focused History

“Conceptual, not factual”–we were urged to prioritize it at the beginning of the year, and again at a faculty meeting this week. Yet we’re making MCQs and canned timed essay prompts straight out of 1970. Why?

Sent to my colleagues — many of whom will rightly say “He doesn’t need to preach this to me, because I’m in the choir!” — as we shift to planning semester 2. I’m curious how many history teachers out there are fighting the same battles, and am all ears as to tactics that have worked for you in this battle against the 1970s.

I have a dream that meetings planning semester 2 start on the conceptual and inquiry level, not the factual and knowledge level. (In other words, that they follow UbD as we’re expected to do.)

It could make for beautiful meetings if everybody came to a meeting with a response to an agenda item such as,  “What’s the most interesting, challenging, provocative, real essential question you can come up with for the Age of Imperialism*?”

I’d love to hear people offer their answers–especially if their angle is more exciting than mine. Off the top of my head, I would answer for this one, for example,

“The West on Trial: To What Extent Can Imperialism Be Described as International Criminal Behavior on the Part of the West?”

Notice what this does: It doesn’t teach “an answer.” It doesn’t prescribe which facts students must learn. But it does require students to inquire and research evidence and make arguments with facts–and it provokes them out of any complacency that it’s a settled question that “the West is the Best” (that’s “an exemplary American education with an international perspective” in spades!). And since there’s no one “correct” answer, only historically supported arguments of greater or lesser force, it opens doors to real seminars with real debates.

Contrast this with listing a chronological series of Textbook Chapter Headings and making multiple choice questions unrelated to any clearly identifiable essential question. I would not enjoy that meeting, and I would not enjoy having to teach with that forced end–the common assessment–in mind.

My understanding of UbD–and I’m fairly certain it’s in the ballpark–is that this is how units should be planned. Knowledge only comes after standards and understandings and essential questions have been identified. Knowledge is meaningless if put first, and meaning is skipped over in the name of traditional “memorize this for the test” coverage.

I know I’m probably professionally too frank for many of you to handle. But I hope you’ll try to look past that and honor this attempt to understand why Understanding by Design and meaning-focused unit planning does not receive the attention it’s arguably expected to receive. “Conceptual, not factual”–we were urged to prioritize it at the beginning of the year, and again at a faculty meeting this week. Yet we’re making MCQs and canned timed essay prompts straight out of 1970. Why?

If anybody wants to have these types of meaning-focused discussions for S2 unit planning, I’m absolutely willing to spring for beer at the local Hawker Center. This is why I love teaching. And this is why I’m so frustrated that I do come off as occasionally abrasive as I do. I just don’t understand why we keep putting ladders against the wrong wall, and work so hard to climb them in our meetings. I can’t understand why we never talk about meaning.

*or WW I or WW II or the Cold War or Post-Colonialism or the War on Terror or the Rise of China

7 thoughts on “On Meaning-Focused History”

  1. Bingo! My student’s legitimate question (whether internally-raised or vocalized to me) is “What’s the point?” In my classroom, I’m probably at about a 50% rate –50% of the time it does feel meaningful, and 50% of the time it feels so idiotically pointless. Facing the imminent extinction of millions of species and the inevitability of our own deaths–whether the individual or even our species, I am sometimes floored at the pointlessness of what gets taught in school. (And what I teach.) 

    I really love that other 50% though. When we talk about what matters, and we talk about what is true. 

    I think I would be a better teacher if I taught at your school, and we could have discussions like this about meaningful education in the humanities. 

    So tired of schooliness. Still in love with the big ideas, and with my students. Stuck in the middle.

    Best of luck with your conversations at school!

    1.  “So tired of schooliness. Still in love with the big ideas, and with my students. Stuck in the middle.”

      –I couldn’t say it any better, because you hit the low and high notes perfectly, and those highs are so worth the lows.

  2. I can relate to your frustrations. As a middle school teacher and now a special education teacher, I have grown tired of being held a prisoner to dysfunctional professional learning committees that’s sole purpose is to standardize my teaching and my student’s learning to drill and kill. 

    I wrote about dysfunctional PLCs here: http://www.joebower.org/2012/03/dysfunctional-plcs.html

  3. Clay,
    With all due respect, what is limiting your collaborative team from developing better questions?  The frustration you’re describing is very real, but I don’t see how even a poorly designed curriculum from above can’t be resurrected to some degree by a robust assessment system.  Perhaps if you proposed a better alternative, your colleagues would have no choice but to concede.  I appreciate the thoughtful posting.  I too am trying to stimulate conversation around ed issues.  I hope you don’t mind, but I’d be thankful if you’d stop by my blog and take a look at some of the questions I’m trying to pose…www.cuttingeducator.com

    1.  Hi Steve,

      Sorry to be late on this.

      The short version–and another challenge of PLC implementation–is this: though I teach the course, I’m not in the PLC, so I don’t attend the weekly meetings in which decisions are made.

      Since writing this, I and another teacher in the same situation did attend a meeting and voice our concerns. We’re hoping we’ll see a difference moving forward. One of the big obstacles, though, is the philosophy of (over-) coverage pre-empting the time to devote to juicy questions. But maybe that will improve as well. Fingers crossed.


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