by Dr Strojny
Recently, Salon online magazine ran an article that speculated whether successful teaching is a nurtured talent or a natural skill that some people have, and some don’t. The article was entitled “The Myth of the Natural Born Teacher” by Elizabeth Green.
This type of myth-making—that some folks are just “born to teach,” and others will hopelessly bore (at best) or (at worst), harm the learning of our students, is surprisingly prevalent, Green asserts, on not only both sides of the political spectrum, but nationwide in schools of Education. Yet considerable evidence exists, that, in fact, using particular skills and strategies result in increased levels of learning for students. This is fantastic news. Just as no one would want a “natural born surgeon,” teaching well is a learned skill, one that takes hard work, and willingness to adopt new strategies.
For many teachers, the problem can be in sorting through the tremendous amounts of “noise” out there to find the best practices that will truly result in increased learning. In 2008, Monte-Sano compared two different types of teaching strategies for secondary Social Studies/History teachers. This research examined the writing skills of history students based on type of instruction. In this work, both teachers engaged in a mix of lecture, regular reading and writing assignments and some use of textbook reading. One teacher modeled active reading strategies, and encouraged students view history writing as an interpretive exercise, with the interpretation of historical documents as critical to creating meaningful and intelligent interpretations. The other teacher leaned toward teaching history as serious of static factual events.
Monte-Sano found that those students whose teacher who relied more heavily on memorization of facts and assigned frequent essays, but provided limited feedback, had writing skills that stayed the same or even declined slightly over the course of the school year. However, students whose teacher gave consistent targeted feedback had students whose scores improved over the year. The teacher also engaged in traditional “English teacher” type reading comprehension and writing strategies, such as modeling, creating scaffolded opportunities for students to write, one-on-one conferencing and targeted feedback.
In addition, students are pre-disposed to view history as a single story, and less likely to view history through the complex lens of interpretative art (Monte-Sano, 2012). Students come in to class “expecting” to hear a story with names, dates, and events they have to memorize, and may be more challenged to adapt to class that offers a truly college preparatory vision of historical writing. If we ask students to write interpretative essays, we are asking for a careful sifting of evidence and crafting of interpretation, which is some of the most complex writing required of students, and we are asking them to do it in History/Social Studies classes – not English classes! No wonder History and Social Studies teachers are feeling the heat.
So what types of strategies should History teachers focus on in teaching Historical writing to students? The research suggests they should focus on the same high-impact strategies English teachers use, but adjusted for History/Social Studies.
High Impact strategies for ALL students writing in History and Social Studies class include:
(1) Modeling reading strategies to help students navigate texts;
(2) Are taught to study history as evidence-based interpretation, as opposed to a single narrative;
(3) Are taught to read primary source documents, and to point to evidence from such sources to support their own ideas;
(4) Engage in frequent writing work, that includes not just formal essays, but informal writing opportunities;
(5) Receive targeted feedback that encourages them to look at History and Social Studies as a way of asking lots of questions, rather then memorizing a set series of answers.
These types of critical thinking skills are what will help our students to be successful readers and writers not only in high school, but in the university setting and beyond. This is just as true for us as teachers, as it is for our students: It’s not just WHO you are, but WHAT you do that will make a difference in student learning. Do we really want to teach our students any other lesson?
Monte-Sano, C. (2008). Qualities of effective writing instruction in history classrooms: A cross-case comparison of two teachers’ practices. American Educational Research Journal, 45 (4), 1045-1079.
Monte-Sano, C. (2012). Toward disciplinary writing in history: Preparing the next generation. Perspectives on History, 50 (5). Available at: www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2012/1205/
For next time, I will look at some of the highest-impact writing strategies for English teachers, and see how they can be adapted for use by Social Studies teachers. If you can’t wait to get started, have a sneak peak at this important study for English teachers: A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students.
Graham, Steve; Perin, Dolores Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 99(3), Aug 2007, 445-476