25 March 2016

Method of the Week: Teaching History as Choice

Social studies has never been a favorite subject for many students. Perhaps this can be attributed to the incredibly mundane way that it was taught in the past. As I'm sure many of you can attest, being lectured at for 45 minutes (or more) is not the most exciting way to learn. In recent years, social studies has seen an incredible boost in popularity. This can be accredited to the shift in pedagogy taking place within the social studies. When done correctly, teaching social studies today is less about lecture and more about engaging activities that allow students to participate in "doing history." Understandably, it is much easier to maximize student growth when you're teaching a student their favorite subject.

In this vein, Brown University's Choices Program  emphasizes teaching history as a choice rather than the inevitable slow crawl towards destiny. This method assumes that, when given the correct primary sources and activities, students will develop the necessary critical thinking skills to "get inside the heads" of the people making important decisions. This creates students who are active participants in education rather than passive recipients of historical content knowledge.

The Choices Program is broken down into two major types of units; unresolved current issues and units that are "shaped around a historical turning point." You can find the current event units here. Units dealing with historical turning points are broken down into U.S. History and World History. Each unit contains carefully selected primary sources and activities that allow the student to tackle a difficult essential question (ie. Given this information, what would you have done in this situation?).

Check out this video to see what teachers and students have to say about The Choices Program:

The units offered through The Choices Program are available for purchase. You can buy them individually or as a set. Your cheapest option would be to buy a paper copy of the unit and make your own copies. Most individual units are priced at $35. If you have a district that is willing to support its teachers and has disposable funding, you might try to convince your department head or principal to order the complete set ($1,100 in print for all 41 units). You also have the option of buying a PDF version or an eText. You can also purchase only the U.S. or World history sets individually (roughly $450 for 18 units in each).

The Choices Program not only offers great primary sources, but a plethora of analysis by some of the most acclaimed historians in the world. For example, the unit on the American Revolution includes analysis and writings by Gordon Wood, the preeminent historian of the American Revolution. Each unit is also aligned with the Common Core Standards, which your department heads and principals will love!

Another fantastic unit is "The Limits of Power: The United States in Vietnam." This unit revolves around a central activity in which "students become decision-makers wrestling with four distinct policy options that confronted the Johnson administration in the summer of 1965." Each unit allows the students an opportunity to role play an important turning point in history. In this particular unit, students work collaboratively in four groups to work with primary sources, maps, and cartoons. Each group attempts to advocate President Johnson to follow the advice of their group, which represents the perspective of their sources. The 4 choices in this simulation are:

  1. Americanize the war and fight to win
  2. Escalate slowly and control the risks
  3. Limit involvement and negotiate a withdrawal
  4. Unilateral withdrawal, pull out now

Students must use the primary sources provided in the unit to convince President Johnson to follow their advice. How exciting! The Choices Program claims that "By exploring a broad spectrum of alternatives, students gain a deeper understanding of the competing values and assumptions that framed the debate on U.S. policy in Vietnam." I couldn't agree more!

Teaching history as a choice is a monumental shift in the way the social studies are being taught. The days of long lectures is thankfully at a conclusion (that is, until the students enter their college years, but that's an issue for a another post.) By allowing students to role play a turning point in history, The Choices Program allows students to unlock their true potential while concomitantly instilling in them a love and appreciation for history that they may never thought that they could have. This program will also prepare them to be responsible citizens and leaders. What better way to prepare the future leaders of tomorrow than by giving them the opportunity to voice their opinion today.

For more ideas of how to teach history as choice, see the selections below:

Was the American Revolution a Mistake?: Reaching Students & Reinforcing Patriotism Through Teaching History as Choice by Burton Weltman

Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History by James Loewen

Social Studies for Secondary Schools: Teaching to Learn, Learning to Teach by Alan Singer


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