Friday, November 22, 2013

Sam Wineburg on Teaching "Gray Areas" in an Internet Culture

Over at History News Network, Sam Wineburg offers one way to teach who turn to the Internet for answers how to think more deeply about the complexity of the past.  Here is a taste:

How, then, do we close the gap between old world teaching and the twenty-first-century world that students are linked to by their smartphones? Don't hold your breath for a change in the textbook industry. Curriculum materials will all become digital -- the same drivel packaged with multi-colored illustrations and interactive maps. What then? We can wait for Godot or ... we can get to work.
My colleagues at the Stanford History Education Group have chosen the latter path. Over the past three years, we’ve uploaded to the Internet scores of lesson plans for teaching American and World history, each organized around questions that stick their finger in the eye of a single right answer. We've come up with assessments that privilege thinking over memorizing. Our curriculum celebrates the ambiguity of the social world and teaches students to cope with it. Each lesson comes with original documents so that students can hear the cacophony of voices belonging to people who made history. These sources often feature diametrically opposed perspectives, shedding light on history from multiple angles. They are supplemented by classroom-ready materials that scaffold students' small-group discussions. Here are just a few examples:
  • Was Abraham Lincoln a racist?
  • Was the Dust Bowl crisis Mother Nature's fault or the consequence of human greed?
  • Was the Cuban Missile Crisis defused because, as Dean Rusk boasted, "the other fellow just blinked" or because of a backroom deal between Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and his diplomatic partner, Soviet ambassador Anatoly F. Dobrynin?

Such questions force students to contend with shades of gray, to weigh competing evidence, and to consider an author's trustworthiness. They make students exercise the duties of citizenship.
We are guided by the belief that knowledge should not be a commodity bartered for profit, but available for no cost to anyone who seeks to learn and grow. All of our materials are free. Our work is supported by private contributions and foundations. To date, our materials have been downloaded over a million times.
Have we changed the world -- or even our little corner of it? Hardly. But we take solace in the hope that, after encountering our materials, students will no longer defend their conclusions about history with the sham justification, "I found it on the Internet."