Friday, November 13, 2009

Mt. Washington is 6288 feet tall

Or so I learned this past week.

Today, my daughter takes her social studies test over the northeast states. I helped her study this week for the test, and I'm glad to say I see a perfect score on the horizon (not due to my tutorage).

The format for this unit, at least how it was reported to me by my daughter (and this is often at variance from the truth), leaves much to be desired however. Students have a thick social studies book filled with facts galore to cover every possible standard, benchmark, and performance indicator of all 50 states (to make the book marketable). But they don't really read the book; there is a CD audiobook of the text that is played at the beginning of the week.

The next day, they are given a worksheet packet with 15 questions on it, fill-in-the-blank style. The teacher reads question number one, which reads Mt. Washington, which is in _________, has a height of __________ feet. The teacher asks if any students know the answer, and students try to remember what they heard the previous day. The teacher then gives the correct answer (or confirms it), and the class moves on to question #2.

That's it. Test given out today.

• There are _____ states (number). Name them.
• _________ is an important industry in the northeast because the coastline has many harbors.
• The type of government in which all of the people vote for laws is called a ___________
• When the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they drew up an agreement that would help them to make laws called the __________
• A ditch dug across land to connect one waterway to another is called a __________
• The _______ _________ built in 1817, is a long ditch that connects the Hudson River with the Great Lakes
• A way of making large quantities of the same product is called ___________
• In the U.S., your rights are made possible because of our plan of government called the _________
• Our national government has 3 branches, known as _________, __________, and _________
• The place where Congress meets is in the _________ building
• NYC is also known as the city of ___________ because people from all over the world live there.
• The reasons that our nations first factories started in the northeast was because of _______ power and __________ power
• List the state capitals from each of the northeast states.

Note a pattern to the questions? If so, you are better than me. These are knowledge-level questions about geography, economics, government, and history. And there are several questions that aren't about the northeast.

This isn't to pick on my daughter's school or teacher. I think what I see here is an anomaly, and that literacy and math are not taught this way. It's more to pick on the lesson design, which I feel is unfortunately typical in elementary social studies curricula.

  1. There is too big of a dependence on the textbook.
  2. There is too much information covered, given the little time spent on it in class, and the information is incoherently jumbled together.
  3. There is a missed opportunity to work on reading skills embedded across the curriculum
  4. The information covered is too low-level, factual-based, and doesn't lead to higher level thinking
  5. The assessment is non-authentic recall
  6. The information is, for the most part negligible (this will be the last time in my daughter's educational career she will be expected to know how tall or in what state Mt. Washington is)

Here's the scenario of what this leads to: I started reading the question "this is an important..." and before I could get to "industry", my daughter shouted out the word "fishing!" I asked her an application question "Where else is that industry important in the United States?" and she responds "That's not on the test." "I know, but where else it is important"? "Dad, I don't know, we haven't gotten to the other parts of the United States."

You never will. There is too much in social studies to cover everything.

What I want her to know is that, being by a coastline, it is logical that fishing will be an important industry. Therefore, other states/nations with coastlines will also have a significant fishing industry. Even if we haven't heard the official textbook CD. The lesson design precludes her from making associations like this.

If you look at the questions in the list, they are not all equal. The state capital knowledge is beyond negligible (how many of the 50 do you know, and has that had any impact on your life?). Some other questions could lead to deeper learning (like the Mayflower Compact or Erie Canal), but listing it in a factual method and then moving on makes them irrelevant as well. Meanwhile, perhaps two of the most important concepts of social studies, worth an intensive unit all in of themselves, democracy and the constitution only get one question devoted to them. In the midst of everything else. Very much, a mixed message to students.

When we discuss the Iowa Core, this is an example of what we need to do. Get rid of the rest of that stuff. Determine what is important. And then have a deeper lesson, leading to deeper conceptual and procedural knowledge, with authentic and formative assessment. Which will lead to permanent learning.

I give my daughter 5 months to forget that Mt. Washington is 6288 feet tall (she does have a good memory).

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