California's History/social Science Standards: Of Relevance, and Bull

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Special Interest

I have been working with K-12 teachers as the co-director of a staff development project from CSU Chico for the last three years. We sponsor institutes, workshops, and staff development activities in History and Social Science, using state money. As a condition for the grant, we receive very specific instructions from the project's Executive Director, that all programs should address the new History and Social Science content standards for K-12. The point has been made repeatedly to me that the reason for doing this is that the research indicates that good teaching results in higher test scores, and that an important element of good teaching is development of familiarity with disciplinary "content" by teacher.

But, translating this seemingly straightforward relationship into an actual program has never been straightforward. A reason, I think, is that the qualitative distinction between two different types of "content depth" is rarely made. "Content" is in fact made up of two elements: facts and data on the one hand, and theoretical relevance on the other. This epistemological distinction is described well in an old essay by William Perry which some may remember from the Norton Reader, assigned by many instructors of Freshman College English.

In the essay "Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts: a Study in Educational Epistemology" Perry asks what patterns of testing (and grading) tell us about what the tester thinks is important, and what is unimportant. The new state standards for History and Social Science, and presumably the testing being developed to align with them, have such an epistemology. In fact there is a split epistemology, if you look at how they are written. The preambles emphasize general understandings of such subjects as economy, social and political principles; analytical skills; techniques of data collection/analysis; empathy; and historical understanding, all broadly stated. While prominently displayed, the preambles typically take only 2-3 lines. But then the other epistemological shoe drops. Following each preamble are 20-30 lines listing specific lists of facts, "suggesting" how the preambles will be implemented.

Judging from conversations I have had with teachers, the 20-30 lines of the "facts" are becoming the terror of California's History and Social Science teachers, in part because they are seen as being easy to develop worksheets for, and put on "objective" multiple choice tests. When I organize workshops and institutes for teachers, there is often concern expressed about whether the facts in the workshop will be relevant to the specific questions likely to be asked of their students on a specific test.

At this point, let me provide an honest answer. The answer is that little if anything will be relevant to those 10 or 30 lines. This is because the best workshops are about the preambles in the standards, and not the minutiae enumerated in the 1030 lines that follow. The fact of the matter is that the "relevance" comes before "facts," whatever the subject. When facts are relevant to each other, and not disembodied trivia, a story is told, and facts come to be stored in the long-term memory, and the regurgitation of facts becomes as a result, incidental. Indeed, it is this "relevance," and not the actual facts, that make the social sciences exciting, interesting, and memorable.

This brings up a chronic tension in the social sciences between "facts" and "relevance," which Perry's essay addresses well. In their pure form both relevance and fact have inherent weaknesses. Perry points out that the over-emphasis on relevance, as opposed to fact, leads to what is commonly referred to as "pure bull." He points out that a masterful "buRster" is someone capable of offering relevance without data, often to the consternation of those who must listen. (I should point out that all of us teaching at the college level have at some point rewarded a skillful bullster an undeserved A- or two). …

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