Reflecting on Elementary Children's Understanding of History and Social Studies: An Inquiry Project with Beginning Teachers in Northern Ireland and the United States
Barton, Keith C., McCully, Alan W., Marks, Melissa J., Journal of Teacher Education
A critical responsibility for teacher educators is engaging beginning teachers in reflection on children's learning, particularly with regard to their prior knowledge and the structure of their ideas in specific subjects. This can be a daunting task. Action research seems a more promising avenue for developing this kind of reflection and understanding than classroom lectures, yet beginning teachers have many things on their minds besides children's cognition, and they rarely have the knowledge or skills to develop investigations into students' disciplinary ideas on their own. Unfortunately (and ironically), an increasing emphasis on high-stakes testing and accountability may make such undertakings even less palatable: Content coverage and test preparation may seem more pressing concerns than open-ended and potentially messy investigations of children's thought processes.
However, understanding how children think is no luxury. It is a crucial component of successful teaching and a necessary prerequisite to any gains in student achievement. In this article, we explore one way critical reflection can take place even within the prevailing culture of accountability as well as become a means for introducing beginning teachers to the challenging task of classroom-based inquiry. We do this through consideration of a small-scale, task-based intervention that required beginning elementary teachers in Northern Ireland and the United States to investigate and reflect on young children's understanding of history, geography, economics, and other aspects of social studies. Our experiences in these two settings suggests that efforts such as this have the potential to increase teachers' pedagogical knowledge in a way that honors their developing professionalism.
To plan and implement constructivist approaches to education, teachers need insight into children's thinking. Only by becoming familiar with children's cognition will they be able to design instruction that expands their students' conceptual understanding. As Ball and Cohen (1999) noted, teachers need to see instructional procedures through the eyes of their students, to become adept at listening to their ideas, and to see them as "more capable of thinking and reasoning, and less as blank slates who lack knowledge" (p. 8). Although a number of studies have addressed teachers' general beliefs about the nature of learners and learning (see, for example, Prawat, 1992, and the review in Borko & Putnam, 1995), recent work has emphasized the need for familiarity with the disciplinary features of students' thinking: Acquainting beginning teachers with the content-area thinking of children has come to be regarded as a critical component of initial teacher preparation (Borko & Putnam, 1995).
From this standpoint, changes in teachers' instructional practices depend, in part, on their engagement with "concrete tasks of teaching, assessment, observation, and reflection that illuminate the processes of learning and development" (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 1996, p. 203). When teachers have the chance to examine children's performance in meaningful classroom contexts, they often develop new understandings of how children learn (Falk & Ort, 1998). These reconceptualizations are not simply the result of having acquired new pedagogical techniques (through in-services or course work, for example) but derive instead from the conflicts teachers experience between their prior ideas about learning and their observations of children's reasoning as they engage in instructional activities (Nelson & Hammerman, 1996). Such observations play a crucial role in expanding teachers' understanding of "what is possible" (Lieberman, 1996, p. 190).
This process of reflection typically involves three interrelated aspects of teachers' pedagogical understanding--their ideas about how students think in specific subject areas, their beliefs about instructional techniques in those subjects, and their conceptualization of the subject matter itself. …