Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools

By Linda S. Levstik ; Keith C. Barton | Go to book overview

It's Not Just a Mishap
chapter 2
The Theory Behind Disciplined Inquiry

Understanding theory to me was like "Ah ha!" Teachers hear so much about theory, and when they go to a workshop or an in-service, they usually say, "Skip the theory, just get to the practical stuff." And so much of what I used to do I just did by instinct--I knew what worked, what would bring results, but I never knew why. Theory helped me understand why it worked, why A plus B equals C. I understood how cooperative learning and integrated instruction and sheltered English all went together; it was like the pieces of a puzzle--they all made sense together. I realized the things I was doing weren't just disconnected pieces, but were part of a design. I found out all these practical ideas I was using had a theoretical foundation behind them.

Knowing theory makes my teaching better. I can pick and choose better--I have a better sense of what will work and what won't. A lot of what I used to do was hit-or-miss; I would try something, and I would never use it again. Now when I consider a new teaching idea, I can filter it through what I know about theory: I can decide whether it adds to my program or whether it's just busy work. When I go to a conference, I can say, "Oh, that helps build schema," or "That's integrated language"--versus some program that's just a hundred questions or something, where I say, "That wouldn't work, it's not authentic." And theory helps me make sure I'm not doing something just because it looks cute, like, "Oh, gee, I'll have them make a scrapbook." Now I might have students make a scrapbook from the point of a view of a character in a novel, because I know it helps them pick out main ideas, develops their ability to understand characters, provides an authentic assessment--it actually teaches something, it isn't just a cute idea. I don't think, "Oh, isn't that cute! Oh, a bear!": I understand why teaching thematically isn't just having a heart or a bear on every handout.

Rhoda Coleman, Fifth-grade teacher Buford Avenue School, Lennox, California

Rhoda is right: Sometimes teachers hear a lot of theory, and usually it doesn't seem as important as the practical ideas--the good stuff. And some theory really isn't very useful: We've all heard or read theories that obviously came about in a laboratory or office, developed by people who didn't seem to have any idea what real children do in real classrooms. But theory, like teaching, can be good, bad, or somewhere in between. From our perspective, good theory helps teachers make sense of their own experience: It provides them with a clearer understanding of what they see in their classrooms every day--the "Ah ha!" Rhoda mentions. Good theory also helps teachers plan more effective and meaningful lessons for their students: Just as Rhoda explains, theory allows teachers to separate ideas that teach something important from those that are simply cute, novel, or well packaged. Rather than devoting years to trial-and-error attempts to find the best lesson ideas, a teacher who understands the theory behind how students learn can more consistently develop effective plans.

Useful theory helps teachers make sense of their own experience.

In this chapter, we lay out the basic theoretical principles that guide our understanding of how to teach history. On the one hand, these principles represent our reading of sociocultural perspectives on learning and contemporary cognitive psychology. On the other, they also reflect key aspects of the best history teaching we've seen. Rather than being removed from the realities of the classroom, the theory de-

The research base for much of this chapter is summarized in Bruer ( 1993), Caine & Caine ( 1994), Gardner ( 1991b), Good & Brophy ( 1999), especially chapter 10, Wertsch ( 1998), and Wood ( 1998).

-9-

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