AP History: Learning to Think

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My computer was on the blink, and a friend came over to fix it. We are lucky to have such a friend because this guy is an IT guru as well as a great neighbor. Sitting around the table, waiting for some curative program to upload, we got to talking about all the world’s problems. Soon enough the discussion moved to kids and education. Frustrated, he had just left a math position at an alternative high school, while I had just retired after a long career in public schools. We found we agreed on many, many points. In particular he still felt exasperated by the constant refrain of, “I’ll never use this (Algebra) again. Why should I have to learn it?

Now believe me, there was a time that I would have joined the ranks of complainers, because math was not, and has never been my strong suit. Today however, I’ve changed my mind about this age old gripe, realizing it wasn’t about math at all. With new eyes I looked at my math-computer friend and replied, “You were simply trying to teach him how to think–how to use steps to problem solve.”

And that, in my humble opinion, is the essential purpose of educating young people in all academic disciplines.

I spent over half of my career, before retirement, teaching AP US History, and Sophomore Honors History. This accelerated teaching assignment changed my approach and my philosophy of education almost at once. Rather than pontificating a fountain of facts to eager little test takers, I instead became a trainer of thinkers.

Embracing a new sense of purpose, classroom instruction no longer meant listing chronologies of events and dates, (though these have a place in coursework) but on how to synthesis those facts into a broader, deeper, meaning. Students were required to sort through diverse pieces of information, measuring facts into a larger coherent idea, a political viewpoint, an economic trend, or an emerging social movement. Let me illustrate.

In a simple compare/contrast question the kids had to examine the expansionist policies of Presidents Thomas Jefferson, and James K. Polk. Jefferson doubled the size of America in 1803, while Polk stretched the nation to the Pacific coast by 1848.

With a line down the middle of a piece of paper, students listed every fact concerning both presidential policies. Next they examined those facts: Louisiana Purchase through a treaty with France . . . Lewis and Clark Expedition . . . War with Mexico . . . land acquisitions of the Mexican Cession . . . opening of California, the Oregon Territory, etc . . . With all that listing and sorting of facts, the students drew conclusions from the historic record.

If done properly learners were able to make some solid observations regarding Jefferson’s diplomacy in his negotiated real estate deal with France, versus Polk’s use of military options with Mexico. In this exercise students also developed a competent writing style, finding a distinctive voice while crafting their conclusions. A literary flair.

Eventually, kids would find both presidents wanted the same thing—western land. But they realized Jefferson’s approach was more peaceful, or more principled, and France was too powerful to provoke, while later President Polk cast aside negotiations, opting for war against a weaker foe, (or something like that).

The art of teaching critical thinking, and expository writing, takes lots of discipline, dedication and tons of practice. And to be honest, some kids simply weren’t willing to take that risk, resistant to pushing themselves that hard in coursework. Some parents balked, believing that teachers shouldn’t ask so much of their young ones, and GPA’s were too valuable to risk with such a tough course. I understood the hesitation; critical thinking is an acquired skill.

And I, too, often worried and stewed over my students’ progress, often perceiving poor performance as a personal failure. I sometimes considered lowering my standards so everyone would get an “A,” and I would be their favorite teacher.
There were many tears throughout the year, a fair share of grumbling and resentment to the rigorous workload. Still, by June the majority of my students had persevered, growing exponentially as thinkers. They had bravely risked a relentless “boot camp” type of course, and prevailed.

To drive home their personal achievements, I’d ask the kids to read some of their first essays from fall, and compare the writing to pieces of more recent efforts. These students were pretty proud of themselves, satisfied they were prepared to take on the world. From the beginning of the year to the end, these young people never realized how accomplished they could, and eventually did become.

The point is that, we, as teachers, and also as parents, must expect more from our kids beyond showing up to class, and staying awake. How can young people hope to stretch themselves and mature without expectations and guidance to reach those aspirations? They cannot. Frankly, if we expect nothing from our students in the classroom, that is what we’ll get, nothing.

I was, in reality, teaching the same thing as my friend, the Algebra teacher. We were both trying to show our students how to independently process information and formulate thoughtful responses.

Teaching students to think is a demanding commitment to sustain each day. Risking the chance of failure is an unattractive proposition to students, and parents bent on preserving that 4.0 GPA. As one student honestly quipped to a colleague “Tell me what I need to know to pass the test. I’ll learn to think later.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January

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