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Teachers aren’t experts!
January 3, 2011, 2:35 pm
Filed under: curriculum

They aren’t. It’s not a judgement or criticism, it’s a fact. Most teachers are not experts in the subject matter they are teaching. Four years of liberal arts and two more for a master’s degree qualifies you to be a teacher, but doesn’t bring you close to being an expert. Certainly, some teachers have greater knowledge of subject matter particulars than others, but on the whole, they aren’t experts. I taught US History for 10 years; the amount I don’t know could fill the Grand Canyon.  So why are teachers asked to write curriculum standards? Or to evaluate the soundness of textbooks?

Take for example, Virginia. Teachers serve on state level committees to review and approve texts for use in Virginia classrooms. Unfortunately, few teachers have the knowledge and expertise to review texts to ensure they are factually accurate and generally sound. They aren’t given the time to fact check each statement, nor do they have the broad scope of knowledge to determine if the texts are creating a clear and accurate picture.  What you end up with is this:

In the version of history being taught in some Virginia classrooms, New Orleans began the 1800s as a bustling U.S. harbor (instead of as a Spanish colonial one). The Confederacy included 12 states (instead of 11). And the United States entered World War I in 1916 (instead of in 1917).

Historians brought in after the Washington Post reported this found pages of errors in one particular book, some of them simply factual errors of date, but others significant enough to alter a student’s perception of history.  As a follow-up, the Post published a history quiz that included some errors from the text in question. Unfortunately, the quiz doesn’t function in all browsers and when it does function it reports in accurate scores, but more interesting to me is the trend found in the comments; that facts are boring and don’t matter and shouldn’t be the subject of tests.

Many commenters were dead on with their criticism of tests that ask these sorts of questions and of teachers who focus solely on the ‘boring’ dates. But they missed the point of the quiz and the related stories: schools are using materials with glaringly factual errors! No one is suggesting that students should memorize the list of dates, or that teachers should focus on this limited set of facts. However, if the main resource for students (and the text is the main resource for most) has factual errors, how can we ask students to defend their interpretations of historical events accurately, use facts to support assertions made in analysis, or even double-check their work?

The adoption of this book is not the fault of the teachers; they were charged with a task they are unqualified to complete. Sure, they can tell you how useful something might be in their classroom, if kids can read the material as presented, and if it fits into their requirements, but they don’t know everything. The real culprits are those who failed to require a content expert to review materials.

As time-consuming as vetting is, those of us working on the Michigan Citizenship Collaborative Curriculum understand the value of both the expert and teacher opinion. Every thing we produce is first reviewed by a university level content expert for content accuracy and then reviewed by the teachers who might use it in their classrooms. What we find is that sometimes we’ve screwed up the facts (ex. in simplifying the economic concept of scarcity for fourth graders, we used incorrect examples) and sometimes we’ve screwed up the expectation of grade (ex. third grade teachers letting us know that most student could not read the included material). It takes a long time. It can be humiliating. It can force us back to the drawing board. But it means that our teachers have high quality and accurate material with which to teach Social Studies in a way that doesn’t focus on dates and places but on trends and ideas.

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