How Expert is Expert When You are In Eighth Grade?

November 25th, 2014

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionWe continue our series of blog posts about teaching social studies by author and teacher Sarah Cooper with this thoughtful piece where Sarah wonders about teaching depth and breadth, helping students become experts on a topic, and helping them make arguments that will stand up outside of the classroom.

How Expert is Expert When You are in Eighth Grade?
By Sarah Cooper

What obligation do we have to make our students experts on a topic before they give opinions about it?

Or, said a different way: are we being irresponsible if we encourage our students to tackle big questions before they have enough information to address them? What constitutes “enough information,” anyway?

Recently I’ve been wondering about the balance between exposure and depth, between familiarity and expertise. The questions above filled my head at the end of our recent unit on the American Revolution in eighth-grade history. In addition to the 1760s and 1770s, we also discussed current events: a United Nations summit, the fight against Islamic State, the spread of Ebola, the California drought, and other articles students brought in.

The unit’s culminating assignment was a debate on Wednesday, which students knew would also be their essay prompt for a test on Thursday. The question for both the debate and the essay was this:

Given what you have learned in the Revolution unit (about freedoms, rebellions, etc.), how much do you think the United States should be involved in world problems, and why?

I hoped students would see connections between the freedoms the colonists fought for and the opportunities that people in countries around the world are fighting for today.

Students were assigned to groups of interventionists, isolationists, and moderates. Every idea they brought into the debate had to be supported by a fact, either a historical one or a current event. The goal was for the debate—and the two days of preparation for it—to serve as brainstorming and prewriting for the test essay.

Debating did allow them to practice their thoughts before writing them down, as well as borrow ideas from their classmates to help their case. In their essays, students cited evidence they had heard in the debate, from France’s becoming an ally after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 to the need for the United States to address its nearly $18 billion national debt before helping out other countries.

Yet I realized as I read the essays that the excitement and intensity of the debate may have oversimplified things. Here’s an example of a strong argument from one of the essays:

If you don’t have the steady base it will be imbalanced and fall. The United States is that base that starts a new creation. . . . Like in 1775 we met again for the Second Continental Congress for discussing war against Britain. We also continued to fight, and created a Declaration of Independence for what we wanted: freedom. Taking these actions and fighting for what we wanted led to a victory. From then on we have had the obligation to intervene and help solve world conflicts. I believe this is right, because it is the moral choice.

I liked the building logic of this essay’s argument, and the vocabulary is excellent. The student is thinking. This excerpt contains a specific and accurate fact from 1775, and it gives commentary on the Revolution that links history to today.

On the other hand, there’s a big part of me that feels negligent because this writer has leaped over 200-plus years of history—with almost zero knowledge of 1783 to 2014—and ended with a grand, sweeping statement about the United States’ “obligation to intervene.”

Many other essays took a similar leap, with some attempting to land on World War II in the process. We had studied that time period only through FDR’s “Freedom from Fear” speech from January 1941, in an attempt to relate his freedoms to the Revolution’s ideals, but many know about World War II from their parents or popular culture.

One writer put it this way in another essay:

Even though we did not want to get involved we soon learned our lesson, and learned that we have to [get involved] after the Pearl Harbor attack. This attack shows the idea of us just being an open target for attack if we are trying to stay out of conflict and not defending ourselves. . . . The example with World War II is similar with our involvement in Ebola. This is because Ebola is a deadly disease that Africa does not have enough money or supplies to cure and if the US does not help stop it the disease will eventually spread to the US and kill several American people just like World War II would have if we did not jump in and help.

Again, the cause-and-effect is good. The analogy, as far as it goes, is a decent one. Yet there’s a part of me that thinks I’m encouraging students to oversimplify, to believe they have something to say even when their analysis would not stand up in the world beyond our classroom.

Maybe the key lies in welcoming the imperfect. As I often tell my students, the answers to the questions we’re asking could fill books. Maybe I need to accept that they’re going to take a reasonably informed stab at the idea and, ideally, get excited while doing so.

David N. Perkins, founding member and senior codirector of Harvard’s innovative Project Zero, suggests that “ways of knowing can come in junior versions,” as meaningful entry points to historical or mathematical thinking.

In Perkins’s book Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World (Jossey-Bass, 2014), he describes a teacher in Australia who tackled number theory with her third graders: “The conjectures were not very sophisticated and the ideas about proof and evidence not very fancy, but the point is that these students were making a start, and doing so with some enthusiasm” (160).

Despite my reservations, the middle schoolers last week were definitely “making a start” at solving the world’s problems. Now I think I’ll make a start, during the rest of the year, at filling in some highlights between the end of the Revolutionary War and the second term of the Obama administration!

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