Monday, July 21, 2008

Looking for the Second Right Answer in Social Studies

It was becoming more than I could take. Each morning and afternoon of the school day, the sound of an unhappy sigh from my students would briefly fill my classroom. Curiously, it always accompanied the announcement from me that it was time for social studies. My students loved learning about science--the subject comes easy to me and I am able to teach it in a way that most students find interesting and fun--and that part of class was often enjoyable for them.

Social studies was different though. I often struggled with how to make concepts like history and geography interesting to my students. Throughout the past school year, I refashioned many of lessons and introduced new projects, all in an effort to make the subject more interesting. My efforts were partially successful--social studies became a little more interesting to a few more students.

A good teacher is continually looking for new approaches to teaching subject matter. We often find them in workshops or conferences. Over the past few years my best ideas have been inspired by my reading of business books. Books like A Whole New Mind, Made to Stick, and now A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech. Originally published in 1983, the book is still incredibly useful for those looking for tips to be more creative. It has a lot of useful information for more than just business people; in fact, it's every bit as useful to just about any one looking for ideas for how to be more creative. Which brings me back to social studies...

I have to admit that although I enjoy learning about history, I am not very good at remembering what I learned. Too often, I learn about historical events through reading about them or watching a television show. This is far too passive as I'm not really thinking deeply about what I've seen or heard. This depth of thinking is also what is missing from my teaching of social studies. I give my students some guiding questions, have them read the textbook, and then I try to engage them with a visual slide show that summarizes the reading. Students are learning that their job is to search for the right answer. Who did this or that? When did this event occur? Etc. Which brings me back to the A Whack on the Side of the Head...

von Oech states that to be more creative, we should look for the second right answer. One way to do this is to ask questions that solicit more than one answer. Another is to ask questions in a different way. This got me thinking about the questions that I ask my students to answer when learning about history. So often they are the type that require students to find the right answer. So I've been thinking about how I could get them to look for the second, third, or even the tenth right answer. What I've found is the mental lock of teaching history as a collection of right answers is something that I am going to have a difficult time breaking free of. I wanted to include some examples of questions that require searching for the second right answer in this entry, but I'm having a difficult go of thinking of them.

This will be one of the big challenges that I face this coming school year--including more opportunities in social studies to develop creative thinking through the asking questions in different ways.

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N.D. said...

I always think when I read ideas for differentiating or using technology that they are great for history (I'm a math teacher and the suggestions seem to never apply). Some that I'm thinking of are having them casted as different people from history and acting out a role play, or writing a letter to someone (which requires them to find out more about the person), having them defend a certain point of view for a jury... There's been tons more, and I'm sure you've used a bunch of them before, I'll have to see if I can find a website. I agree though, a good teacher is always looking for better ways to teach the curriculum.

nerinossa said...

This depth of thinking is also what is missing from my teaching of social studies