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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Constitutional Convention Constitutional Convention — Essential Readings

The following essential readings are available below:

  • Authentic Intellectual Work in Social Studies: Putting Performance before Pedagogy
  • Assessment in a Social Contructivist Classroom


Authentic Intellectual Work in Social Studies: Putting Performance before Pedagogy

by Geoffrey Scheurman and Fred M. Newmann

Some critics of social studies education argue that U.S. students spend too much time in unfocused discussions and unproductive group work-and not enough time learning the facts of history, geography, or government. Other critics contend that students spend too much time absorbing and reproducing trivial information conveyed by textbooks or teachers-and not enough time interpreting documents, evaluating perspectives, and thinking for themselves.

Teachers who agree with the first critique tend to adhere to a “transmission” approach to instruction.1 They expect students in their classrooms to memorize a preordained canon of information and to master a set of discrete intellectual skills. Unfortunately, such mastery offers little assurance that students have achieved a deep level of conceptual understanding, or that they will be able to transfer knowledge and skills to situations outside of school.

Teachers who accept the second critique often adopt “constructivist” approaches to instruction. WhiIe varying, these approaches share the basic assumption that students learn best when they analyze and interpret the meaning of new information in relation to past experience. These teachers may design discovery projects, cooperative group activities, or lessons where students spend many hours on the Internet in the name of “active learning.” Although students exposed to these “student-centered” techniques often display greater enthusiasm than those in more conventional “teacher-centered” classrooms, this is no guarantee that quality learning is taking place.

Rather than assume that either response-“transmission teaching” or “doing constructivism”-will achieve the goals of social education, we believe it is necessary first to articulate criteria for authentic intellectual achievement, and then to see what practices tend to result in student performances that meet these criteria.

Researchers at the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools (CORS) have established three criteria for authentic intellectual achievement in social studies.2 They have also described standards within each criterion to guide teachers in evaluating their own and students’ work (see Table 1). The purpose is not to prescribe general methods of instruction, such as the portfolio assessment often associated with the push for constructivism, or techniques for helping students retain information that supporters of the transmission approach might seek. Indeed, CORS research indicates that any teaching methods can be employed and still result in weak intellectual achievement.3

Criteria for Authentic Intellectual Work
Authentic intellectual achievement consists of more than the ability to do well on an academic test. It involves the application of knowledge (facts, concepts, theories, and insights) to questions and issues within a particular domain. Consider the task of arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attorneys who appear before the court must possess a deep knowledge of essential ideas in constitutional law. One such idea is stare decisis -“out of many, one decision”-a concept by which past cases are integrated into a body of legal opinion known as common law. As both inheritors of and contributors to legal precedent, attorneys examine the context and subtext of prior cases, interpret historical details, and reason by analogy to determine what past decisions are applicable to the case at hand. They often incorporate scientific, medical, ethical, or psychological knowledge and perspectives into their arguments. They also pay attention to the social, political, and moral zeitgeist of the community in which the case is being heard.

During this process, attorneys are bound by disciplinary constraints. Their arguments must be consistent with legal concepts understood by their profession, and they must follow procedures for accumulating evidence and seeking appropriate judicial remedies. The outcome of a Supreme Court case has important implications outside the courtroom. Its majority opinion, along with the dissenting and concurring opinions of the justices, provides attorneys and judges with resources for reasoning about future cases. And these opinions may influence the beliefs and behavior of the nation’s people.
Significant intellectual accomplishments such as this provide three criteria that can serve as guideposts for student achievement: construction of knowledge, disciplined inquiry, and value beyond school.

Construction of Knowledge
The people involved in arguing a Supreme Court case face the challenge of producing meaning, rather than merely reproducing knowledge created by others. To do this well, attorneys must build upon prior knowledge. Examples of this type of intellectual engagement exist at various levels of inquiry across each of the social studies disciplines. In lower court cases, lawyers synthesize the testimony of multiple witnesses into plausible explanations for why a particular person is or isn’t culpable for the commission of a specific act. Similarly, a historian employs documents, graphic sources, and inferential reasoning to make judgments, for example, about the efficacy of a particular leader in resolving a national crisis.

Unfortunately, students following a conventional social studies curriculum are seldom asked to construct knowledge in these ways. More often, they are required merely to replicate the work produced by others. For example, a student may be able to describe the actions of various participants in an event or to match presidents with accomplishments generally considered noteworthy. This reproduction of prior knowledge does not constitute authentic intellectual achievement, since it does not involve the thoughtful application of knowledge found in the activities of adults.

Disciplined Inquiry
Although knowledge that is constructed may be more interesting to students than knowledge that is merely reproduced, this is not to say that all constructions represent significant intellectual accomplishment. For knowledge construction to be powerful, it must be grounded on a foundation of disciplined inquiry. For a constitutional lawyer, this means understanding the essential assumptions underlying common law, recognizing the intricacies of U.S. judicial proceedings, and being able to do the detective work of a good historian.

Disciplined inquiry includes a command of the facts, vocabulary, concepts, and theories used in a domain. More importantly, the inquirer must have an in-depth understanding of particular problems in the field of study, and the ability to express that understanding in ways acceptable to experts. For example, a geographer may consider the relationships between physical phenomena, adaptive or maladaptive cultural traditions, and evolving technologies in order to predict future demographic patterns. Or, an economist may produce symbolic charts and graphs to show how a particular monetary policy is likely to influence key economic indicators in the future.

Conventional schoolwork seldom engages students in the kinds of inquiry and communication practiced by members of a discipline. More often, students memorize isolated facts about a topic, and then use those facts to complete short-answer worksheets or items on a test. Geography students may be asked to locate place names on a map. An economics teacher may be satisfied if students can draw a graph to demonstrate the principle that “prices increase when demand exceeds supply.” These activities may reflect considerable accumulation of prior knowledge; but not until students explore the issues, relationships, and complexities that form the context of a focused problem will they be demonstrating disciplined inquiry. Authentic intellectual performance includes the use of written, visual, or symbolic language that captures the essence, nuances, and analogs of a particular topic.


Value Beyond School
Authentic intellectual achievement has aesthetic, utilitarian, or personal value beyond merely documenting the competence of a learner. Experts within a domain engage in a wide variety of activities aimed at completing a product, influencing an audience, or communicating a procedure for others to follow. As participants in a common law system, attorneys are actively engaged in producing new reasoning that may affect entire classes of people. Other examples of accomplishment in fields related to the social studies might include a social psychologist who administers an attitude survey predicting citizen reaction to the design for a city park, or a historian whose conclusions about past places or events inspire an entrepreneur to preserve an old building’s character in a restaurant rather than tear it down and build a new one.

Such achievements possess a value that is missing from such school tasks as objective exams or even laboratory exercises, when these are contrived only for the purpose of assessing knowledge. For example, high school students may be asked to identify bias in a historical document without proceeding further to an analysis that portrays real understanding of the event at issue. It is our contention that the cry for “relevant” or “student-centered” curriculum is, in many cases, an imprecise expression of the desire for student accomplishments to possess authentic value beyond low-level measures of competence in a subject.

Authenticity in the Constructivist Classroom
The three criteria for authenticity described above form the foundation for authentic intellectual achievement. Embedded within each of the criteria are specific standards that provide a benchmark for teachers to judge whether particular forms of instruction and assessment are likely to help students produce authentic work (see Table 1).4

We argue that the adoption of any new teaching practices without attention to criteria and standards for authentic achievement offers little guidance for social studies or any other subject. This argument is supported by research in elementary, middle, and high schools that shows a correlation between the use of instructional activities and assessments consistent with CORS criteria and higher quality student achievement.5

The three criteria in many ways jibe with the constructivist perspectives gaining favor among educators in various disciplines. While varying, these perspectives share the assumption that learning takes place when students engage in activities that require them to analyze, interpret, and negotiate the meaning of information. However, we believe that they offer explicit standards for authenticity that are not apparent in many attempts to apply constructivist theory to the classroom.

For example, these criteria require not only that students go beyond reproducing information to its analysis or interpretation; they also insist that the construction of knowledge by students must reflect disciplined inquiry based on the use of substantial knowledge within a field. (This is contrary to the form of constructivism, touted by some circles in the social studies, that does not require student constructions to conform to knowledge considered authoritative in a field.) Finally, this concept of authentic achievement requires that students make meaningful connections between their school work and their own experiences and situations outside of school.

Many attempts to restructure schools around constructivist principles focus on pedagogical techniques and processes of creating knowledge in hopes that student performance will improve. We think the focus should be reversed. Rather than beginning with pedagogy, social studies teachers should focus their attention on the quality of their students’ intellectual work, and then allow the nature of that performance to drive the practice of teaching.

Criteria for authentic intellectual achievement, when grounded in research on the intellectual quality of classroom work, can serve as ideals for student performance in the social studies. While adopting these criteria is no magic elixir, using them to guide the design of lessons and assessments helps ensure that some student efforts will be treated as more intellectually worthy than others.

While a focus on authentic academic achievement demands attention to criteria such as those presented here, this does not mean that every lesson must match all of the criteria. In some cases, repetitive practice or memory drills may help students to build the knowledge and skills that can later serve as the basis for authentic performance. The point is not to abandon all conventional schoolwork, but to keep authentic achievement clearly in view as the ultimate goal of social education.

1. Thomas L. Good and Jere Brophy. Educational Psychology (White Plains. NY: Longman, 1995).
2. Fred M. Newmann and Gary G. WehIage, Successful School Restructuring(Madison. WI: Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools, 1995) and “Authentic Pedagogy: Standards that Boost Student Performance,” Issues In Restructuring Schools, CORS Issue Report No.8 (Spring 1995).
3. Fred M. Newmann, Helen M. Marks, and Adam Gamoran. “Authentic Pedagogy and Student Performance,” American Journal of Education 104 (1996): 280-312.
4. For a detailed treatment of the standards for instruction, performance and authentic assessment, including teaching examples, student work samples and scoring rubrics, see Fred M. Newmann, Walter G. Secada. and Gary G. Wehlage, A Guide to Authentic Instruction and Assessment: Vision, Standards, and Scoring (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Center for Education Research, 1995).
5. Newmann, Marks, and Gamoran.

Geoffrey Scheurman is associate professor of teacher education at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and was a high school social studies teacher for 11 years. Fred M. Newmann is professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and was director of the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.

Assessment in a Social Contructivist Classroom

by Janet Alleman and Jere Brophy

Recognizing the need for accountability, but concerned about the narrowing effect on the curriculum that current versions of high-stakes testing might have, National Council for the Social Studies and leading scholars have been arguing for social studies assessment that reflects major social studies goals, a wide range of objectives, and more authentic tasks. NCSS guidelines call for systematic and rigorous evaluation of social studies instruction that

  1. Bases the criteria for effectiveness primarily on the school’s own stated objectives;
  2. Includes assessment of progress not only in knowledge, but in thinking skills, valuing, and social participation;
  3. Includes data from many sources in addition to paper-and-pencil tests; and
  4. Is useful not only for assessing student progress but in planning curriculum improvements.1

Comprehensive Social Studies Assessment
To evaluate learning in the social studies, teachers must relate their curriculum goals to effective methods of assessing student progress. Three curriculum goals-understanding, appreciation, and life application-lie at the core of constructivism as a social studies methodology.

Understanding means that students grasp both the individual elements in a network of related content and the connections among them, so that they can explain the content in their own words. Appreciation means that students value the content because they recognize that there are many good reasons for learning it. Life-application means that students retain their learning in a form useable in other contexts. To address this range of goals, assessment must be what scholars refer to as authentic. 2

Traditionally, assessment has been tailored primarily for the individual student and designed to elicit reflections of transmitted information. The kind of assessment implied by constructivism flows from the belief that students develop new knowledge and make it their own through an active process of “meaning making.” While constructivists may differ in their philosophical beliefs regarding the nature of knowledge, all favor moving from transmission models of teaching toward models that involve crafting reflective discussions scaffolded around networks of powerful ideas.

Social constructivists emphasize that the teaching-learning process works best in social settings in which individuals engage in discourse about a topic. Participants advance their own thinking through exposure to the views and insights of others. Communicating their own beliefs and understandings forces them to articulate their ideas more clearly, which sharpens their conceptions and frequently helps them make new connections.

Challenges in Planning Constructivist Assessment
One challenge for teachers using the social constructivist model is to ensure that students collaborate thoughtfully as they strive to construct new understandings. Newmann identified six key indicators of thoughtfulness observed in high school classes that are useful to the assessment of discourse at all levels:

  1. Classroom discourse focuses on sustained examination of a few topics rather than superficial coverage of many.
  2. The discourse is characterized by substantive coherence and continuity.
  3. Students are given sufficient time to think before being required to answer questions,
  4. The teacher presses students to clarify or justify their assertions, rather than accepting and reinforcing them indiscriminately.
  5. The teacher models the characteristics of a thoughtful person by, for example, showing interest in students’ ideas and suggestions for solving problems, modeling problem-solving processes rather than just giving answers, and acknowledging the difficulties involved in gaining clear understandings of problematical topics.
  6. Students generate original and unconventional ideas in the course of their interaction.3

Good constructivist teaching should yield high scores on thoughtfulness indicators as compared with (a) transmission approaches that emphasize lecture, recitation, and seatwork, and (b) less desirable forms of constructivist teaching that feature participatory discussion but lack intellectual discipline; for example, the teacher leaps from topic to topic or accepts all student contributions-even irrelevant comments, ill-informed opinions, and outright misconceptions.

Teachers can assess other aspects of student discourse stimulated by the constructivist approach. Observation tools that focus on variables within discussions can help both students and the teacher to get a “reading” on how well the group process is working.

A second challenge for teachers using social constructivist methods is how to measure individual effort as each student builds his or her own unique representation of what was constructed in a group setting. Research on cooperative learning indicates that student achievement is maximized using models that combine group goals with individual accountability.4 We expect that similar findings will emerge from research on social constructivist teaching methods.

Table 1 provides a framework for teachers to measure the contributions of individual students to group discussion. Table 2 suggests how students working in a group can themselves measure the quality of their discourse, while Table 3 calls for individual students to assess their own role in group discussion.

Forms of Constructivist Assessment
Constructivism implies that learning is ongoing and continuous. Assessment should reflect this model, with preliminary, formative, and summative assessments viewed as being of equal importance in students’ profiles. The read-recite-test model, on the other hand, leads to heavy emphasis on summative assessment only.

The planning of assessment experiences that flow throughout the learning process affords teachers the chance to use learning activities themselves as assessment tools. All “good” learning activities enable students to accomplish curricular goals,5 and usually lead to some kind of product that may be used for assessment. For most students and parents, attaching a grade to a learning activity gives it more value. But authentic assessment also means that teachers observe how students construct knowledge and how they apply their new understandings in other contexts.

Wiggins identified authentic assessment with the performance of exemplary tasks that replicate the standards and challenges of adult life.6 For example, students might address the school board with regard to the student dress code, or the city council with regard to the safety of the school’s street crossings.

Authentic assessment would involve examining the quality of their arguments and the supporting evidence for any change they propose. On the other hand, a paper describing how a group of concerned citizens might go about trying to change a city regulation would be viewed as non-authentic-a hypothetical exercise with no actual “reality tests” or consequences.

The best assessment activities make an impact on students beyond certifying their levels of competence. For example, a curriculum goal might call for students to develop a position on a current social issue that is grounded in knowledge, reflects diverse opinions, and includes research gathered from a range of sources. Here, writing an editorial for the local newspaper would be more authentic than writing only to illustrate that the students can research and write coherent papers. Authentic assessment replaces the related ideas that evaluation can only be accomplished (1) through objective tests, (2) conducted after the teacher’s instruction is completed, (3) in a single sitting, (4) with a distribution of grades that should yield a bell-shaped curve.

Walter Parker has provided a list of attributes useful in planning authentic assessments.7 He also recommends that authentic assessment be incorporated into benchmarks that occur at major academic transitions. For example students about to enter middle school might write a letter to their sixth-grade social studies teacher describing what they have learned about U.S. history and geography in the fifth grade. They could say how they expect knowledge of their own country to connect with their upcoming study of Mexico and Canada, and how learning about other countries is likely to affect their roles as global citizens.

Another excellent technique for authentic assessment is the student portfolio. As “snapshots in time,” the contents of a portfolio reveal patterns in the learner’s profile. Portfolios are authentic if they illustrate a student’s actual accomplishments (for example, an individual or class-generated letter to a newspaper promoting ecological awareness week with well-supported arguments about its importance).

The most authentic assessment practices are integral parts of the curriculum and instruction process. In constructivist social studies classrooms, the teacher emphasizes discourse as the primary teaching-learning modality. Responsible teachers monitor this discussion as a process, and use assessment methods that ensure individual accountability for accomplishing learning goals. Based on constructivist premises, authentic assessment is a natural way to represent what is valued, and it fits well with the view of all human learning as on-going and comprehensive.

1. National Council for the Social Studies, Social Studies Curriculum Planning Resources (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1990).
2. F. Newmann, “Higher Order Thinking in Teaching Social Studies: A Rationale for the Assessment of Classroom Thoughtfulness,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 22 (1990): 41-56; F. Newmann, W. Secada, and G. Wehlage, A Guide to Authentic Instruction and Assessment: Visions, Standards, and Scoring (Madison: Wisconsin Center for Education Research, 1995); G. Wiggins, “A True Test: Toward More Authentic and Equitable Assessment,” Phi Delta Kappan 70 (1989): 203-213, and “Teaching to the Authentic Test,” Educational Leadership 46 (1989): 41-41
3. Newmann.
4. R. Slavin, “Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement,” Educational Leadership 46, No. 2 (1988): 31-33.
5. J. Brophy and J. Alleman, “Activities as Instructional Tools: A Framework for Analysis and Evaluation,” Educational Researcher 20, No. 4 (1991): 9-23.
6. Wiggins, “A True Test” and “Teaching to the Authentic Test.”
7. Walter Parker, Reviewing the Social Studies Curriculum (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1991).

Janet Alleman is professor of teacher education and educational administration at Michigan State University. Jere Brophy is distinguished professor of teacher education at Michigan State University

Series Directory

Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers


Produced by State of the Art, Inc., in collaboration with the National Council for the Social Studies and the Center for Civic Education. 2003.
  • ISBN: 1-57680-679-0