Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Making Civics Real Workshop 4: Constitutional Convention  
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Essential Readings

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.

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