I sat through an active presentation by Steven Turner in which he asked whether teaching for achievement or teaching for understanding is appropriate in public schools. In the current climate many of the participants at this session agreed that teaching for achievement as an isolated concept equates to teaching skills appropriate for testing with little or no evidence of transferability or sustainability. We also tended to agree that teaching for understanding led to students developing critical thinking, reflection, rigorous sense of internalization of knowledge. One participant argued that teaching for achievement meant teaching to a predetermined, external set of standards while teaching for understanding had no predetermined borders but is broadly focused on relevant issues and knowledge. What also developed from this discussion was a consensus that if one teaches for understanding this does not negate the need to teach the necessary skills required for particular understanding. The two are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the great irony is that when children are taught with understanding as the goal of the process test scores rise in a direct relationship to student engagement. If, however, children are taught only for achievement their test scores are erratic and, perhaps more importantly, students become resistant to school and schooling. Turner’s work is worthy of a second look and some follow-up studies as well.
In a second session, Steven J. Thornton and Keith C. Barton presented a paper entitled Why history education is impossible without social studies. This work suggests that teaching history as a separate academic discipline is impossible without relating the history being taught to the other social studies, areas of study that include economics, political science, sociology, psychology, anthropology, geography and the like. I was drawn to the session not only because of Thornton’s work, but by the title of their paper. I have been thinking about how to effectively link the social studies to teaching history as many social studies educators are doing but I simply assumed that history serves as the underlying foundation for the rest of the social studies. Thornton and Barton suggest a different relationship, one that understands history as the factual exemplar for the theoretical concepts endemic to the rest of the social studies. An example they gave is the American Revolution. One cannot understand the revolution without understanding the concept from political science of representation or the concept from economics of taxation. While a gross oversimplification, the point they are making is that political science and economics provide us with theoretical constructions while the narrative of the revolution transforms those abstractions into narrative reality. History, in this sense, is the exemplar that provides students with concrete examples of weighty though abstract concepts. I really liked this take on the problem raised.