March 7, 2010

Historians' automaticity, part 1

Concerns with science and math education are nothing new, and although the rhetoric today focuses on saving the planet and the economy, the argument for urgent intensification of STEM education is remarkably similar in structure to the Cold War era debates in the 1940s through the early 1960s: our country is in crisis, we need science and technology to solve the crisis, and so we must reform education. A 1959 forum about science and math education at Woods Hole was summarized by Jerome Bruner in The Process of Education (1960), which essentially was an argument about education in the disciplines. (Bruner later was instrumental in creating Man: A Course of Study [MACOS], and fellow Woods Hole conference participant Jerrold Zacharias was a key mover in MIT's Physical Science Study Committee, whose materials were used by my high school physics teacher.)

For a number of reasons, MACOS flopped as a curriculum project, but the central question raised at the 1959 Woods Hole conference remains: what's necessary for students to be successful at learning disciplinary thinking? Several of my colleagues at USF (Will Tyson, Kathy Borman, and others) have been involved in NSF-funded work studying recruitment to and success in undergraduate STEM education, including preparatory math and science work in high school. In lower grades, the National Math Advisory Panel made some suggestions about curriculum in primary and intermediate elementary grades that would be prerequisite for success in algebra, including work with fractions. (Speaking of which, check out this very cool Java Spirograph simulation. Yes, it's connected to fractions... or rather the nature of reciprocal relationships between frequency and wavelength.)

And somewhere along here, along with debates about the purposes of various proposed curricula, we generally get debates about which is more important, procedural fluidity or conceptual understanding. My answer: yes. They are. You need both "content" and "process" (and we'll get to the problem with those terms shortly), and I am generally sympathetic to arguments that getting to the point of automaticity with core skills is a part of getting ahead in conceptual understanding and also needs to be matched by teaching of concepts. (See my entry a few years ago on how to explain the more recent and reasonable NCTM curriculum framework materials.)

But there is something about the term automaticity that itches inside my head, because it sort of gets the idea right but is not entirely persuasive... and the places where it is not persuasive are troubling in a subtle but very important way. Let me explain why I can fluidly pull out material from my memory that looks remarkably like the standard definition of automaticity and yet really isn't like that at all. 

First, a digression: with apologies to Douglas Adams, the process of doing history is almost but not quite entirely unlike what Sam Wineburg describes in his research. Wineburg's writing is appealing to historians because it focuses on precisely the discipline-based processes that Bruner discussed 50 years ago in his book, and Wineburg's message is flattering: "academic historians, you have interesting ways of thinking, and here is what I see as a cognitive researcher and why high school history teachers need to pay much closer attention to what you do." And to be honest, there is some part of his work that has all sorts of interesting detail on the level of nuance and sophistication with which people try to commit history (such as the research on how people from different fields read primary sources about Abraham Lincoln and slavery). But Wineburg is enormously popular because his intended audience has a confirmation bias that leads them (us) to agree with someone who comes along and tells us we're special and intellectual. Wineburg weaves a story of historical thinking's exceptionalism... and there's the rub. As an historian, I'm supposed to be wary of anyone talking about American exceptionalism, and here comes this cognitive psychologist trying to seduce me with glorious tales of my discipline's exceptionalism, how difficult it is to be an historian, and so forth.

Pardon me, but I'll take the interesting cognitive questions without the side dish of (probably unintentional) pandering. A good bit of Wineburg's efforts have been to parse out how people read primary sources, and they generally focus on the level of ambiguity people read into primary sources: ambiguity about intent, background, effect, and so forth. And that's all fine and good except for two problems: Wineburg's work in this vein has generally been with adults, and they generally ignore the process participants use to put the primary source in context. The second is the part that troubles me most as a teacher, because the place where students in my undergrad history of education class first fall down is typically in putting a primary source in a broader context. It's not the most difficult task I put before students: usually the most difficult task in the semester is asking students to provide historical perspectives on a contemporary issue. But the difficulty of putting material in a broader context is a fundamental barrier to success in my class.

That sounds remarkably like students who are not yet at the level of history automaticity, whatever that might mean, and one would be tempted to refer to Checker Finn and Diane Ravitch's argument from the late 1980s, that American teenagers don't know enough history. But focusing on factual recall is begging the question: what does it mean to have sufficiently fluid mastery of history to put a primary document in context? Something about factual recall is helpful, but is that enough, and is that what successful students do? 

It might be helpful to explain the type of task that is not hard for students: confronting people whose glib brutality stands out of the page. That characterizes the very first primary source I use in my undergrad history class (printed in Jim Fraser's education history primary-source collection), instructions from the London Virginia Council to the colony's governor in 1636. It reads in part,

And if you find it convenient, we think it reasonable you first remove... [Native American children] from their ... priests by a surprise of them all and detain their prisoners... [and] we pronounce it not cruelty nor breach of charity to deal more sharply with [the priests] and to proceed even to dash with these murderers of souls and sacrificers of gods' images to the devil...

With 17th century texts, the first challenge is simply to understand what the source says, and that's a bit of skill in language, but the students usually figure out this passage soon enough, and their eyes open a bit wider: the official supervisors of the colony sitting in England were telling the colonial governor to kidnap Native American children and beat (or kill) the elders. That type of detail sticks with students, because it engages their emotions and sense of what a society is supposed to be doing (as well as what colonists did). It's not that any student is exactly surprised that English colonists in Virginia were patronizing and occasionally brutal, but there is something that takes them aback in the casual way which which colonists and English elite discussed their goals. 

I wish that all of history was that engaging, but that's just not true, and there is a good bit of background context that students need to pull out to put any primary source in context, and when you get to material whose explicit text is boring but is still important, students cannot rely on the immediately-engaging story to "get it." Instead, most primary sources require a student to identify at least one salient context that is not immediately apparent, and they need to be able to identify a relevant context (or more than one) without a huge amount of effort. If there is an "automaticity" to a professional historian's thinking, it is that: where does this primary source or other detail fit in a large scheme?

That larger scheme can start with "issues of the day," whatever the time and place. To be successful, you need to know what was happening at about the time of the primary source/event. You start with the year, go back and forth a few years, and think about possible connections. So when you look at the last of Horace Mann's annual reports on the state of education in Massachusetts (in 1848) and read the following passage, what pops out as contemporary and possibly relevant?

Now surely nothing but universal education can counterwork this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor. If one class possesses all the wealth and the education, while the residue of society is ignorant and poor, it matters not by what name the relation between them may be called: the latter, in fact and in truth, will be the servile dependents and subjects of the former. But, if education be equally diffused, it will draw property after it by the strongest of all attractions; for such a thing never did happen, and never can happen, as that an intelligent and practical body of men should be permanently poor. Property and labor in different classes are essentially antagonistic; but property and labor in the same class are essentially fraternal.

That's from the middle of the 19th century in the U.S. So when I ask a class about the relevant context, some students look at servility and suggest slavery as an issue, point out that Mann was writing for an audience in the North, or ask whether Mann was anti-slavery. (No one in my classes has mentioned the compromise of 1850, but that would fit with this tentative reach for context.) Few of them would have heard of Eric Foner's book on free-labor ideology, but I can probe a bit: slavery's part of the picture, at least in rhetoric, but there's something else there. What were some of the concepts used in the North to discuss slavery? I wish that probe worked more frequently than it does, so I usually point out the "different classes" phrase and ask what else was happening in the U.S. in the 19th century. At least one student usually mentions industrialization. So what's Mann arguing, I follow up? More faces light up at that point.

Part of the problem here is that Mann's argument is too familiar, a little too close to a human-capital argument for students to realize how new this was. (Maris Vinovkis credits Mann with that early human-capital argument.) Part of it is also that students don't have a visceral sense of the simmering conflicts in Northern cities, even after hearing about the religious conflicts in Boston in 1836 or Philadelphia in 1844 (the latter so-called "Bible riot"). Because all of that was also related to social class, industrialization, and immigration, I can almost feel Mann's sense of urgency here in promoting mass education ("common schools") as a cure-all for social conflict. But most students usually can't. The prose is too prosaic and the context insufficiently emotional to engage students in the same way that happens in response to the "kidnap the kids and eliminate the elders" instructions from the 17th century.

There's an additional layer to this context, because 1848 is a signal year in European history: revolutions galore and the publication of the Communist Manifesto. To a literate, well-connected American, Europe was dissolving in chaos in 1847 and 1848. What could prevent the U.S. from doing the same? There is no evidence I am aware of that Mann was explicitly referring to European events, but it would have been in the air in the same way that natural disasters are "in the air" around the globe today after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Even if he was not consciously constructing the passage above to respond to European events, it would have resonated more for someone concerned about social stability in 1848. 

There is nothing special about what I do in class: I take a simple question of context to push students about the importance of something Horace Mann wrote. And there is nothing particularly hard about asking what else was happening at the time. But while it's an easy task for me, this task flummoxes a lot of students. That task of pulling relevant context out of one's memory is the closest thing I can think of for the historian's automaticity, and looking for contemporary events and issues is the most obvious (but not the only) way to cut the issue. One might want to call this type of context affinity in time. I can think of other affinities which I might explore in other entries, but the key thing here is that this task is extraordinarily difficult for students. 

Why this is difficult is an interesting, substantive question beyond the usual "fact-process" dualism. You need a mastery of chronology to pull context out of your head, but to build that mastery you need a way to put the details into your head in a way that's not "one damned thing after another"--i.e., a mental scheme. And while I wish I could look inside my head to see what my internal schemes are, I suspect any attempt at reflection is going to fall far short. I suppose one metaphor might be a "thick" timeline of issues and events and trends inside my head, so that when someone says, "1848," I can think of a bunch of things (as described above). Or if someone tells you that the Little Rock crisis was in fall of 1957, you just might think of Sputnik and ask whether there might be a Cold War context to Eisenhower's decision to nationalize the Arkansas National Guard and send in the 101st Airborne.

In addition, you need to be able to filter out nonsalient issues. What else was going on in 1957? Let's see: the Ford Thunderbird that year was a particularly popular "muscle" car. And the Dodgers were planning to move away from Brooklyn. The Communist party won elections in the Indian state of Kerala. ABC started national broadcast distribution of American Bandstand. On the Road was published. You can find more details at the 1957 Wikipedia page, but going to an almanac-style "here's what happened" listing is an incredibly inefficient way to put something in context. But to be honest, I wish I had the problem of students who found too many potential contexts where I had to suggest filtering. Usually the problem is a lack of candidate hypotheses about context.

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Posted in Education policy on March 7, 2010 11:30 AM |