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Driving Question
By Mark Heintz
Aug 13, 2019

A few years ago, I had a student who was obsessed with history.  Every day he came to class with some obscure bit of trivia from something he just read or watched – always about World War II – and then proceeded to ask me a plethora of questions. I loved it.  It’s not every day or year for that matter that I get to geek out with a student all year.  

Sadly, this was not a dream scenario. I cut his questions short. All. The. Time. When I did, he asked when we were going to cover World War II as a class, and my response was the same: April.  I had this student for two years in a row, and every day for two years he asked me, knowing full well that my response would be the same.  Come on kid, get with the program; WWII is rarely on the AP World History exam, and when it is, most students know enough to do well.  I don’t need to cover it. 

Compounding the Problem

I might have…okay, I did compound the problem. See, before he even stepped foot in my class, I went through the course guide set out by the College Board to ensure everything I taught was explicitly stated in the guide. I adhered to the test so that he and other students could pass the examination.  The day-to-day events of WWII are barely mentioned in a course that covered over 12,000 years of history. If it’s not on the test, I wasn’t going to spend time in class on it.

Deep sigh.

Therein lies the problem.  Because I only taught to the test, I didn’t let him–or any of the students for that matter– have a voice in what they were learning. I didn’t let them own their own learning. I know “owning your learning” could be mocked as a buzzword or edu trend.  But, it is far from that. The longer I am in education this is becoming the education hill I might die on. As John Spencer outlines is this short video, amazing things happen when students, or anyone for that matter, owns their learning. The video states that:

#1: They fall in love with learning by finding joy in pursuing their passions and geeky interests. In the process, they learn how to research and curate and communicate. 

 

#3: They develop iterative thinking, viewing mistakes as a chance to learn. This leads to a shift from a fixed to a growth mindset. 

 

#7: They become architects of their own learning, engaging in project management and collaboration.

I want those things for my students, and they do, too.

More Context

For the last decade, I have taught AP World History and my students, large in part, are “successful” on the exam. But, as John Warner states in his book Why They Can’t Write,

 “For so long we’ve been focused on helping students “achieve” that we’ve lost sight of what this achievement might mean.”

I should point out that passing the exam is not the only thing I nor my students care about.  Though sometimes it feels like it is. Because there is so much emphasis placed on those metrics of success in our culture, the year can be reduced to the grade and score. I feel I lessen the importance of those two aspects; however, simply by having a final test and issuing a grade diminishes learning to a product.  Again, I agree with John Warner that learning “is a process, not a product. There is no finish line, only the ongoing work to keep developing” as a learner. I want my class to allow students to pursue their interests, give them the ability to make choices about how they learn best, and expand their curiosity while still allowing students to excel on the AP examination.  

This is where I’m struggling.

Because there is so much expected for students to know, they typically memorize information and regurgitate it on the exam.  All too often, they thought what they memorized was an indisputable fact of history. By adhering to the curriculum:

I removed the nuances in history and geography. 

I took away the students ability to make sense of the world for themselves and see its complexity and uniqueness.  

And, I recognize that every year, the College Board gives feedback to teachers that we should focus more on the nuances of ideas and arguments. In the past, I struggled with how to do that with such a comprehensive course to get through; hence, I ultimately standardized instruction for every student. 

 My hope is for my students to not merely memorize. Jason Wilkes in Burn Math Class eloquently puts what I want: 

“Since the goal is for (students) to be able to go through the same process of reasoning yourself, you should not try to memorize the steps in this argument, but rather to understand the argument well enough that if you ever forget either of those formulas, then you can reinvent them for yourself on the spot in a few seconds.”

While he is speaking to mathematics, I believe the same is true for history and geography. By the end of the year, students should have created their own working construct of the world and the ability to continually add and rework it for the rest of their lives. I know students forget a lot of what is in the course and that forgetting is a critical part of the learning process.  It would be impossible to remember everything that we ever encounter, let alone have everyone in my class remember the entire course guide.  I would hope that if a student forgets a detail that made up their constructed worldview, they could easily recall it when they take in new information.  

 

Passing 

I know what passing an AP class means to a lot of students – especially when it comes to saving money in college by receiving credit in high school. I wished we, collective American society, thought more of the process instead of the product, but I’m not going to ruin a kid’s chance of passing.  At the same time, I feel that…No, I know that if a kid was allowed to use the school day to explore their interests, they will learn more than by having them march through the course guide.  I know the course guide by heart. I like to tell the other AP World teachers in the building the obscure things we are supposed to cover in the hallway right before class starts.  It’s super dorky and super annoying, and I love it. But, my point is, I can deliver or connect students to what they need to excel on the exam and give them the free time to explore what interests them. 

 

So, where does that leave me for this year? 

I know that students can BOTH follow their interests and pass the examination.  I don’t want to ask students to give up what they want to learn just to pass the AP exam.  I need to be able to help students see that BOTH of those things are possible. Probably, more importantly, I need to see how their interests connect to the exam.  In the past, I strategically created the course to eliminate student interests in an attempt to pass the exam. Because most of my students do what I ask, I don’t let them own their learning in the name of compliance.  Thinking back to my student from a few years ago, I know that if I had let him own his learning, he would have consumed far more than I asked him which would have enabled him to pass the exam. If I had created the conditions that led him to ask questions and pursue his interests, I believe he and ALL of my students would have been just as successful on the AP exam. Therefore, as I go through this year, I want to hold myself accountable to ensure I do this and my driving is as follows:

To what extent can I create classroom conditions that represent how people learn best while still allowing students to excel on the AP examination?

I hope to write more frequently in hopes of showing what I’m doing to answer this question. 

A special thanks to my wife and also, Kim Miklusak for reading this beforehand and guiding me through this journey.

 

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