Reimagining the Survey

We have three survey courses that make up the core of the history curriculum, followed by semester electives that students can take in their senior year. I have been dissatisfied with the mile wide and inch deep model a survey generally falls into. The most obvious remedy has been to shift to a more thematic approach, and assume that there will be content gaps.

The more I think about it, the less I think the survey needs to be saved in its current form. There may be a group of students for whom it is the most appealing option, and I would be willing to keep a version of it for those students interested. There are other options, though.

One option is to create more narrowly focused elective courses for underclassmen, like the ones seniors can choose. I like the idea of moving in this direction, allowing students to learn more deeply about the areas that interest them. Skills would be shared among sections, rather than content.

Another idea is a little more radical. I would preserve the shell of the survey – Modern World History or US History – but allow students to direct their own learning within that broad range. They would determine what aspects of history they want to learn about and then do it. They would need to share what they learn with the class. They could do some smaller research projects and some larger, combined with maybe even a group learning project. The students would drive the curriculum. My inspiration came from the Independent Project featured in this video.

Why do students have to wait so long to learn what they want? That may be why so many adults are interested in history and so many students are not. In the spirit of moving away from a one-size-fits-all model, I would also want to keep more traditional shared curriculum courses, like thematic surveys and electives – at least until students stopped signing up for them.


10 thoughts on “Reimagining the Survey

  1. Like you (and like many other teachers I have taught with over the years), I find the “rush through the history” aspect of the survey course frustrating. But in fact, I’m teaching a thematic course now, and I can say there are frustrations with that, too.

    I think there is something valuable about the survey course. I think there is some value in exposing students to significant events in the history of their society/culture/country–for example, the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the history of the modern middle east, etc.. In addition, in my opinion, I think one of the most important things that a history course can teach is a sense of history, a sense that their society (and therefore their own self) is the product of a long train of historical events. That sort of historical sense is best acquired through a survey, so the students learn history as a story of which they are the latest chapter.

    I know there are many criticisms of this idea. Doesn’t it buy into “Whig history,” or make up a coherent story where none actually exists? Aren’t we just making up a meaning to attach to the history?

    Maybe, or maybe not, but I don’t think it matters. The point is that students need to make meaning of their lives, and I think a survey course, properly handled, is a valuable way to do this.

    It’s true that we, as teachers, are then determining what students need to study, but up to a point, I don’t have a problem with that. After all, the mere fact that we require them to study history is already imposing limits on students’ choices. We’ve already declared that it’s important to study history; why not, then, say it is important to study this particular history. The alternative is to declare a completely elective-based curriculum. It’s certainly a possibility, but a more radical change. This is not to say that there is no room for student choice, even in a survey course–there can be choice within the broad outline of the survey (for example, in topics for more detailed research), and of course there can be choice in form of assessment.

    But I think the real solution to the problem of student engagement with history is to teach in a way that stresses connections rather than isolated facts, and to teach in a way that forces students to think about the meaning of events–the meaning for society, but also for them personally. Students might not like dates, but everyone likes a good story, and to the extent that you can make history a story–of even better, help students to make it a story–I think it can be engaging for many students.

    Sorry for the long comment. We’ve been discussing curriculum recently in my department, so it’s been on my mind.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I used to feel very much like you do, but I am not sure all kids get the sense of history from the survey. For many kids, an entry point of interest leads them to want to know more of the context, and then a related issue and so on. I see this most with the research papers we require of US students. They find a point of entry and dive in deep and then wide. In some ways, that is the approach I am considering, but with the end products varying from a class discussion, a blog post, a presentation or an essay.

      In the end, I think my biggest concern is the survey for all. I would like to try having a more experimental session alongside the traditional survey. I have considered the idea of the all elective curriculum, and there is a lot that I like about it, but there may be some kids who really love the sweep of the survey. While I am not sure how feasible it is, I would love for there to be different options. I used to believe that it was important for all kids to come our of history classes with a common experience and some common knowledge. What I realize now is that is a bit of an illusion – the takeaways are different anyway.

      I appreciate you pushing my thinking on this. I am not really ready to punt the survey completely, but I would love to field test an alternative.

  2. I am currently reading Roger Schank’s “Making Minds Less Well Educated Than Our Own” It directly addresses the concerns you are struggling with in this post, Molly; but does not limit itself to history instruction alone (although he certainly writes about that).

    I think you should abandon the survey course, if you can, or at least teach it in revolutionary ways. While Dr. K’s feeling that students should be exposed to events in their culture’s political history is a good one, it is only valuable if students actually benefit from such exposure. Clearly they do not. The NAEP has shown consistently (since its first use in 1994) that students leave high school with almost no proficiency in US History, despite the fact that all are exposed to it as a survey course. Only 12% of seniors are proficient in our subject, while 55% score below basic. That is clear failure by any standard. We have to have the courage to try new approaches; we can certainly do no worse than we are doing now.

    • I appreciate the statistics you provide that support my gut feelings. I cannot help but feel like many students leave history classes feeling less than satisfied. We are fortunate to be in a discipline where there are an infinite number of entrance points. Finding the one that engages a student is bound to lead to the desire to understand context, make connections and see patterns. I was struck by a line one of the students in the Independent Project said – “Everyone wants to learn about something.” I feel like we are in an especially strong position in history to honor that. After years of being dismayed at how little transfer there is over time, I realized that just because students learned about a lot of things does not mean that they learned a lot. The fall back has been to note the skills they have learned, which is true. But if we are more concerned about skills than content, why not let the kids choose the content? As always, thanks for weighing in, Bill.

  3. I like your second idea of students’ interests driving the survey course. You also could use current events to drive the course and tie back to the history leading up to them. For example the Arab Spring movement leads to a history of the Middle East, history of Islam, and the history of European and American Imperialism.

    One idea that I have, but have not done yet is to hang a giant, long piece of butcher paper across one wall of my room and make a timeline on it. Then every time we study a theme, students could go up and write it on the timeline throughout the year. That way even though we study US History thematically, students can still get a sense of time and relationships between events.

    As you said students would be presenting their research to the class so they will be exposed to other parts of history that may not be their first choice to research themselves. Another way could be to give the students a short list of the main standards and concepts and let them decide how they want to study them.

    • I do think that current events would drive many kids’ curiosity. My Modern Middle East senior elective does start with the present and build in the context. It can be very effective. I also think that seminal events they have seen in movies like World War II or iconic eras like the Sixties would also be starting points for many students. I cannot help but feel that wherever they start, they would manage to wind their way through quite a bit of history.

      I like the idea of the evolving timeline. No matter whether you organize thematically or chronologically, there is value to making sense of things in both ways. Whichever is the organizer, it helps to bring the other along.

      I think are planning to move to a more thematic US history course next year, having dabbled with a thematic PBL unit on immigration this year that was pretty successful. I would love to be able to have a pilot world history class to do as an open source type class.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave your thoughts. For me to clarify and then try to get others on board, I need to get feedback on my ideas.

  4. I envy your ability to shape your survey class! I teach in a public school and am bound by state standards, which emphasize broad coverage in the US and World History surveys. One change that I am trying to implement that I would take much further if I were designing a course from the ground up is uncovering history through history labs. The idea of “uncoverage” comes from a JAH article by liberal arts college professor Lendohl Caldor who proposed “history labs” as a signature pedagogy for the US History survey. Article is here, under Textbooks and Teaching: .

    The basic idea, students analyzing primary source documents in the manner of actual historians, is of course not revolutionary. What you have the opportunity to do is to redesign a class so that students are doing history. While you would still be selecting topics, students would be doing the interpreting. This melds your expertise in selecting important issues in American History, many of which students may not even be aware of, much less curious about, with a student-centered, constructivist approach.

    I found Bruce Lesh’s “Why Don’t You Just Tell Us the Answers” to be a big help in thinking about these things. I have also compiled some resources for this project here: . The Stanford History Ed Group now has a few World History lessons, too.


    • I appreciate your thoughts, Eric. I have read the Lesh book and implemented a few of the labs with great success. I think the concept is really a good one, and I would like to be more systematic in using it. We have a tendency to get caught up in the race through the curriculum at this point in the year, and I am grateful to you for the reminder that there are small ways to deepen the curriculum.

      The idea of creating a history lab course is an intriguing one, definitely worth thinking through. I still have some thinking to do about how that would look for a year.

      You raise the point about students not knowing about many things that might interest them. I struggle with that thought, but I wonder if they would discover those things naturally by starting where their interests are. Also, they would learning from other students, which might be a spark to curiosity. One complaint I get is that students feel like they keep studying the same things over and over through the years. Often I am asked – why don’t we ever get to study…and they fill in the blank with something in history that interests them. I try to think of my classes as the next history class not the last one they will take. Thank you for bringing up an issue I still need to consider thoroughly.

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