Confusion Meets Learning

Over the last two weekends, I’ve been designing the first of my AP U.S. unit plans for next school year.  Before you throw anything at me or call me an overachiever, know that the exam is undergoing an overhaul and next year the exam will be fairly different from previous ones.  For this reason, and because I’m starting at a new school with a new text, and because I’m getting married and moving to a new town this summer and may be a wee bit busy, I decided to spend the last few weekends getting a jump start on the year.

When you overhaul something like an AP history exam that affects thousands of individuals, not everyone is going to be on board with the changes.  I’d been monitoring the discussion about the changes from afar, but I chose to remain undecided in terms of whether or not I believed the changes were for the good or ill of students and teachers.  As I waded through the College Board’s materials on the new exam over the last few weeks, I became pleasantly surprised by how much I really like and appreciate the new format.

Despite liking the exam, I can see the challenges ahead.  As I flipped back and forth from the historical thinking skills to the learning objectives to the concept outline, there were times when I felt overwhelmed.  There were times when I didn’t feel like it was much different than the old version, and there were times when I thought it was completely new.  I struggled to figure out if I should work primarily from the objectives or from the concept outline.  Sometimes I thought I’d be able to teach much the same way as I always had, while other times I thought I’d need to reinvent my entire system.

The good news is that the research is right.  Confusion leads to deeper learning.  Researchers have been studying in depth the effects of confusion on understanding over the last few years, and they consistently have found that a little bit of confusion on the part of the learner leads to great gains in overall understanding and learning in the long run.  As uncomfortable and frustrating as the last two weeks have been, I feel like I have a greater handle on all the changes and what I have to do to make sure I’m doing right by my students.

If you are an AP U.S. history teacher, here’s a few things I’ve learned over the last few weeks.  Perhaps this will help dispel some of the fear or frustration about the coming changes.  Of course, as you design next year’s course for yourself, you may end up disagreeing with me.

  • Fear not, my history-loving friends.  Students still need to know the history.  I’d heard some talk that students no longer needed to know the facts of history in order to do well on the multiple choice section of the exam; according to some, students simply needed to have good reading comprehension.  As I examined the multiple choice questions in more depth, I found that in order for students to do well on this section they will need a firm grasp of the content in order to put things in context.  And of course, on the short answer questions, long essay question, and DBQ, they definitely need content knowledge at their fingertips.
  • You do not need to throw all your old test questions out the window.  Since students still need to have a firm grasp of the content, you can reuse some of your old tried and true questions, either ones you’ve made up yourself or ones you’ve gathered from previously released AP exams, cherry-picking the best of the best.  Having said that, you can’t only use your old assignments and assessments.  Some change is absolutely necessary.  My new standard assessments will likely consist of 3 parts: 1) standard multiple choice/objective questions that test basic historical content knowledge, 2) new style of multiple choice questions that focus on applying and contextualizing historical content knowledge as it relates to primary and secondary source material, 3) short answer questions that ask students to compare, contextualize, analyze, and synthesize.
  • The new multiple choice style of questions will take longer to craft.  The new style revolves around primary and secondary source material, with sets of questions for each source.  Finding the sources and crafting multiple choice questions about those sources takes time…quite a bit of time.  Be prepared for that aspect.  (FYI – I am going to put together series of multiple choice questions in the new style and sell them for a small fee on Teachers Pay Teachers if you are interested.  The first set should be up within the next couple of weeks and will deal with the first time period, 1491-1607.)
  • Elvis was partly right when he sang, “a little less conversation, a lot more action.”  Under the new exam style, students need to have practiced doing history, practiced the skills of an historian.  This means they need to be more active than passive, and so if you have relied primarily on lecture in the past, you will need to change more than others who have relied on more interactive methods of instruction.  Personally, I think that makes for much more interesting school days, but perhaps that’s just me.  Don’t get me wrong, some lecture will always remain, but I think it’s more of an “active” or “participatory” style of lecture in which teachers and students are working together to gather, decipher, and disseminate information.

I hope this post was useful.  Check back often for more about my adventures with the new AP U.S. exam and resources.



Should You Write Your Own Textbook?

About 2 months ago, my school invited an Apple Distinguished Educator to come and present a workshop on iBooks.  iBooks are used in different ways in the world of education including students writing their own books and teachers writing their own textbooks.  It’s this second way that I’ve been considering the most over the last few weeks.  I think teacher-created iBooks have great potential as supplementary texts, but I am less sure of teacher-created textbooks.

Before I go any further, let me explain two assumptions or biases from which I am working.  First, I generally use college-level texts in my high school courses, so I am comparing a teacher-created history textbook with a standard college-level history text.  Second, I am working from the assumption that textbooks are good things when used wisely by instructor and student.  If you think all textbooks are useless and evil, read no further.

When I thought  about the idea of writing my own textbook, my initial reaction was one of excitement.  The idea of creating a resource that has the exact information that I want my students to have and none of the “unnecessary”* stuff from someone else’s text is appealing.  With iBooks, you can embed everything in a single text – words, images, videos, quizzes, etc.  Sounds great to me.  But like any resource, whether created by someone else or yourself, there’s trade-offs.  No single resource – even an iBook – can do it all, nor should it.  Resources, you see, are not instruction.  That’s important to remember no matter what resource you are considering adopting or creating, but unfortunately, it’s also kinda easy to forget.  For instance, some have argued that teacher-created textbooks would eliminate the problem of some teachers teaching a textbook “cover to cover” as opposed to teaching a curriculum.  A teacher, however, could just as easily teach their own iBook cover to cover as they could teach a standard text cover to cover.  The problem in both cases is not about the resource; it’s a problem of instruction.  Simply adopting a new resource won’t solve the problem; one needs to address the instruction.

Here’s a working list of pros/cons so far.  I would love others to add to the list.

Writing Your Own – Pros/Cons

  • Cost – Some iBooks are free to download, and if you write your own, you can, of course, decide if your text will be completely free or relatively inexpensive for students to purchase.  So in that sense, many iBooks do cost less in terms of purchase price than standard texts.  Those free iBooks may come with more hidden costs, however, in that many of the free iBooks out there are not necessarily of the best quality and both teacher and student may not be getting as much “bang for their buck.”  When writing one’s own, you must consider several things related to cost: the time it takes to write and edit the book, whether you will be compensated for that time in some way by your school or by selling your book to students, who you can rightly sell the book to, copyright issues with the materials in the iBook, and whether the book ultimately belongs to you or to your institution.
  • Tailored – There’s no question about this one.  iBooks can be tailored specifically to a given school and its students.  You can add many different resources together and put them in one neat package.  Of course, you can do this in other ways using other methods such as platforms like Haiku Learning.
  • Timely – iBooks can be perpetually edited so any changes in a given field can be immediately reflected in a text.  Having said that, most major publishers can do the same thing with their eBooks and online textbook versions of their standard print texts.
  • Audience – Again, this goes along with tailoring.  With one’s own iBook, you can tailor the material to a more specific audience.  This could be seen as both a good and bad thing, however.  For instance, a history textbook tailored too much to a liberal audience or a conservative audience may leave important, relevant information out of the story.

Adopting a Publisher’s Text (Standard print or electronic version) – Pros/Cons

  • Expertise – Can we be frank for a moment?  Not all teachers have the in-depth expertise of a given subject to do it justice. I could write very well on some things in history, okay on others, and not well at all on other things.  But my students should not be shortchanged on a given subject just because I don’t know enough about it to give it its fair due or just because I don’t find that particular subject very interesting.  (Ask my students how I feel about teaching the New Deal!)  Major texts are overseen by Ph.D.’s in the field.  True, most of the text is written by lower level professors and graduate students, but they are still written and overseen and vetted by experts.  Who will vet textbooks created by a classroom teacher?  Does your school have someone who can make sure all the information is correct, up-to-date, and thorough?
  • Reading comprehension and vocabulary development – My students stumble across words and ways of writing in their textbooks that I do not use in my speech or writing.  This is good in that it stretches their comprehension and aids in their vocabulary development.  Teacher-created textbooks may or may not do this to the same level, and this must be taken into consideration.
  • Time – It takes time to find the right book to adopt, and it takes time to find supplemental materials.  Of course, assuming one is drawing from a wide variety of resources to write one’s own iBook, is this more or less time than writing one’s own book?
  • Audience – Textbooks are designed to reach a wide audience.  They have to be.  Again, this may mean that students find themselves unable to identify with some of what’s in a textbook, but it also means they are exposed to things they otherwise might not be.

Where am I now?  What’s my answer to the title of this post?  I like the potential of programs like iBooks to create supplementary texts for my classroom, perhaps a map skills workbook with videos and primary documents embedded alongside the interactive maps.  But in terms of creating a standard high school/college-level history text from the ground up, I’m not yet sold.  Perhaps you can persuade me.

*I say “unnecessary,” but the problem with taking too much “unnecessary” information out is that you run the risk of watering things down too much. Who gets to decide what exactly is unnecessary?  Sometimes students point out things to me in their text that they found interesting that I did not. Is that information “unnecessary”?