A School for Big, Spiraling History (part 1 of 5)

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My last two posts (on practical and personally-meaningful history) laid out some major goals for our social studies curriculum. How will we achieve them? By re-approaching the subject, from a very different perspective.

Before we lay out this new approach, it will be useful to observe how social studies is typically organized — what's taught, when. (The technical term for this is "scope and sequence.")

In the traditional North American scope and sequence, the first few years are given to an "expanding horizons" model. Children in kindergarten learn about families; children in first grade learn about their neighborhood; children in second grade learn about their city. And so on out, through their local states (or regions) to their country and, finally, to the world.

This "expanding horizons," I should hasten to say, does make rather elegant superficial sense. But it leads students (and adults) to have a disjointed, short-sighted understanding of the world.

The "expanding horizons" model was forged in the early 1900s, a period when a global understanding was seen as a luxury — something only required by the very elite. (When it was created, China and India really were on the other side of the world, rather than in every room of the house.)

The "expanding horizons" model was forged in a period when the cutting-edge educational psychology held that children could only conceive of the world immediately around them, and lacked the ability to make sense of the long-ago or far-away. (That this is directly contradicted every time kids play-act as medieval knights or Shogunate ninjas — or pretend to be characters from "long ago, in a galaxy far, far away" — is usually ignored!)

This model denies young children the experience of the long-ago and far-away. It denies them the chance to experience stories of real people who are very different from them. It denies them the opportunity to develop a basic picture of where we come from, who we are, and where we're going.

And then, after squandering the first half of a K-12 education on "expanding horizons," the social studies curriculum devolves into a grab-bag of randomly assembled topics, most focused on the experience of the particular nation-state the child was born into.

Here's a picture of what the now-dominant scope and sequence looks like:

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Your mileage may vary — each of the 13,000+ U.S. public school districts (and 33,000+ private schools!) has the authority to do things a bit differently. That said, there's remarkable similarity across them all. The above is a composite.

(Note, for a moment, that none of this came about from the scheming of some treacherous cabal. Conspiracy theories are presently rife in education, and they're typically make-believe. The dominant scope and sequence demonstrates the tragedy of smart-sounding ideas in education — a tragedy we who propose new ideas should be intimately aware of.)

What's needed is a new scope and sequence — one that makes it easy for a class to gain a coherent picture of the whole world, an appreciation of human diversity, and a complex, adult understanding of life.

I'll sketch out how we'll do this in my next post.

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA