Thursday, November 19, 2009

Life and Times

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was teaching 3rd grade that year, and I remember engaging in long conversations with my colleagues about how to talk with our students about the context and significance of the events taking place in Europe. As I watched images from 1989 on television this week, I was reminded of those discussions, and of the complexities of teaching history to young children.

In his landmark work The Process of Education (1960), noted psychologist Jerome Bruner advanced the idea that “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” People are often skeptical about this claim: Any subject? At any stage of development? Bruner went on to explain that a good curriculum introduces children to concepts in small, manageable ways, building upon those concepts each year through a process called spiraling. Our approach to teaching history reflects a great deal of Bruner’s philosophy, beginning with a deep understanding of cognitive development.

What does it mean to teach about the past to primary school students, whose sense of time is not fully developed? Pre-Kindergarteners, for example, have only a vague understanding of elapsed time, or of the precise meaning of time-related words such as weeks, months, or years. When we teach about things that happened long ago, we don’t expect these children to remember dates or sequences. We focus on gradually building their awareness of the passage of time in large and small ways. During a read-aloud, a teacher might pause and ask, “what are some clues that show us this story happened a long time ago?”

When the first graders embarked on their study of inventions and inventors, they were introduced to history through compelling stories about individuals whose contributions improved life or added new ideas to the world. The teachers and students discussed history through small important moments, examining innovations that spanned the past several hundred years. As they learned about Benjamin Franklin, or about how and when blue jeans were invented, the children expanded their knowledge about what the world was like in those times.

Following Bruner’s idea of spiraling, our history curriculum builds each year upon the skills and stories presented earlier, becoming more complex and detailed. As our students get older, they are better able to grasp the idea of time in a historic sense. They gain a greater ability to appreciate the context for people’s actions and the significance of events at particular times in history.

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