When I first started teaching 4th grade, I inherited a social studies unit on Ancient Egypt, a topic that is universally adored by students at this age level. Over the years of teaching this unit, the 4th grade teachers had developed a document – what we’d now call a knowledge organizer – of all of the facts that students would be required to know by the end of the unit: Names of Egyptian gods and goddesses, how were hieroglyphics and papyrus made, the importance of the Nile for civilization, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, features of labor and slavery, elements of Egyptian architecture, and so on. There was a lot of good stuff in that unit thanks to those clever teachers, and multiple parents confirmed what our assessments told us: Those kids learned a lot about Ancient Egypt!
Unfortunately, the new curriculum coordinator at that school had other plans for our unit on Ancient Egypt. She wanted all social studies units to be about the “Big Ideas” of history, not about boring old facts. She proposed, and eventually enforced, a unit about “Civilizations”, with the Big Idea being, “Civilizations help us understand the present time.” She could have just as easily called it, “Thinking historically is good” or “History was then, and then there’s now.” In less than a month, a successful unit was gutted of its content to make way for activities that had students inquiring into whatever civilization they wanted. Most students succeeded at making a childish diorama, but failed to discover anything of substance about civilizations through these activities.
Even the schools I attended as a kid were often guilty of stripping academic subjects of what makes them so interesting: The content. For instance, my 9th grade history class was not about the events, people, and places of World War II, but about “thinking historically”, with World War II serving as the backdrop. Instead of teaching us about World War II, we were told to use our existing knowledge about World War II to put the Nazis on mock trial and to compose free form poetry about the Holocaust. As you can imagine, these activities were fun, but shallow; By the end of the course we were no more capable of thinking historically about World War II than when we first entered.
I have a sense that elementary schools – my area of training – are the worst offenders at replacing content with hollow and frivolous activities, and the reasons are many. Elementary teachers are not typically content experts in science or social studies, so it takes years of teaching the same topic before we become confident with the subject matter. Assigning a role play or an art project is an easy way to immerse students in the subject whilst we’re still, ourselves, discovering which knowledge is important or unimportant to teach. In addition, many people hold the misconception that elementary children are simply too young to be able to understand ideas and concepts beyond their immediate experience. This idea, epitomized by the saying, But that’s not developmentally appropriate, is behind the popularity of the expanding horizons approach to social studies and science, where content-rich units on Mesopotamia and the Civil Rights Movement are replaced with content-poor units called “All About Me” and “My Community”.
Cognitive science has long indicated that knowledge is the driver of successful thought (i.e., it’s the stuff we think with). Purging the curriculum of content is to, ironically, rob children of the tools they need to think historically and scientifically. Substituting instruction on distant peoples and places for activities about the familiar and the close-at-hand only serves to keep students in ignorance of the wonders that exist beyond their immediate experiences.
As teachers, I believe we have a choice. We can choose to build knowledge upon previous knowledge, progressively deepening students’ understandings of the world beyond their immediate experiences through a so-called knowledge-rich curriculum. Or, we can take a melon baller to subjects like science and social studies and replace “boring old facts” with fun activities that supposedly promote a range of thinking skills. After years of “alternative facts” and “fake news” from the Trump administration, how one can still believe that facts do not matter, so long as you are taught to think, is beyond my comprehension. How might these last few years have been different if every American was equipped with the most basic facts about how democracy and election laws work, how climate change works, and how viruses are transmitted and how vaccines work?