Recently I caught another article about an approach to high school writing instruction that many of you are familiar with: “progressive mastery.”1)Full disclosure: I have not read the deeper literature on this, and much of what I’m doing in this post is simply riffing on some of its broader ideas. If I have fundamentally misunderstood it, thanks in advance for your comments letting me know. Teachers work with students to help them master fundamental concepts about words and sentence construction before they move on to tackling paragraphs and whole essays. Proponents argue that rather than being “simplistic,” this approach ensures students have mastered the tools and habits of writing that will allow them to express complex thoughts more effectively.
Learning a new language often forces you to see the grammar of your native tongue in ways you never needed to before; progressive mastery does the same thing, in a sense, helping students understand the ideas behind conjunctions and sentence structures that they never really thought about before. In the history classroom, we build our conversations about the past on a grammar of ideas that many of our students haven’t articulated or even thought about consciously before.2)I don’t know that “grammar of ideas” or “ideological grammar” is quite what I mean, but hopefully you get the drift. Bringing that grammar to the surface is a vital part of teaching history.
For instance, many of us do this when we teach the Articles and the Constitution. I always have my students articulate the basic structures of the current system of government, which is not always easy for them to do, before asking them about the ideas behind those structures. This makes many students realize they’ve never really thought about the ideas before. Even if they can articulate the ideas, it’s sometimes only because I formulated the question in a particular way. For instance, if I ask them “In the American political tradition, where do we believe our rights come from?” they almost always say “From the government.” If I then ask them what natural rights are, they can provide a pretty solid definition of the concept. It’s only when I explicitly ask them to compare those two answers, given thirty seconds apart, that they realize they know the “right” answer but their automatic thinking is governed by a different set of ideas altogether.
I designed a specific assignment for reading primary sources to further help students “see” the ideas that they bring to our study of the past. The assignment asks them to write down their thoughts as they read, producing a line-by-line transcript of their thought process. It helps students see their automatic thinking* and work towards historical thinking, but it also helps me by making visible the ideas they’re using to understand the reading without even realizing it. From there, it’s up to me to help them reframe and master those very basic ideas in historical context.
This process still feels overwhelming to me, though, both because of the scope of ideas I realize I need to interrogate with them and how deep each interrogation needs to go. Each semester I read and listen to my students’ thoughts, I understand more about their ideological grammar, and my own, which just emphasizes how often we think we understand each other and don’t. This semester, for instance, I finally realized that my students weren’t able to understand the connections between a bunch of political ideas because we actually needed to have a much deeper conversation about consent first.
Progressive mastery says we need to make sure students understand how each conjunction operates in a sentence before we ask them to articulate a complex thesis statement or write an introductory paragraph. As much as we try to break down historical concepts for our students, I think we’re often still asking them to comprehend paragraphs without making sure they understand conjunctions first.3)People whose response to this is “Well, I shouldn’t have to teach things that students should already understand when they get to college!” are wrong and should reconsider their ideas of teaching. Obviously this approach to teaching writing can’t be appropriated wholesale for teaching history, because we’re not really talking about the same goals, but I think it’s worth considering how it can inform the way we talk with and listen to our students.
*Credit is due here to my friend Dan Tagliarina, who has written on automatic thinking in his introductory political science courses, and whose ideas have been helpful to me in refining my own assignments.
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|1.||↑||Full disclosure: I have not read the deeper literature on this, and much of what I’m doing in this post is simply riffing on some of its broader ideas. If I have fundamentally misunderstood it, thanks in advance for your comments letting me know.|
|2.||↑||I don’t know that “grammar of ideas” or “ideological grammar” is quite what I mean, but hopefully you get the drift.|
|3.||↑||People whose response to this is “Well, I shouldn’t have to teach things that students should already understand when they get to college!” are wrong and should reconsider their ideas of teaching.|