Kyle P. O’Brien
In consideration of every field in education I believe that there is none more impactful than that of a social studies class at an adolescent level. Whereas other disciplines can also challenge students to think critically and in new, creative ways, a social studies course has the unique opportunity to teach content in a way fundamentally essential to the progression of society. If the next generation is to uphold equality as the standard for human rights and democracy as its respective form of government, then it is positively critical that it learns to do so not through top-down citizenship transmission, but through a less guided and open-minded approach in reflective inquiry. I see a clear connection between reflective inquiry and historical thinking; both require approaching new knowledge with an open mind, the ability to create an individual or cooperative understanding, and when in a democracy to share this newly acquired knowledge to further stimulate the minds of others. It is precisely through a social studies education that, given engaging instruction, high expectations for all, and everyday reflection, students will learn how to build upon their knowledge in their own ways. This love for learning can last a lifetime, but what is truly exceptional is how forever long an open sharing of knowledge can circulate in a free society.
The defining light bulb moment of my life came to me during my junior year of high school in my American history class. My entire school life leading up to that course I was the kid who spent more time acting out as a class clown than ever studying for tests. I always found history to be interesting, but in reflection it seems as though I subconsciously blocked out of my mind the notion that it was possible to for me to actually enjoy school. I believe this gives me a unique perspective as I enter the teaching profession, since I know exactly what is going through the minds of disengaged students and how they can overcome this learning block. For me it was the watershed year in my life that my American history teacher, Mr. Doyle, challenged my longstanding belief that I was “too cool for school.” The truth was, just as every student does at heart, I loved learning.
Mr. Doyle was not a perfect teacher but he executed a near-perfect instruction to my learning style. His lectures were at a speeding pace and always kept me on the edge of my seat during class. Although he rarely varied up his lesson plans, his everyday energy and passion reverberated with me and kept my interest higher than it ever was in school before. He held us all to high standards, and questioned how we traditionally looked at history. Mr. Doyle was able to prove to me that the acquisition of knowledge, and historical thought and skills specifically, was something truly worthwhile to any human being. First and foremost I find it valuable to define knowledge as grounded belief (Hunt & Metcalf, 1968). Should a social studies teacher simply relay “facts” assumed to be for certain without student inquiry, that teacher would be doing an injustice to the class. The teacher is not an all-knowing source, and should be judged for credibility just like any other source. It is also of greater use to have students take control in their learning, for when knowledge is generated by students instead of being handed to them by their teacher it can hold a greater meaning by opening up new pathways for analytical thinking. It is absolutely worthless to have students memorize that Christopher Columbus sailed to Haiti in 1492, but it is all the more powerful to have each student create an argument of their own for how Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain came to unite a country and build an intercontinental empire. Social studies classrooms can even take learning a step further by using historical themes as a lens for the present. “Equity pedagogy creates an...