Students Last

Will Fitzhugh

The Concord Review
6 April 2017
The great social psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan wrote that the principal problem with communication is that we think we express meaning to others, when in fact we evoke it.
That is, what we say brings a response in the listener which involves their current thoughts at the the time, their feelings, wishes, goals and other preoccupations, all of which affect and alter the meanings of our expression as they hear it.
Psychiatrists are carefully trained to be useful in that situation. They learn to listen. When they do listen, they can derive an understanding of at least some of the ways in which the thoughts of their patients have responded to what was said. They can find out how the patient’s own experiences, thoughts and concerns have interacted with what the psychiatrist said, and this can help the doctor shape what they say next in perhaps more pertinent and more useful ways.
When I was a high school History teacher I was not a bad person, but I almost never shut up in class. If the teacher talks, that can make life easier for students, because they can continue giving their attention to whatever they were thinking about at the time, and if the teacher pauses, most students can easily ask a question to get the teacher talking again if they seem to be slowing down.
Most high school History teachers are not bad people, but they usually feel they have an obligation to talk, present, excite, inspire, demonstrate material and in other ways fill up the time of students in their classes. Some of the best teachers do ask questions, but even they believe they can’t spend too much time on student answers, not to mention on what students are actually thinking about what the teacher has said, or, if other students talk, about what they have said.
This is much less the case in some special secondary schools, like Phillips Exeter, which have small classes meeting around a table as a seminar, specifically designed to gather the comments and thoughts of students about academic subjects. But for public school teachers with five classes of 30 students each, that kind of dialogue is not an option.
Unless they fall silent, high school History teachers almost never have any idea what their students are thinking, and students come to understand that, at least in most classrooms, what is on their minds is of little importance to the process. This doesn’t mean that they don’t learn anything in their History classes. Some teachers really are well-educated, full of good stories, fascinating speakers, and fun to be with. That does not change the fact that even those best teachers have very little idea of what students are actually thinking about the History which is offered to them.
Some teachers do assign short papers, and if the students can choose the topics themselves, and if teachers have the time to read those papers, they can learn more about what some part of History means to their students. Sad to say, the assignment of serious History research papers is declining in this country, with some students working on slide presentations or videos, but many fewer students writing Extended Essays in History.
Education reform pundits all agree that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality, because what teachers do is the lowest level of educational activity of which they are able to take notice. In fact, the most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work. Students learn the most from the academic work that they do, but this factor escapes the notice of the majority of education professors, theorists, reporters and other thought leaders. 
Since 1987, The Concord Review has published 1,241 exemplary History research papers [average 7,000 words, with endnotes and bibliography] by secondary students from 44 states and 40 other countries [tcr.org]. These papers are on a vary large variety of historical topics, ancient and modern, domestic and foreign, but all of them show what students are actually thinking as they take History seriously. If more teachers of History would read a few of these strong research papers, they would become more aware, first, that some high school History students actually can think about History, and second, that such student writing, based on extensive reading of History, demonstrates a level of sophistication in their understanding of History that can never be discovered in classes where teachers do all the talking. 
Great teachers of History should continue to talk the way they do in classes, and their students will learn a lot. But the actual thoughts of students of History should have a place for their expression as well. Students whose work is published in The Concord Review not only benefit from the hard work they have done, they also come to have greater respect for their own achievement and potential as scholars of History.


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