Social Education 59(3), 1995, pp. 130-134
National Council for the Social Studies

"Less" Can Be "More" in the
Promotion of Thinking

Dwayne G. Olsen
The fate of thinking and decision-making objectives in social studies, or the possibility of their ever making the trip from paper to practice, very well may rest on the matter of depth versus breadth of content coverage.

Walter C. Parker

What you teach, teach thoroughly.

Alfred North Whitehead

Most teachers want to encourage their students to think. Before students can think, however, they need something to think about. Most social studies teachers spend a great deal of time providing students with appropriate information and knowledge (Resnick and Klopfer 1989a; Shulman 1987). While this commitment of time is understandable, there is a significant risk attached to it. Research shows that most teaching dwells almost exclusively on providing knowledge, leaving few opportunities for students to think about it (Goodlad 1984; McKee 1988).
Even when teachers seek to promote thinking, tests given to students often do not. When Goodlad's (1984) research team asked elementary, middle, and high school social studies teachers what they were teaching, the responses included an impressive variety of thinking abilities. The list included map skills, group work skills, speaking skills, test-taking skills, and a variety of research, library, and study skills such as note taking, using references, and writing as well as several higher order thinking processes. From these responses, Goodlad concluded that social studies at all levels was particularly appropriate for developing student reasoning. However, to determine the extent to which these goals were reached, Goodlad analyzed teacher tests and found that tests reflected quite different priorities. The tests ... rarely required other than the recall and feedback of memorized information-multiple choice, true or false, matching like things, and filling in the missing words or phrases. Some essay-type questions were used in the upper elementary grades and reappeared in the secondary schools, but these were not the dominant pattern. (Goodlad 1984, 212)
Newmann (1990a) conducted a study of teaching in five social studies departments that had been identified in a nationwide search as promoting higher order thinking for all students. The study identified seventeen elements of classroom thoughtfulness (characteristics found in classrooms that result in student higher order thinking). These included: general qualities such as less is more (i.e., if teachers cover less content, there can be more opportunity to think); cohesiveness and continuity in the lesson; teacher behavior characteristics, such as asking challenging questions and providing challenging learning tasks; and student behavior characteristics, including providing explanations and reasons for responses, assuming the role of questioner as well as critic, and student participation. Newmann (1990b) concluded that

...[t]he most thoughtful lessons were dominated by teacher-centered discussion, and the least thoughtful more by lecture and recitation. The most thoughtful lessons also involved less reliance upon textbooks and more upon primary sources and other forms of reading...
...lesson thoughtfulness did not vary according to the grade level of the lesson, proportion of minority students, the general achievement level of students in the class, or whether the course was required or elective. (Newmann 1990b, 273)

Less Is More
Today, Whitehead's (1957) idea "When you teach, teach thoroughly" is echoed in Sizer's (1984) concept "less is more." The implication is that if teachers cover less content in their teaching, there can be a greater depth of understanding because of the increased opportunity to think. What Sizer is saying, and others are supporting in many disciplines, is that curriculum content must be reduced in breadth in order to promote depth and, thus, opportunity for genuine thinking (Brophy 1992; Dempster 1993; Eylon and Linn 1988; Goodlad 1984; Newmann 1991; Newmann 1988; Porter, 1989). Ultimately, this means that teachers and curriculum developers must take a hard look at the content of their courses and reduce it sufficiently to leave time for thinking.

What criteria can be used to reduce curriculum content? Downey and Levstik (1988), Newmann (1988), and Rossi (1994) make several important suggestions. More instructional time is required to increase thinking skills. Based on the research of Peel and Hallam, Downey and Levstik concluded that "teachers should design lessons for younger students that use concrete operational thinking, but are sufficiently challenging to help prepare them for higher levels of thought" (Downey and Levstik 1988, 338). Further, Downey and Levstik suggest that "[m]ore appropriate [for maximizing student learning] would be courses that devote sufficient time to a particular topic or period to establish an adequate context for historical learning" (Downey and Levstik 1988, 340).

  • As a result of being unable to find a definition of in-depth study, Rossi analyzed several examples of in-depth materials and identified four criteria for content selection that are particularly appropriate in issues-oriented courses. These are:

    1. The use of knowledge that is complex, thick, and divergent about a single topic, concept, or event using sources that range beyond the textbook...

    2. A focus on essential and authentic issues or questions that contain elements of ambiguity, doubt, or controversy...

    3. A spirit of inquiry that provides opportunities, support, and assessment mechanisms for students to manipulate ideas in ways that transform their meaning...

    4. Sustained time on a single topic, concept or event... (Rossi 1994, 2-3)

    Together these criteria provide a point of departure for individual teachers and curriculum committees to identify standards to apply in selecting the most important content. This will not be an easy task, but it is necessary if there is to be time for thinking in the social studies curriculum. For example, one high school American history teacher omitted the details of wars, and focused instead on their causes, effects, and impact, e.g., the role of women on the homefront and in the military during World War II. Again in American history, school districts can assign various aspects of American history to specific grade levels, e.g., exploration through the American Revolution to the elementary grades, the post-Revolutionary War period through the Civil War to the middle school, and the post-Civil War era to the present to the high school American history course. For other courses, entire units or topics can be omitted-after all, teachers already do this by not teaching all that they learned in college. Teachers and administrators must express their views on the need to allow time to promote thinking while the state and local school districts are adopting curriculum guidelines for social studies.

    Strategies That Promote Student Thinking
    If teachers are to promote higher order thinking, they will need appropriate resources. It will also take time to identify and secure materials and strategies. However, excellent resources are available. The remainder of this article identifies selected instructional strategies and their sources, most of which can be used with current texts, materials, and the new curriculum standards.

    Teaching and learning strategies have been developed by cognitive psychologists as well as by other researchers. Two current sources of multiple strategies are West, Farmer, and Wolff's (1991) Instructional Design: Implications from Cognitive Science and Cook's (1989) Strategic Learning in the Content Areas, the latter a publication of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Of the nine strategies presented by West, Farmer, and Wolff, four are particularly useful for promoting student thinking: concept mapping; frames, type one; frames, type two; and metaphor, analogy, and simile.

    Concept mapping (sometimes called semantic mapping or graphic organizers) can be used in brainstorming and a variety of other instructional activities. This approach, in which students distinguish the main topics and subtopics of an issue, enables them to identify and organize material to be learned.

    Frames I and Frames II are matrices of organized information on a specific issue. For example, in studying early explorers in United States history, a Frames I matrix can be used to identify the explorer, the dates of exploration, the findings, etc. Once the frame is completed, its contents must then be analyzed to determine, for example, which countries benefited most from exploration. The information provided in the frame also provides an excellent opportunity to get students to generalize. Continuing this example on explorers, the teacher might ask, "Why were Spain and Portugal involved in these early explorations and not other countries?" to which students might respond, "Early explorers came from countries which had resources to invest in economic development and the promotion of religion."

    The Frames II strategy differs in that, based on a principle previously presented and understood, students complete the matrix using inference. For instance, in geography, students have learned how weather is affected by distance from the equator and altitude. Once provided with this information about specific countries or cities, students can infer the climate of those places. In most instances, student inferences should be correct and will be supported by their reading. In some cases, students will infer incorrectly and thus will need to determine their error from their reading. The Frames II strategy encourages student thinking involving inferences, followed by investigation to determine the accuracy of the inferences.

    In teaching a complex concept, teachers can use metaphor, analogy, or simile to provide students with something concrete to which they can relate that will help them to comprehend the new concept. For example, in trying to understand the concept of an indentured servant, "slave" could be the metaphor. Incidentally, once learned, many teaching and learning strategies will be used by students to improve or monitor their own learning.

    To help teachers improve students' reading and comprehension skills, Cook (1989) describes in step-by-step fashion twenty-four strategies divided into three categories: activating/focusing strategies, which are useful prior to reading; selecting/organizing strategies, useful during reading; and integrating/applying strategies, used after completing the assignment.

    Two activating/focusing strategies that are particularly useful in teaching social studies are KWL Plus (useful for all six types of thinking) and the Analogy Graphic Organizer. Useful selecting/organizing strategies include Central Idea Graphic Organizers, Mapping, and Proposition/Support Outlines. Two valuable integrating/applying strategies are Reading from Different Perspectives and The Four-Step Summary. The latter could be particularly useful in eliminating round-robin reading (students take turns reading content aloud), which is generally unproductive for student thinking. Cook also provides many social studies examples.

    Probably one of the most popular of the eight activating/focusing strategies described is KWL Plus developed by Carr and Ogle. This strategy has five steps. First, students brainstorm to identify what they know about the lesson topic (K), e.g., neighborhoods, World War II, the U.S. Congress, etc. After all student prior knowledge has been made public and recorded on the board or a transparency, students then categorize that information. Next, students identify what they want or need to know (W) about the topic. Finally, students read the text or handout or engage in a library research project to answer their questions (L, learned). During this step, students usually identify additional questions that can be added to the "want-to-know" list.

    After completing the reading or research, students then report their findings to the class. Here again, students categorize the information they have learned. If desired, students then create a concept map of the information learned, develop generalizations about the information, and/or prepare a written summary of the information. For example, in developing generalizations about the content, study of the thematic strand "power, authority, and governance" from Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (National Council for the Social Studies Task Force 1994) using KWL Plus could lead middle school students to generalize that "Government in a democracy involves the sharing of power between the people, the Federal government, and other levels of government."

    The Taba strategies are also worth a second look in promoting thinking in both elementary and secondary students (Taba, Durkin, Fraenkel, and McNaughton 1971). These strategies help teachers to focus on facts, concepts, and generalizations as the building blocks of social studies learning and make them clear to students. As Goodlad (1984) indicated, generalization, as a form of higher order thinking, is particularly important in social studies. It causes students to focus on broader issues instead of facts and concepts, which are memorized for a test but then forgotten.

    Cooperative learning has also received considerable attention not only for the cognitive learning that it produces but also for the accompanying affective learning. An excellent summary of three major strategies, Student Team Learning, Jigsaw II, and Group Investigation, is found in Leighton (1994). Each strategy is particularly useful for certain types of learning. Student Team Learning is best for learning facts, e.g., the names of the states and their capitals. Jigsaw II is useful when the content to be learned can be divided into four parts, e.g., study of a region of the United States that includes four or eight states. Group Investigation, probably the most useful for promoting higher order thinking, involves students in research on a particular topic.

    Challenges and Obstacles
    "Less is more" thinking faces major challenges and obstacles. These include how to have an in-depth curriculum with today's standardized tests, and whether a "less is more" thinking-based curriculum will reduce the quality of American social studies education.

    For many reasons, including accountability to taxpayers, school districts and states assess student learning through a variety of standardized and state or locally developed tests. According to Resnick and Klopfer (1989b), the vast majority of these tests "are tuned to an education in the basics that does not include thinking and reasoning" (Resnick and Klopfer 1989b, 209). How can educators move their districts to a "less is more" thinking-based curriculum while responding to these mandated tests? Resnick and Klopfer (1989b) recommend that standardized tests be supplemented or modified by the addition of performance assessment items such as are currently found in reading comprehension or writing tests. As a result, students would engage in "integrated, complex reasoning and problem solving" activities (Resnick and Klopfer 1989b, 210).

    Because of the influence of testing, Newmann (1991) has concluded that the curriculum itself should be balanced between depth and coverage. This balance in coverage and balance in testing would then be an appropriate response to both the advocates of coverage and the proponents of depth. The suggested balance would also reduce fear of the potential losses on standardized tests. Indeed, Resnick and Klopfer believe that performance assessment combined with traditional tests might be so successful in demonstrating high-quality learning that "[e]ventually, performance assessments may become so accepted that it will be possible to eliminate the old collections-of-information tests altogether" (1989b, 210). Whatever approaches are used in responding to the issues of testing and thinking, thoughtful curriculum development and teaching will be needed to minimize possible losses in test scores.

    What are the other obstacles to promoting student thinking? First, teachers tend to adopt the methods by which they were taught in both K-12 schools and college (Schrag 1988). Another reason is that school district curriculum committees tend to include all of the textbook content in the curriculum. As a result, coverage is the goal, and the textbook becomes the curriculum; thus there is little time for depth and thinking (Hursh 1994; Thornton 1988).

    Goodlad suggests three additional obstacles to the promotion of thinking in social studies instruction: (1) social studies is taught in the same way as English/language arts and mathematics, the dominant subjects of the curriculum; (2) good social studies require field trips and varied resources, which do not fit into the current structure of schools; and (3) teachers themselves may not understand the difference between facts, concepts, and generalizations; in such cases, they "simply do not know how to teach for higher levels of thinking-e.g., applying and evaluating scientific principles" (Goodlad 1984, 237).

    Other obstacles to the teaching of thinking in social studies include the lack of appropriate materials, the ease of "teaching" information rather than using information to develop student thinking, and the ease of evaluation that focuses on knowledge. Obviously, many of these causes are the result of teaching too many students with too little time for planning for, and evaluation of, the products of student thinking.

    If McNeil (1988) is correct, building administrators also share responsibility for the lack of emphasis on thinking. In three of the four high school social studies programs studied, she concluded that a distinct parallel existed between administrators' attempts to gain minimal compliance from teachers and teachers' willingness to settle for minimal participation from students. When administrators subordinated support for education to an emphasis on order and control, the teachers sensed that academic effort was not valued very highly. They felt that they had little voice in the running of the school and that their attempts to address instructional issues received scant attention. Consequently, they began to expend only minimal effort in the classroom. (McNeil 1988, 437)
    This, then, underscores the importance of the principal as an instructional leader. 1

    Central office administrators and school boards must facilitate the principal's leadership and provide needed resources.

    Of all the obstacles to the promotion of student thinking, an important one that teachers themselves can address is the overcrowded curriculum. It is simply not possible to incorporate thinking into a curriculum that has so much content that it can be covered only in a cursory fashion. The recent publication by the National Council for the Social Studies of curriculum standards for the social studies (1994), combined with the publication of other standards for the various disciplines of the social studies curriculum (e.g., the National Standards for United States History: Exploring the American Experience), suggests that there will be extensive curriculum revision in the next several years as curriculum committees and individual teachers respond to these new resources.

    This, then, is a time for active promotion of student thinking throughout the curriculum. Both of the standards documents cited have identified thinking as an important part of the curriculum. For example, the National Standards for United States History (1994) calls for five kinds of thinking: (1) chronological thinking, (2) historical comprehension, (3) historical analysis and interpretation, (4) historical research, and (5) historical issues-analysis and decision making. However, curriculum developers must be selective in choosing content. Both the social studies and history standards present such extensive content and varied activities that it is impossible to include them all while ensuring the time needed for quality thinking that these activities require.

    Teachers venturing into the use of teaching and learning strategies must bear in mind that curriculum revision and strategy implementation take time. In the matter of using strategies, teachers might be best advised to identify one or two practical strategies immediately. The reading consultants assigned to buildings or districts should be a major resource for assistance in implementing strategies. Based on McNeil's findings (1988), efforts to gain active support from building administrators are also necessary for quality instruction.

    With the development of new curriculum standards by the National Council for the Social Studies and other groups, it is a particularly good time for social studies educators to consider "less is more" and promote student thinking even more seriously. These new curriculum guidelines will be most useful in identifying important content, values, and skills for the social studies curriculum. In developing curricula based on these frameworks, states and local school districts can then identify topics and skills to be taught in greater depth, topics to omit, and topics that should continue to be taught in traditional ways.

    Can the 1990s be the decade for promoting thinking in social studies classes? In their major study of factors that promote student learning, Wang, Haertel, and Walberg concluded that, "[w]hen averaged together, the different kinds of classroom instruction and climate [variables] had nearly as much impact on learning as the student aptitude . . . [variables]" (Wang, Haertel, and Walberg 1993/1994, 75-76). Building on the new curriculum standards, less content and more strategies are consistent with promoting greater learning by all students.

    1. In their research, Maria Yon and Jeff Passe indicate that the principal's lack of leadership, along with other contextual factors, contributed extensively to a first-year teacher's poor performance in primary social studies. "Developing Perspectives of Social-Studies Instruction: A Longitudinal Case Study." Journal of Research and Development in Education 28 (Fall 1994): 31-42.References
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