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If computers are killing the multiple choice question, let historians beat the essay question sensible. October 24, 2006

Posted by McStorian in ClioWired.
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Ironically, I was listening to WTOP on my way to work last week, and they aired a story about how professional educators have begun to push for abolishing calculators in the classroom.  Why?  Because students have forgotten or haven’t even been taught the basics.  Without the basics, how can one achieve higher levels of performance?  If simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are the basics of mathematics, then what are the basics of history?  According standardized tests, the basics are facts.  Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig seem to think that the advent of the computer will, like the calculator, will eliminate the need for rote memorization of what happened in 1688.  Instead, they advocate the rise of the essay – one in which a teacher will have to spend more time grading in order to discern whether or not the student really understands the issues at hand.

Here’s my beef: Facts are not the basis of history and essay questions are just a different form of regurgitation.  Maybe under some circumstances, teachers could have the forethought to allow students some mobility, but at it’s root, the essay question is really a string of multiple choice questions run together with a main theme in mind.  The teacher is still looking for specific things, and in many cases they’ll check them off as they go, issuing a grade based on how many of the issues the students stumbled upon.  Most essay questions are still mining for facts.  So, if facts aren’t the basis of history then what is?  In my opinion, it’s rhetoric.  It’s the art of argument applied to analyzing the past.  Therefore, students shouldn’t learn history, they should learn how to do history.  Apparently our society values the knowledge of facts – you’re smarter because you can tell me where all the Presidents were from.  Well so what?  I can look that stuff up, whether in a book or on the computer.  How ’bout you write me an article analyzing how the locations of President’s birthplaces were an indication of changing economic, social, and political currents in the United States.  Instead of standardized tests, why can’t students submit history papers?  Let them figure something out on their own.  Teach them how to use the library, how to make proper use of computer technology, and how to judge primary and secondary sources.  The requirements don’t have to be ridiculous and the topics don’t have to be original – but you bet those kids will learn more about an era by conducting their own research then by sharpening their memorization skills.  Plus, students who learn how to think, how to research, how to write, and how to argue will perform at a much higher level in almost all walks of life than if they never did.  Therefore, the analogy of the calculator and the computer doesn’t compute with me.  Simple processes are the basis of all mathematics, but simple facts aren’t the basis of history.  Allow the computer, ban the calculator, and teach students what history really is.

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