I’ve spent the last couple of months working with teachers as they unpack the new Kansas state history / government standards. And I’m still loving it. What better way to spend a summer than hanging out with other history geeks, discussing and, yes . . . sometimes, arguing about history stuff.

I will admit, I may not be enjoying it so much two months from now but today? Yup, it’s still a good time.

Much of the discussion and arguing as been about the balance between content and process. If you’ve followed the epic tale of how the new standards were created, you are well aware that the document encourages the importance of the historical thinking process. The old standards paid lip service to the idea of process –

compares contrasting descriptions of the same event in United States history to understand how people differ in their interpretations of historical events.

but in a lot of ways, it was a document focused on all of the things that kids grow up hating about history – long lists of people, places, and events. So we’ve talked about what content, how much content, what processes, how can we teach the processes without ignoring foundational knowledge, you get the idea. And during a summer training, sitting around a table drinking Diet Pepsi, it can seem a bit unreal.

But school starts soon. And when you’ve got a room full of 13 year olds staring you in the face, it becomes all too real. So . . . my advice?

Ask better questions.

Sure . . . you’ll want to provide opportunities to help them think historically and understand how to go about answering the question. Provide scaffolding and support with tools, websites, and resources. Maybe even a bit of direct instruction.

And then . . . step out of the way. Let them struggle. Don’t give them the answer. Cause they’ll ask. The system has trained them to expect us to give them the answer. Hang in there and let ’em dangle a bit.

We simply can’t give them the answers anymore. Marco Torres once asked a room full of social studies teachers to describe their curriculum and instruction. After hearing long lists of dates and places and people and events, he came back with another question:

If I can Google everything you just said, what value are you adding to the learning that takes place in your classroom?

At the recent 2013 ISTE conference, Will Richardson asked a similar question:

I’m a big advocate of open phone tests. If we’re asking questions kids can answer on their phones, why are we asking the questions?


The questions we should be asking need to be “un-Googleable.” Things like:

  • What really happened in Boston on March 5, 1770?
  • Was dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima the humane or inhumane thing to do?
  • What is the best form of government?
  • Were African Americans really free following the US Civil War?
  • What is the best balance between state and federal power?
  • What does a “More Perfect” union mean?
  • Is it ever okay to violate the Bill of Rights?
  • What is the solution to the dropping water table in Western Kansas?
  • Should the local county commission allow energy companies to drill fracking wells within county boundaries?
  • How much influence does the environment have on historical events?
  • What name should be given to the federal land contested by General Custer’s 7th Calvary and the combined forces of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in June 1876?

Kids can’t Google these. They can’t use Siri. They can’t use print or online encyclopedias. They’re gonna have to think historically.

You’ll probably never find the perfect balance between content and process. But asking great questions is a great place to start. The value you bring to learning is designing the learning that happens around these questions and the historical thinking processes that you teach your kids.

What question will you start the year with?