Archives and the Quest for Quality Education

pictured above: a representation of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Courtesy of the Vanderbelt University Center for Teaching).

In the education world, goals of student learning are well-depicted by Bloom’s Taxonomy, a hierachal model used to classify learning objectives  . At the top of the pyramid are the highest skills educators are encouraged to utilize: having their students be able to logically and empirically appraise material (evaluation) or ultimately, being able to create something original based on the content (creation or synthesis). These goals are known to educators and layman alike: the ability for students to think critically and originally. The drive for critical and orginal thought in the classroom appears in educational theory and standards nationwide. Many students simply aren’t doing this in their classrooms. This lack of critical thinking is leaving public officials, as well as regular commentators, clamoring for a solution. Critical thinking is as important as ever in an era of alternative facts, cultivated doubt, and a polarizing media. In this vacuum enters the archivist and the archives.

The opportunity for archivists to enter our schools is best addressed in Anne J. Gilliland-Swetland’s “ Am Exploration of K-12 User Needs for Digital Primary Source Materials” , published in The American Archivist in Spring of 1998. While this article is dated, it tackles important issues: the incorrect idea that the archives requires skills and maturity that is reserved for the highest grades, the  incorporation of technology and need for digitalization, and equal access. I would argue that the problem has grown more dire, following the passage of the standardized-testing obsessed No Child Left Behind Act  and its related-replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. Students are over-tested and teachers are teaching to tests that rate student mastery and teacher effectiveness poorly. Worst of all, and arguably related, teachers are tethered to lessons that utilize low-level taxonomy skills.  The archives and archivists are resources that can be used to teach students how to conduct research and most importantly, develop the skills to evaluate arguments and  form unique viewpoints.

The archive is not out of reach of many students; it just requires various levels of scaffolding by the teacher to meet the student’s levels. In some cases, as seen in the “We Connect” program referred to in Swetland’s article, educators can use the archive to create high-level taxonomy exercises that meet student’s developmental ages and skill sets. In other cases, the archive is simply a place that allows egalitarian access to quality materials under the guidance of a local expert; teachers often don’t have the time, skill or resources to vet the sources students utilize or to provide students source material. The local archive is a valuable resource that can serve the needs of many educators and students. While my experience relates to Social Studies, and effective educator can bring critical thinking and creativity into any subject classroom.

Laura Schmidt’s “Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research” is an excellent example of the archive entering the classroom. The well-crafted resource has likely brought classrooms into local archives. It defines what an archive is, an archivist’s terminology, and how to use the archives in a format familiar to high school students and teachers. Bolded terminology, images, and a lack of unnecessary jargon communicate to a layperson how to approach an archive. Social studies teachers in Pennsylvania (and most likely across the nation whether by coincidence or Common Core) are required to include primary source work in their lessons. Also, many other subjects are required to meet literacy objectives during the year or motivated to more actively engage students . Teachers benefit from resources that enhance their classroom at no cost to the district, teachers, or students.

Many educational institutions and archives actively seek to engage  educators with seminars, lesson plans, and resources geared towards pre-prepared research topics. In this way, archives entice teachers to bring the local archive into the classroom and ensure a future group of archives users. Engaging students doesn’t mean just digitalizing content nor does the archivist have to attempt to wear the teacher’s hat. The best an archivist can do is know their community and actively be engaged with the needs of quality educators; a collaborative relationship is essential between experts of the education of archival world. One area which could increase participation among archives and classrooms is to work towards STEM-related (science,technology, engineering and math) materials housed in archives.

As a future educator, working with local archives is a natural choice when aiming for higher level activities or when supplementing my curriculum. Students who can evaluate arguments are more capable of critical thought and given a tool that develops empathy—whether it’s an elementary school class being scaffolded to argue the choices of fairy tale characters amongst each other or the high school level debate over the trial of Thomas Preston following the Boston Massacre. lessons utilizing primary source evaluation and personal engagement lead to the valuable instances of learning. These students, who receive such instruction, often possess the analytical and emotional ability to handle debates many adults shy away from; I would not be afraid to ask these students, trained over many years of schooling before they reach my high school class, to debate for the 2016 presidential candidate opposite to their own personal beliefs.  After completing this level of evaluation, students who create something new show the ultimate mastery of material applied in a more real-world context. But the higher the taxonomy, the more planning and skill is required, these educational goals are best achieved when they aren’t done alone.To meet these goals best, it truly takes a village–the educator, the archivist, and the community at large.

 

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