I've been thinking about devoting much of the first few weeks to defining and understanding some concepts about how the world works. Without knowledge of these, our students cannot clearly grasp many historical and current developments, and I think they will also struggle with empathy and many forms of critical thinking.
Here's an example: What is money? We talk about it all the time (the Great Depression, empires paying off debt, people trading goods, GDP) and take it for granted. But, as I told my students last January in the context of post-Revolutionary War inflation) money is weird. Why is a gold coin worth what it's worth? What makes this $20 bill worth twenty dollars? How come I can't spend euros or pesos in New York City? Students need to know that (at the most basic level) money has a certain value because powerful authorities say so. When that authority loses power, that affects the money's value. Can you get something without money? Sure! Let's talk about personal credit (which was a huge aspect of slaveowning society), and let's discuss the pros and cons of bartering. In some societies like the colonial backcountry, that was a much more realistic economic system which had a social and cultural impact.
I think, even though it would probably take at least a couple days of class, that would be a better lesson in September than crammed into the middle of the school year. Maybe this would be a good way to get students talking in the first couple weeks...? Establish good protocols and norms for class discussions? And maybe best of all: create common understandings of a concept that will keep popping up all year long. (We could post working definitions on the classroom wall for future reference!)
I think these other terms / concepts should also be addressed in the 1st month:
- power (could be contrasted with authority)
- rules (Are they the same as laws? Who makes them? What about 'unwritten' rules?)
- nation & state (What's the difference? Why do we have both things? For real fun, let's ponder city-states!)
- cause (2 disconnected meanings arise in our classes: as a synonym for 'belief', like something worth fighting for; as the counterpart of 'effect', which could lead to distinction of causality and correlation which is a great excuse to show hilarious examples from this website -- example below)
How about sociological and psychological phenomena? Our adolescent students don't really know how the world works, so they sometimes leap to conclusions that are banal, unrealistic, or just plain impossible.
- The Dunning-Kruger effect helps explain why people sometimes do and believe things even when experts told them otherwise. (This could lead to an interesting and honest discussion of the teacher-student/parent-child relationship. We know better, but kids don't act accordingly!!)
- We should probably also discuss confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance, for similar reasons
- How about sharing basics of the Milgram experiment with middle schoolers?! Yeah, it's disturbing, but that was the point!
We could wait until these concepts emerge in the topics we're teaching later in the year, but wouldn't it be more valuable if students noticed the connection later? Instead of us pointing it out and sidetracking ourselves midyear?
Do you have other terms to suggest? Teaching ideas to share? Toss them into the comments below!