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King students learn to think as historians across time and space

As the new Chair of History Department, Patrick O'Neill is partnering closely with History faculty across the school to solidify the curricular bridges across divisions.  Mr. O'Neill is spearheading a shift in PreK-Grade 12 that he describes as "moving from a focus on teaching a content-based curriculum to a focus on teaching content in the framework of teaching skill sets. Our objective is to teach students of all ages to think like historians which means students will learn the skills, at an age-appropriate level, to think across time and space, in order to research effectively, synthesize significant amounts of data, make sense of problems in the past, and apply solutions to contemporary problems using knowledge of the past."  

Aligned with the vision of the King School Strategic Plan 2020-2025, the History Department is focused on providing project- and research-based learning experiences that help students build foundations of content mastery as they gain new understandings and ask the questions that will allow them to innovatively solve complex problems as empathetic leaders of change.  

In their class Hubris in the Ancient and Modern World, Grade 9 students, for example, learn that hubris is the corruption of power.  By studying the narratives that ancient Greek historian Herodotus created describing the hubris of Greek leaders, and by reading articles from a variety of contemporary journalists examining the manifestations of corruption, Grade 9 students learn to build comparative models between Greek society in 430 BCE and contemporary America. Through these models, students map out how hubris led to war and reflect on how to apply the concept of hubris to the current American context and culture.  Mr. O'Neill explains that, more broadly, this type of teaching and learning enables students to "build research skills to read critically and interpret and respond to information presented as arguments by others."  Grade 9 students do this work individually, discuss with partners to learn to hone ideas through collaboration, and further demonstrate their learning through writing a paper. 

As part of shaping a diverse, equitable, and inclusive learning framework, the History faculty is reconsidering how its curriculum reflects voices of authority and which essential questions will drive student reflection.  Mr. O'Neill is working with US History faculty to expand the range of sources to include, for example, music, poetry, and theater.  History faculty pose essential questions that students wrestle with as they learn how to use the past to contextualize and understand the contemporary present. Mr. O'Neill explains that essential questions help students "get at the heart of why a subject matters." He is encouraging his colleagues to craft essential questions that students feel are accessible to them as individuals who are empowered as change agents. For example, instead of using a more content-based question such as "When did historians think people had the right to challenge leaders?", Mr. O'Neill is using the essential question, "When would you challenge the status quo?" 

In addition to updating the curriculum, the History faculty are also reexamining how student learning is assessed.  Teachers are providing a variety of ways that students can demonstrate their learning, including, for example, written papers, podcasts, artwork, and, Harkness discussion.  In a Harkness discussion, students lead the discussion, ask one another questions, interpret evidence, and respectfully challenge each other about interpretations of the evidence.  When developing a written paper, students are encouraged to treat writing drafts as opportunities to take risks and experiment with different writing styles and content so teachers can provide guiding feedback.