Abstract: Educators’ content background and use of accurate, age-appropriate teaching materials generates quality teaching. Content in every grade level should supplement content from previous grades in a spiraled format. State test results on students’ math and reading indicate, but do not prove, the presence of these two presumptions. Because history is not tested, the authors examined the basis of these two presumptions for history in two school districts that require every elementary educator to teach about Christopher Columbus. Findings reveal significant interconnections between these two presumptions and have consequential implications as states consider standardized testing in other curricular areas, such as history.
In October every year, all American citizens, teachers and students included, celebrate what is known as Columbus Day. This national holiday commemorates Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America. In doing so, Columbus is seen as a hero. However, historians know this to be less than half the story. As has been examined more comprehensively elsewhere, historians have engaged in healthy debates about Columbus’s accomplishments and their significance. While most historians acknowledge the land Columbus (wrongly) identified as India was already occupied, some suggest Phoenician, Carthaginian, Viking, Chinese, and Germanic exploration teams preceded Columbus to the Americas. Whereas most historians make the case that Columbus was the catalyst for further European exploration of the Atlantic, other historians assert that Atlantic exploration was relatively inconsequential when compared to explorations of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. As many historians identify the resultant European financial windfalls from exploration and colonization, others suggest – for various reasons – that Europe was relatively slow in economic maturation when compared to other countries and regions. This indicates that historians do not agree on what most textbooks assert as (and teachers perceive to be) an accepted history.
The same discord is apparent when historians proffer radically different narratives about Columbus, his motivations to explore, and the negative impacts of his actions (and that of his crew). While Schweikart and Allen and Zinn construct what appears likely to be the most transparently divergent interpretative perspectives, most historians – even those separated by decades – converge in agreement that he was both an ambitious navigator and a controversial figure who caused (at least some) harm to those living in the Americas. But they disagreed with intensity on fundamental issues such as Columbus’ motivation and impact. And, yet, the narrative of “heroic discoverer” in search of spices is how most Americans view Columbus. It has been convincingly demonstrated that this paradigm is likely impacted by misinformation presented in textbooks and – as the data in this study indicated – well-intentioned but ill-informed teachers.
Students cannot best understand the history of Columbus, or any scientific event or mathematical concept, if teachers do not have a comprehensive awareness and do not utilize age-appropriate, engaging teaching materials. Denoted as this research project’s first presumption, educators’ knowledge and materials thus enables quality teaching, which manifests in positive students’ responses such as engagement and learning. In other words, teachers’ comprehensive understandings of content and use of accurate, age-appropriate teaching materials generates quality teaching in any subject area.
Topics presented in a spiraled format must both extend previously learned content and prepare students for future content. This occurs in reading and math, where teachers’ introductions of new concepts supplement students’ previously generated understandings. Thus, denoted as this research project’s second presumption, students’ understandings of any event, especially a complex topic in which experts’ disagreements manifest, must be complicated and complemented with new, age-appropriate information as students’ mature. In other words, content in every grade level should supplement content from previous grade levels and background knowledge in a spiraled format.
For students to best understand a complicated topic, teachers must maximize these two presumptions. Teachers generate a comprehensive awareness, which connects these two presumptions, through both understanding and utilizing – in age-appropriate ways – the historical sources. Summative state and national assessment results on tested curricula such as math and reading indicate, but do not prove, the presence of these two presumptions. Because history is not tested, the authors sought to examine the basis of these two presumptions for history in two local school districts. The sites were selected because the two districts each required every elementary educator to teach a history lesson or unit about Columbus, the only national holiday awarded to a non-American citizen. These were each intended to be spiraled social studies curricula. While the state has proposed knowledge and performance standards for history and social science in elementary and middle grades (which cohere to Common Core), Columbus is not named nor are any materials prescribed. Thus, these two districts mandate teachers supplement the state’s proposed knowledge and performance standards with national holidays (i.e., Martin Luther King Day, Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Columbus Day). Neither district provided any curriculum assistance or recommendations, relegating curricular choices to individual teachers’ discretion while mandating a spiraled curricula about Columbus.
The authors previously published guide for a spiraled social studies curriculum on Columbus. In it, they examined in detail the primary source material and competing secondary interpretations while proffering differentiated content, age-appropriate methods, and authentic assessments for elementary, middle level, and high school teachers. In doing so, the authors reviewed, complimented, critiqued, and extended previously published (and popular) strategies proffered within Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years. Because of space constraints and to avoid redundancy, this content will be truncated. Briefly summarizing historians’ conclusions (and disagreements) will position the reader to better understand the disparity between historians’ understandings of and educators’ teachings about Columbus.
Examination of primary sources like Bartolome De Las Casas’ writings, Antonio de Montesino’s sermon, and Christopher Columbus’s diary suggest Columbus’s navigational talent, motivation, and actions. Such sources provide a rich and comprehensive view of the history; their complexities and complications generate potentialities for multiple and competing interpretations that engage students. The question, then, is which historical interpretation? And, which primary sources did the historians use?
Historians focus on different primary sources. Some historical works are based on seemingly banal or relatively trivial journal entries such as this letter Columbus wrote to the King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain when describing the Arawaks, the Native American culture he encountered.
“Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the thing be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given to them.”
This reveals little about Columbus’s motivations save curiosity. Other historians focus on Columbus’s written comments that imply greed like, “Gold is most excellent; gold is treasure, and he who possesses it does all he wishes to in this world.” Still others concentrate on Columbus’s written comments that denote his involvement in trans-Atlantic slavery, like “They [the Arawaks] should be good servants…I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of my departure, six natives for your Highnesses.” Other historians focus on Columbus’s endorsement of and participation in brutal means to obtain gold. In short, all Arawaks above the age of fourteen were given copper tokens to wear around their necks only after providing a certain amount of gold every few months; those found without a copper token were tortured until they bled to death. The arguments in such secondary history books are based on such supplemental primary sources as “The Requirement,” a historical term for a speech Columbus read aloud (in Spanish, no less) to the Arawaks.
“I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the king as lord of this land and obey his mandates. If you do not do it, I tell you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you all. I will make war everywhere and every way I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience to the Church and to his majesty. I will take your women and children and make them slaves. … The deaths and injuries that you will receive from here on will be your own fault and not that of his majesty nor of the gentlemen that accompany me.”
Historians also have argued that Columbus was the catalyst for the Arawaks’ infanticide. Historians document the Arawaks’ infanticide as either a purposeful and planned decision so their children would not grow up under tyranny or an impulsive and desperate act when fleeing Columbus’s army.
While some argue that, due to drastic changes in societal norms, it is a historical error in decontextualization to judge such actions from a modern standpoint or contemporary perspective, others point out that the Spanish royalty forbade such acts during Columbus’s later voyages which signify this behavior was not tolerated – much less accepted – at the time. Such historians have argued that Columbus and his men, motivated for glory and riches and worried about punishments for promises left unfulfilled, engaged in slavery, brutally killed native people, and were catalysts for infanticide. Other historians disagreed, arguing Columbus was a noble and ambitious navigator, well-intentioned God-fearing Christian whose behaviors were not anomalous.
To paraphrase an oft-quoted claim, children must learn the past so as to avoid repeating it. Similarly, to tell only the virtuous or noble aspects of Columbus’s life constructs an inaccurate narrative from which children can most certainly not gain a comprehensive understanding. Researchers interested in history education contend these events should not be ignored, that this debate should not be reserved simply for historians, and that students should be exposed to this content. While this is difficult to accomplish in elementary school contexts, it is far from impossible. While students, especially those in the primary grades, do not think like older elementary students and certainly not like historians, research indicates they can learn to use some of the historians’ heuristics if the content is age-appropriate and the employed methodologies are developmentally-appropriate. Using constructivist education theory as a model, history education researchers have detailed the compulsory heuristics for students to read like a historian along with effective and age-appropriate methodology and assessment to both facilitate and measure learning.
As such, while the idea of critical evaluation of the history surrounding Columbus is not new or original, it is unique to examine how it is taught on the elementary level. This research paper is a case study on how this content is taught in two districts. These two districts were selected because they each mandate the inclusion of Columbus content in a spiraled format in every classroom in grades 1st-6th. The authors wondered if students know about the cruelties and injustices that occurred after Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492? Or, more importantly, how much do the teachers themselves know? And, how do these districts teach about such a controversial man in a spiraled format? This research project, a case study examining local elementary teachers’ understandings of and teaching practices on Columbus, seeks to answer these questions.
This paper is organized into four main sections. The Research Context describes the examined school districts and time devoted to various curricula. The Research Methodology details the employed data collection techniques. The Findings reports the results using illustrative graphs. Lastly, the section entitled Discussions addresses the research questions and reflectively assesses the manifestations of the aforementioned research presumptions.
The Research Context
Both school districts were located in small Midwestern cities. Each city, according to census records, had a population of between 15-30,000; over 90% of the citizens of each city were white. The public school districts each had an enrollment of between 2-3,000 students. The study consisted of the teachers in the elementary schools. During the time of this data collection, the average class sizes for both districts for grades 1st-3rd were each 22-23 students and the average class sizes for grades 4th-6th were each 24-25 students.
Located in middle class sections with well-groomed lawns and a variety of playground equipment throughout the area, visitors to the schools observed clean hallways, classroom walls decorated with the children’s work, posters with words of encouragement, and well-maintained facilities. The cities each thrived in a county of rural farmland and contained various corporate businesses, which is due in part to the economic stability that a comprehensive public university and regional hospital provided. The aforementioned dynamics of these cities likely positively influenced its school district.
Using data collected from the Illinois School Report Card, the researchers assessed the time spent on each core subject in grades third and sixth. Because the time was remarkably similar between the districts, the information was combined into one graph. In the 3rd and 6th grade, teachers spent an average of 40 minutes a day teaching social science. To put this into perspective, teachers spent less time on social science than any other subject. (See figure 1 below.)
This non-social science focus might be due to the districts’ response to state assessments. All Illinois schools were assessed in reading, mathematics, and science – but not social science – during each school year. That 85.4% of the students in grades 1-3 and 91.5% of students in 4th-6th met or exceeded the state test standards in all areas tested demonstrates the school districts’ relative success in meeting its goals for 2008-2009. In other words, the districts clearly did well in areas assessed. The state’s decision, as this research will demonstrate, to not test social science curricula likely negatively impacted its teaching to some extent. However, as previously noted, this research – while limited in size – is a case study whose findings have demonstrable implications.
This research investigates local teachers’ content knowledge of Christopher Columbus and is based on two presumptions. First, the researchers hypothesized that what teachers know (and do not know) about Columbus is both substantial, and significantly influences how they teach about him. Second, the researchers presume that spiraled curricula in a given grade should complicate and complement students’ previously generated understandings.
In order to have a comprehensive data pool, the researchers interviewed a representative number of elementary teachers in every grade 1st through 6th. This resulted in about six teachers per grade level, thirty-four educators total (seventeen for each district), which represented roughly 40% of the teacher population. While the researchers intended to interview at least three teachers in each grade level in each district, not all 5th and 6th grade teachers taught social studies.
Upon explaining the purpose of the study to individual teachers, the interviewer asked if they would like to be involved in the study. If the individual teacher consented, the interviewer explained in detail the study and answered all questions about the informed consent document. The interviewer queried the teachers individually; each interview utilized an open-ended, generative format. In doing so, the interviewer asked questions (see below) and allowed the interviewee to respond in as much detail as they felt necessary. Interviews lasted more than thirty minutes, with some going past an hour. These interviews garnered data on teachers’ background knowledge about Columbus and materials utilized. Figure 2 details the questions asked.
Interview Questionnaire (Figure 2)
Question 1 How much time is spent on the teaching of Christopher Columbus?
Question 2 How and what do you teach about Christopher Columbus?
Question 3 What materials do you use to teach Christopher Columbus?
Question 4 What are the students’ reactions to your Christopher Columbus curricula?
Question 5 Have you ever thought about adding to or taking away from the curricula in regards to Christopher Columbus?
Question 6 Would you like the results from the study emailed to you?
The researchers requested copies of all teaching materials. These were photocopied, digitally scanned, and analyzed using content-analysis. The researchers then methodologically triangulated data generated from these teaching materials and interviews with teachers. The researchers collected and stored the data using pseudonyms and subject identifiers to protect confidentiality. To minimize the research participants’ potential feelings of awkwardness or embarrassment, the interviewer reminded the participants that all accurate answers were adequate for the purposes of the research. While avoiding generalizations about curricular, methodological, or pedagogical trends in elementary schools outside of these districts, the research findings are illustrative of emergent patterns within these two school districts.
This research project generated seven consequential findings, which combine to form the basis for the seven subsequent subsections. For purposes of clarity, it is important to first summarize the findings. In Time Spent, the researchers analyzed the amount of time spent on teaching Columbus to find that teachers spent little, if any, time on Columbus, the only non-American to have a national holiday. In Perspectives Taught, the researchers scrutinized the educators’ teaching materials to locate the perspectives used to teach about Columbus and found the employed historical content did not provide students with multiple or competing perspectives, which historians have deftly developed. In Materials Used, the researchers examined the materials the educators used to teach the content on Columbus and found the employed teaching materials did not incorporate primary historical sources. In Teachers’ Repeated Superficiality and Students’ Engagement, the researchers investigated how the spiraled curriculum extended students’ understandings from previous years; they found that the content was repeated ad infinitum – with little, if anything, added – in all grades of the elementary schools, which possibly explained why teachers reported students’ apathy and disinterest. In Teachers’ Historical Understandings, the researchers examined the teachers’ educational backgrounds and found most were not versed in the history and used outdated information. In Teachers’ Willingness to Adjust the Curriculum, the interviewers explored the teachers’ motivation to adjust the content or increase time spent on Columbus; they found teachers who were uninterested in modifying their Columbus curriculum. Finally, in Constraints from Standardized Testing, the researchers examined the impact of the state’s assessment on the time allowed for and educators’ interest in teaching history and concluded the state’s assessment protocol appeared to negatively impact both districts’ time allotments for and educators’ perceptions of the importance of teaching history.
In order to determine the amount of class time devoted to Columbus, the interviewer asked “How many forty-fifty minute social science class periods are spent on the teaching of Christopher Columbus?” Figure 3 denotes findings that indicate the relatively small amounts of time per year devoted to this topic, the only historical topic taught in a spiraled format in either district.
From this data, one can deduce two basic and seemingly incongruent findings. Taken positively, all of the elementary teachers spent at least some time teaching about Columbus and over half spent one period or more. Since the data represents teachers in grades 1st-6th and since the districts mandated spiraled content, this suggests students studied Columbus annually for a significant amount of time when compared to other historical figures. From a history education perspective, it is encouraging to see this time devoted to a significant historical figure. However, seen differently, more than half of the teachers interviewed spent one social science class period or less on Columbus.
As mentioned previously, this is likely a resultant implication of the state not testing social science content. While the study’s sample size is limited to two school districts, anecdotal evidence (and logic) suggests this pattern manifests in other districts throughout the state. One could argue this to be brief, at best, or superficial, at worst. Furthermore, one can easily become disheartened after examining the limited historical perspectives that teachers utilized.
To examine the different perspectives used to teach about Columbus, the interviewer asked, “What do you teach about Christopher Columbus?” The overwhelming majority of teachers’ responses indicated that they taught the “simple facts” (names and dates) about Columbus or positive details about his accomplishments (i.e. his navigational talent and “discovery”). Because both are based on one-dimensional portrayals of Columbus, these were grouped under the term, “Single Perspective.” Knowing historians’ divergent interpretations, it was disheartening that only one teacher employed multiple and competing perspectives to teach about Columbus. Figure 4 displays these findings.
While history education researchers argue teachers’ presentations of multiple and divergent interpretations of content are paramount to engage students and elicit students’ historical thinking, the data indicate the vast majority (33/34) of teachers did not do so. The lack of opposing and contradictory perspectives failed to provide students with a gateway to examine the many different interpretations of Columbus. Historians’ divergent and disparate interpretations (which center on Columbus’s navigational skills, motivations to explore, greed, involvement in slavery, and brutal treatment of the Arawaks) were simply excluded.
It is highly important for teachers to provide students with multiple and competing perspectives, while also being sure that these sources are from reliable primary sources. The teachers provided simple facts like dates and names for students to memorize. History educators frequently point out that content memorization does not indicate historical thinking and rarely results in active engagement. Using the data-gathering techniques, the researchers could not determine the cause of teachers’ avoidance of multiple and competing perspectives. It might have been a result of teachers’ lack of knowledge about the history. It might, also, have been a result of teachers’ perceptions that elementary students could not synthesize divergent interpretations of the same event. Research indicates either hypothesis is tenable.
Ironically, as noted through examination of collected teaching materials, the educators who provided their students with one perspective also provided more in-depth content about Columbus, but they focused only on traits that can be seen as positive or admirable. These teachers, for instance, utilized literature that detailed his navigation skills, his ability to motivate, his bold leadership, etc. Teaching only the “hero” aspect appears superficial because it avoids the historical data that suggests other non-heroic behaviors and less-than-admirable intentions. The teacher who provided multiple and competing perspectives facilitated students’ rumination about the different interpretations of Columbus, his intentions, and his impact. Social studies education researchers would likely argue that this teacher’s students could then more accurately assess Columbus’s actions and evaluate their impact. Significantly, this teacher also noted that her students investigated Columbus over a period of five days, far longer than any other teacher surveyed.
The use of multiple perspectives enables students to analyze historical content from competing viewpoints and capture a more comprehensive view of the history of Columbus. When analyzing the information that is taught, it is also very important to know the source from which that information was derived. Since the employed perspectives stem from particular historical resources, it is meaningful to examine the teaching materials used for Columbus content.
During data collection, the researchers noticed a direct correlation between the answers from the question, “What materials do you use to teach about Christopher Columbus?” and the answers from the previous question, “What do you teach about Christopher Columbus?” Stated simply, teachers who taught only one perspective about Columbus often incorporated picture books, poems, and arts-based teaching materials. While these materials can be very useful in introducing Columbus, they lack the reliable historical content needed to properly address the historical events. Further, these materials focused on the positive results that emerged from Columbus’s travels to the Americas, which is limiting, at best, and potentially biased, at worst. While some of the historical content was derived from primary sources, it lacked the information needed for students to construct a more comprehensive narrative of the events that took place. Stated simply, the employed materials lacked the multiple viewpoints of the history of Columbus.
The teacher that taught using multiple perspectives utilized comprehensive and historically accurate materials based on reliable primary sources. This is quite positive because it enabled students to actively construct a more comprehensive understanding of Columbus. However, it also can seem less than ideal when it is noted that this teacher was the only educator identified who employed such a pedagogically-sound method. While the sample size for this finding is certainly restrictive, the pattern – while not able to be generalized – is clear. While such limitations are inherent with all case studies, they are still illustrative and meaningful. As before, it could not be detected if the teachers were unaware of the adaptability of primary source material for young students or if teachers felt their students were unable to read, interpret, and comprehend detail-rich primary sources. Research indicates either assumption is reasonable albeit speculative.
Certain teaching materials capture the interest of different students. The aforementioned teacher did just that. However, most others did not. This is unsettling considering the abundance of highly engaging, historically accurate literature that is inclusive of the latest historical, anthropological, and archaeological research of this era; further, these secondary sources include developmentally-appropriate primary source adaptations. One then wonders how students responded to the educators’ teaching practices and employed materials.
Teachers’ Repeated Superficiality and Students’ Engagement
Considering that the majority of teachers did not present multiple perspectives or reliable primary source content, one wonders about students’ engagement with the content. Their ability to construct a comprehensive narrative is limited, at best, when the content does not elicit discussions about varied interpretations. Furthermore, this paradigm elicits such questions as, what new information is presented in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade that students did not already learn in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd? And, how can re-teaching the same content engage or interest students?
Previously, the authors speculated about how the seemingly redundant content, when repeated over a 6 year period, lasting anywhere from one class period to a week or more each year, would not likely engage students. There is ample evidence to suggest that such replication of social science content not only takes place in various school contexts, but that it also negatively impacts students’ interest and engagement. Many educational theorists vehemently criticize incoherent and ineffectively planned curricula.
To gauge the teachers’ perceptions of students’ responses to their teaching practices, the interviewer asked “What are the student’s reactions to your Christopher Columbus curricula?” More than half responded that their students were not interested, while the remaining responded that t