Purpose Matters in Teaching: Leveraging Purpose to Transform Teaching and Learning

Todd S. Hawley, Kent State University; Michael Levicky, Kent State University; and Adam W. Jordan College of Charleston

     To be a teacher today is to be confronted with the constant pressure to both defend the work you do in your classroom and to advocate for the ways schools improve the lives of students and families in local communities. The reality is that in many political spaces the very institution of public education itself is under attack. This can be seen from the ideology of Betsy DeVos on the Right to pro-charter advocates like Cory Booker on the Left. Add to this recent attempts by state governments and textbook companies to mute the power of social studies teachers, we argue that rationale-based, purposeful practice matters now perhaps more than ever. Research has demonstrated ways social studies teachers can improve their practice by explicitly and systematically developing the purposes that guide their everyday practices and decisionmaking (Jordan, Jordan, & Hawley, 2017). By first making their purposes visible, teachers can begin to enact those purposes in engaging, thoughtful ways. Having a systematically articulated rationale can serve as the foundation for teacher decision-making and empower social studies teachers to feel more professionally confident, thus establishing classroom choices on solid ground (Hawley, Pifel, & Jordan, 2012). In this paper, we intend to offer teachers a systematic approach to analyzing their purposeful practice.

     To help prompt teachers to begin thinking about the purposes that drive their practice, we always encourage teachers to consider Todd Dinkelman’s (2009) question, “What are you teaching for?” (emphasis in original, Dinkelman, 2009, p. 91). This seemingly simple question is one that every teacher should be able to answer explicitly. A clear and articulated answer to this straightforward question has the power to serve as a foundation for purpose-based teacher decision-making. Depending on the positionality of the professor, social studies teachers are sometimes invited to formally articulate the purposes that are most important to them as teachers in their introductory methods courses. While purpose finds its way to many methods courses, however, the formal and written process of purpose articulation and analysis may not.

  Fortunately, rationale development, and rationale-based teaching, is now an emerging trend with a historical foundation in social studies education (Hawley & Crowe, 2016). In considering this trend, social studies educators can serve as a strong example among their colleagues. As former teachers, and current teacher educators, we understand that how  teachers utilize their time has an influence on their continued development as professionals. Our goal within this paper is to encourage teachers to formally articulate the purposes that drive their practice, and to provide support for teachers as they articulate their rationales. We believe the formal rationale development process holds the potential to empower teacher agency and advocacy by expertly articulating priorities of their practice. With that, we hope this paper succinctly outlines the formal rationale development process and also serves as a tool for teacher self-empowerment.

Purposeful Versus Neutral: Why Purpose Matters in Social Studies Teaching

     While working with social studies teachers on the process of articulating and developing their purposes, we routinely hear concerns about remaining neutral and being unbiased. We understand these concerns. Too often today, policy-makers are more concerned with value-added outcomes than in developing engaged citizens. We know teachers face pressures to stick to pacing guides and to teach to the test. We also recognize and honor the fact that there is a strong group of teachers working “against the grain” (Cochran-Smith, 2004). The rationale development process is designed to inspire those who feel pressure to follow a script and to begin teaching against the grain.

     Teaching with purpose does not mean to teach with selfish intent. We are not advocating that teachers start class by telling students about their political stance on key issues, then moving into a lesson focused on historical facts and dates. At the same time, we know that purposeful social studies teaching and learning is never neutral, nor could it be. In our vision of rationale-based practice, a social studies teacher is teaching students to confront racism while exploring persistent social issues as part of a U.S. History, Economics, Government, or Sociology course. As part of enacting the purposes that guide their work, social studies teachers turn to their rationale and make pedagogical decisions that are intentional. These pedagogical decisions are not made to simply present all sides of an issue, but to create spaces for students to engage with social studies content in complex ways that lead to deeper thinking and deliberation, while recognizing the role they can play in developing a more just society when coupled with intentional social action.

     Purposeful practice has a long history in social studies, and current research supports the development of a teaching rationale to support purposeful practice in social studies classrooms (Hawley, 2012). Stanley (2005) examined the debate over the purpose of social studies teaching and learning as “transmission versus transformation” (p. 282). Barr, Barth and Shermis (1977) developed three traditions that have historically characterized social studies teaching: Citizenship Transmission, Social Studies as a Social Science and Reflective Inquiry. Finally, Westheimer and Kahn’s (2004) research into approaches to citizenship education found in social studies classrooms, outlined three types: Personally Responsible Citizenship, Participatory Citizenship and Justice-Oriented Citizenship.

    According to the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) (1994), “the primary purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world” (para. 3). We highlight this work to present  examples of different purposes that have been presented for teaching social studies. While we recognize that teachers might pursue a rationale that is different from the ones presented above, we are more inclined to believe that social studies teachers are committed to teaching future citizens to be active and engaged. In the remainder of the manuscript, we focus on the process of developing and articulating the purposes that guide teachers’ practices, followed by an exploration of ways to enact these purposes in powerful, engaging ways.

Making Your Purpose(s) Visible to Yourself

     The first step in the rationale development process is to make your purposes visible to yourself. We suggest using a wordwheel to brainstorm all of the ideas, thoughts, and goals you have for your work as a social studies teacher. We have included a blank version of the word-wheel for you to use and one example word web that represents versions we often see when working with teachers to articulate their purposes. In the center of the word web is the question that started this article, “What are you teaching Social Studies for?” From here teachers can use the attached thought bubbles to articulate their answers to the central question.

     In the example word-web, we have provided responses that are characteristic of teachers who worked through this exercise for the first time. “I love History”; “To solve problems”; “Prepare students to be good people”; “So students don’t embarrass themselves when asked questions about US History”; “Answer difficult questions”; “My students are the future.” These initial responses are common, and are a great place to start. After working on an initial word-wheel, we ask teachers to explain how these initial purposes can help them engage students in their social studies classes. For example, how does loving history or having a desire to prepare students to answer difficult questions lead to engaging teaching and learning? When pressed, teachers expand their thinking to explain that their love of history is more than just a love of facts. Rather, their love of history translates into a love of thinking historically and learning through history to make better decisions and to recognize how social change has occurred. The same goes for wanting to teach students to be good people. In this case, teachers are expressing a desire to connect the social studies content with the habits and skills of democratic citizens to help their students learn to be engaged participatory citizens.

Exploring Your Purposes On a Deeper Level and Connecting Your Purpose(s) to Teaching in a Democratic Society

     To position teachers to expand their initial thoughts about what they are teaching social studies for, we also provide prompts designed to help teachers further consider insights and details germane to their teaching rationales. The following set of prompts and questions have been helpful for teachers to consider while writing their social studies rationale (purposes for being a social studies teacher):

1. What is your purpose or purposes for teaching social studies?

2. Discuss the influences that contributed to your thinking as you were developing your social studies rationale (influential thinkers, books, ideas, teachers/professors, artists, etc.)

3. What connections does your purpose for teaching the social studies have to living in a democratic society or teaching in a democratic classroom?

4. What curricular choices, teaching practices, and classroom experiences will you make available for your future students based on your purpose?

5. How will you make future students, administrators, and parents aware of the purposes that guide your curriculum choices and teaching practices as a social studies teacher?

What? Why? How?

    In pushing to expand teacher thinking about how their purposes for teaching social studies connects with democratic citizenship, we discuss the “Developing a Rationale for Social Studies” Venn Diagram. This Venn Diagram is designed to provide a visual representation of how a rationale for teaching social studies is related to both Ideas and Action in teaching. Additionally, the Venn-Diagram also demonstrates how a rationale can assist teachers as they work to bring together their course curriculum with their teaching practice. Finally, it introduces the idea of the “What? Why? How?” Framework. The “What? Why? How?” Framework is designed to enable teachers to make necessary connections between theory and practice, as well as connections between their work as a curriculum developer and their teaching as a practitioner. As a framework, What? helps define aims for teachers and students. Why? requires teachers to make and  share value judgements with students. How? engages teachers and students in taking action to collaborate and learn together. This positions the Venn-Diagram as an overlapping, infinite and recursive loop that demonstrates how social studies teachers can continuously consider the purposes of their rationale throughout their career whether they are just beginning or are an experienced veteran educator. In this respect the Venn-Diagram becomes a tool to develop, reflect and alter “What?” they want to teach and have students do, “Why?” they want to teach specific content, habits and skills and, “How?” they plan on teaching to accomplish the “What?”.

     After discussing the “Developing a Rationale for Social Studies” Venn Diagram, teachers can begin the work of connecting their purpose with their planning and practice. To make this initial leap, teachers should develop their own responses in the “What? Why? How?” Framework. The diagram and framework are designed to give teachers a clear sense of the many ways their purpose is connected to everything they do in their classes and how they can work toward integrating their purpose into their teaching. The following diagram and framework provides an example from U.S. History focused on teaching students about the Black Codes. The chart focuses on both the What? Why? And How? as related to both Course Curriculum and Topics and Teaching Practices and Activities.

U.S. History Example What? Why? How? Chart

Conclusion: Pulling it all Together, Rationale Development and Purposeful Practice

     Social studies teachers face multiple demands on their time and attention. These demands take the form of increasing levels of accountability, pressures to teach to the test and to demonstrate the value of their teaching as connected to their students’ learning. At the same time, social studies teachers have the opportunity to honor their students’ lived experiences while preparing them to be active, engaged, and participatory citizens. Fortunately, teachers still have the freedom to make content and pedagogical choices that benefit their students (Evans, 2012). We agree with Thornton (2006), who argued that “teachers’ purposes matter more and in a different way from assembling a standardized product.”(p. 418). We believe that social studies teachers can improve their practice by developing and being explicit about the purposes that guide their decisionmaking by engaging the question prompts and other tools offered in this piece toward rationale development. Despite the pressures to conform and simply teach to the test, social studies teachers have the opportunity to articulate a rationale for their work, and in doing so, transform their practice, engage students on a deeper level and bring meaning to their work.


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