Unlearning the Ropes by Dr. Denise M. Bressler

Unlearning the Ropes

Dr. Denise M. Bressler

Reviewed by Hank Bitten, NJCSS Executive Director

“I now understand that schools are designed for someone like me, but schools are not designed well for the majority of the population.  This is deeply concerning…and it impacts every facet of our society.

School should work well for everyone, but it doesn’t. Our country’s acute focus on grades pushes students to lose their motivation, enthusiasm, and confidence.” (Preface)

I became a teacher a half century ago to make a difference in the lives of my students by using simulation games to engage students in problem solving and decision making as part of their education in world and United States history.  In my tenure as a teacher and administrator, I taught numerous classes on learning styles, differentiated learning, and assessments.

Unlearning the Ropes provides substantial evidence and a new perspective for bringing about change in the culture of the local school district. There are 1.28 million students in public schools in New Jersey and 57,486 in charter schools.  Source  With a dropout rate of 1%, there are approximately 13,000 students who drop out of school each year. There is an annual income gap of $10,000 between a student with a high school diploma and one without one. With two million high school dropouts in the United States in 2019, the amount of lost revenue is $20 billion and $400 million in lost taxes at 20%. Source   Our goal is to educate productive citizens.

Dr. Bressler provides a fresh perspective on the chronic problems of the rigid culture in most schools and local districts, the decision-making process for determining what to teach and how to teach it, and the blind acceptance of the cookie-cutter model of grade-based education. The debates over cognitive and affective learning, cultural literacy and discipline-based literacy, and the authority of the teacher’s grade book over differentiated instruction continue to be the victim of educational gridlock even though the educational research definitively supports choice and activity-based instruction.

The call to action is in Chapter 2: “Instead of focusing on performance, we can help them concentrate on mastery and developing a more positive reaction to failure”. To place this in the context of a meeting of the faculty, department, or Principal’s Cabinet, I will focus my application to the teaching of social studies. The impact of Covid-19 and virtual learning environments is exponentially decreasing student motivation, cognitive abilities, and test scores. While this is an immediate cause the long-range causes of this trajectory are in the rapid cultural and technological developments of the 20th century, which are currently at a heightened level of visibility.

As teachers deemphasized papyrus in favor of video, digital, and oral platforms over the past two decades, the process of transforming information into deep memory was diminished. The steps to thinking involve gathering and organizing information, making notes, and converting text to visual memory to stimulate thinking and deeper memory.  Education is not a strategy for memorizing information and performance is not an assessment with letter or number grades. It is about thinking, experiencing, and solving.  Educators teach students how to learn and the historical content in the learning standards becomes the catalyst for learning.

Dr. Bressler in Unlearning the Ropes directly addresses the benefits of ‘games’ as part of the learning process. The benefits of collaboration, decision-making, problem solving, engagement, and scaffolding learning at higher levels of cognition are clearly explained. My thesis was in simulation games in 1969 and I have observed the benefits of them with my students, children, and grandchildren over five decades. My grandchildren look forward to Fridays when their teacher engages them in Kahoot!  Although I believe their teachers use this as a diversion from the structured curriculum activities, my grandchildren are engaged because the activity is competitive, collaborative, and challenging.

Although games work, students cannot play games in school every day and in the six or seven classes they are taking. If they did, games would have diminishing returns.  However, teachers should be mindful of the benefits of physical education, art, music, and electives where they are standing, participating in movement, and processing information.  For social studies teachers, it is essential to plan a variety of differentiated instructional activities.  Activity-designed instruction includes the familiar strategies of cooperative learning, student presentations, structured debates, independent research, cross-disciplinary activities, partnerships with discipline-based resources (colleges, local museums, virtual field trips, experts, civic leaders, senior citizens, etc.) and simulations, educational games, and virtual reality experiences.

Unlearning the Ropes helped me to realize that teachers know what works effectively and they have access to excellent resources.  The missing links are the current limitations of how we assess what students are learning, parental or community understanding and support for active and engaged learning, and leadership from school administrators. Our current culture in most schools prevents teachers and departments from implementing differentiated instruction, academic literacy, and what I am suggesting is activity-designed learning. 

How to Begin?

For educators who are serious about implementing the evidence-based changes proposed by Dr. Bressler, let me suggest the following:

  1. An audit of student grades on report cards, state assessments, and national tests. This needs to be done K-12 with an independent analysis of skills, performance-based assessments such as essays, research papers, and presentations. If this cannot be conducted as a school or district, begin the audit in the social studies department.
  • Gather and organize data on what students are doing with problem solving, decision-making, and thinking.  Collect anecdotal evidence from teachers and students, in addition to the evidence of rubrics.
  • Conduct professional development with experts in the field through professional learning communities, staff development, or a consortium of social studies departments in schools in your area.
  • Identify schools which have previously implemented (or are in the process of considering) differentiated and active learning lessons and performance-based assessments.
  • Develop a model curriculum in core courses (K-12 if possible) that includes engaging activities, observations by other teachers or independent consultants (retired teachers and supervisors, instructional coaches, etc.), and alternative and performance-based assessments.
  • Educate parents and stakeholders in the community on what is being considered, provide support from local college professors and admission counselors from local, state, regional, and ivy league colleges and universities, reveal your plan for quality control and continuing evaluation, and examples of performance-based assessments. If possible, include the voices of your students and teachers.

It is best to move in this direction incrementally. Unlearning the Ropes presents examples of what meaningful learning is and how and why it is effective. In some ways this is ‘old school’ and yet educators, who are convinced that learning needs to be enjoyable and collaborative, need revolutionary steps to overcome the inherent barriers in their school district.  The lesson learned in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is that the first 20% of schools embracing the new direction will be the most difficult. 

“As a graduate student and an educational researcher, I have seen the standard lecture format prevail in teacher education. If preservice teachers are trained in settings that don’t promote agency, how are they supposed to know how to support agency in their classrooms? In-service teachers realize they lack these skills citing professional development as essential to learning to promote agency.” (page 98)

Pre-service teachers should also read this book and become familiar with strategies that effectively measure learning rather than teaching. Consider the example below asking students to analyze the Battle of Long Island from the perspective of different choices. This was the first and largest battle in the Revolutionary War involving more than 40,000 soldiers. The date is August 27, 1776.

Could General Washington and the Continental Army have won the Battle of Long Island?

How would each of these strategies change history?

Washington should have attacked General Howe immediately after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on Staten Island. Washington had an army equal to or perhaps greater than that of the British in July. (Offense was the preferred option.)Washington should have negotiated an agreement with General Howe realizing that the 20,000 British and Hessian forces were stronger and better equipped than the Continental Army. (Fighting was not an option.)
Washington’s decision to position some troops on Long Island (Brooklyn Heights), maintain a reserve force along the East River in Manhattan, and station backup forces in New Jersey along the Hudson. (Defense was the preferred option.)Let the British take New York and control the New England colonies while regrouping and defending Philadelphia and the Middle and Southern colonies. Use the area of New Jersey to gather intelligence and monitor the British forces. Blockade New York Harbor and cut off supplies to the British army. (Creating a new scenario.)

“When students are given control over their learning, the outcomes range from improved achievement to enhanced motivation, enthusiasm, and confidence.” (page 95)

Research the experts!  Which interpretation do you think caused the American Revolution?

What caused the American Revolution?Supporting a Claim with Evidence
Democratic Movement (Robert Brown, Michigan State Univ.)Ideological Influences (Bernard Bailyn, Harvard)
Economic Causes (Andrew Hacker, Queens College)Class Struggles (Merrill Jensen, Univ. of Wisconsin)

The models above allow students to ask questions, investigate the geography, engage with research, learn from each other, make a claim, and understand the historical account of what actually happened and why it happened. Similar options for learning other issues and events can follow this general model. For example, in Civics, engage students with Project Citizen, in U.S. History, use a Model Congress or press conference, in World History, consider the Model UN or creating a tapestry of social and cultural history.

The advice of Albert Einstein supports problem solving and decision-making lessons, “I never teach my pupils.  I only provide the conditions in which they can learn.” (page 85) The conditions for student engagement and thinking include taking risks and learning from mistakes, the independence to be creative, collaboration with peers and adults, and learning by enjoying.  Schools and classrooms do not need to provide the magical kingdom of a Disney World but they should provide the differentiated experiences of animal kingdom, Epcot, the wild west, and the Hall of Presidents! The ‘Disney experience’ provides differentiated activities with lots of fun.

In addition to providing explicit insights into differentiated learning experiences, Unlearning the Ropes provides personal reflections about parenting, school culture, and adolescent psychology. The book is easy to read and prompts serious discussion about student productivity, the efficient distribution of academic content, and redesigning the traditional model of cultural literacy into academic literacy.

For commercial products on simulations and engaging activities for students in K-12, visit these resources:

University of Maryland ICONS online Simulations 

Brown University Choices Program

Academic Literacy by Dr. Harry Stein

Lights, Camera . . .  Survey! Americans Give History a Screen Test

Lights, Camera . . .  Survey! Americans Give History a Screen Test

Pete Burkholder

(Reprinted with permission from History News Network, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/180008)

The results are in and it’s official: we are a nation of watchers. As Americans retreated to the security of their own homes amid the ravages of COVID-19, their love affair with screens only increased. According to the website Eyesafe and the Nielsen television ratings company, adults spent an average of thirteen hours, twenty-eight minutes per day watching a screen in March 2020. That represents a daily increase of three hours, twenty minutes, relative to the third quarter of the previous year. Of those, live television viewing went up by over two hours each day for five-and-a-half hours total, while time-shifted watching increased by nearly twenty minutes. Streaming video-on-demand viewings likewise spiked eighty-five percent over comparable three-week periods in 2019 and 2020. What seems clear is that what we know about the world around us is increasingly dependent on electronic boxes of various sizes and dimensions, and on the content providers who fill them.

As a historian, I’m always intrigued by how the public learns about the past, which is why my colleagues and I recently ran a national poll to find out where people get their historical information. The results of that survey, a collaboration between the American Historical Association and Fairleigh Dickinson University, and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, indicate that historical consumption is a microcosm of the trends outlined above. Yet those same results, which will be published in full this summer, expose some fascinating incongruities as well.

First, the trends. Asked where they’ve gotten their information about the past since January 2019 (that is, pre-COVID to present), respondents showed an overwhelming preference for screens. Out of a range of nineteen possible sources, the top three choices – documentary film and TV, fictional film and TV, and TV news – were all video. More traditional forms of historical information simply weren’t competitive: museum visits (tenth place), non-fiction history texts (twelfth) and college courses (dead last) trailed television and film by significant margins. That said, the great bugaboo of recent disinformation, social media, likewise assumed back-of-the-pack status, coming in at fourteenth place. Although use of social media has remained robust during the pandemic, most respondents to our survey didn’t seem to view such platforms as having much to do with history, per se.

The incongruities emerged when we asked survey-takers to rank the perceived trustworthiness of those same sources above. Only documentary film and TV stayed in the top three, though it now trailed both museums and historic sites. While TV news ranked third as a go-to source for history, it fared miserably in terms of reliability, coming in fifteenth. Fictional films and TV did even worse at seventeenth. Few respondents had taken a college history course since January 2019, but history professors were still highly trusted, garnering fourth position. The same was true for non-fiction books, which moved up the scale to sixth, despite being sparsely utilized. A bit of a disjuncture thus emerges. Whereas the public reports largely turning to video for its historical information, those same viewers are skeptical of much of what they see on their screens.

Our survey couldn’t determine exactly what people were watching, a topic that awaits further investigation. But respondents’ high utilization of, and obvious trust placed in, documentaries – and their corresponding distrust in news and dramatizations – begs a certain amount of cynicism. Although one can find quality programming in the current state of “docu-mania,” there’s a proliferation of disinformation as well. Such nonsense as Mikki Willis’s Plandemic, or the all-day conspiratorial marathons on the History Channel (Ancient Aliens, anyone?), are wrapped in a patina of documentary that lends them unmerited credibility.

Meanwhile, news programs that may strive for factuality, and that are avidly consumed by history-minded viewers, were largely dismissed by our respondents as unreliable. Here, our survey reflects broader distrust in news services that have been assaulted by several years’ worth of “fake news” accusations. In a national survey from the 1990s similar to ours, people likewise looked askance at dramatized history on film and TV, but they have consistently devoured it nonetheless, if Academy and Emmy Awards are any indication. And just as documentaries can deceive, fictionalized video renditions of the past can be quite edifying if one bears in mind how to read historical films as cultural artifacts.

The increasingly simple ease of access to video media may explain a lot about current consumption habits of historical information. But if so, it bodes ominously for sources of the past deemed more trustworthy, yet which take more effort (reading books) or intentionality (visiting museums) to engage. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by such disjuncture. After all, the nation’s alcohol consumption has surged during the pandemic despite the drug’s well-known detrimental health effects. People knowingly acting against their own self-interests in where they turn to for historical information is thus not an isolated phenomenon.

If there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s that Americans – no matter their age, race, gender or political affiliation – are often in agreement when it comes to their history consumption habits and views on the reliability of sources. Sixty-seven percent of our respondents in the 18-29 age bracket reported watching dramatic films and TV to learn about the past, a statistic that barely moved for the 65+ age cohort (66%). Meanwhile, 87% of those identifying as Democrats said they trusted documentaries somewhat or a great deal, compared with 84% of Republicans.

They may be watching very different historical programming, but the public’s preferences and attitudes toward it align more often than not. In a country as deeply divided as ours, that’s no small matter.