Teaching Notes: April 2009 Archives

Researching the U.S. Presidents

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At a recent ID meeting, I commented that in high school I had to research information on each and every president in the United States (in batches of 6 throughout the year) Despite the active learning spirit of the exercise (I had to look up the information), I actually felt that I remembered very little (other than my mother commenting that Lincoln was able to enact the Land Grant School system in the middle of the Civil War).

Although I think learning factoids in context is important, this exercise swung too far. We had to bundle dates of administration, names of vice-presidents, list of critical event in the era (even if it was 1836-1840) and a list of presidential highlights. It was worse because I was not in a position to easily access an encyclopedia at 11PM the night before (imagine how Wikipedia impacts this assignment now).

I finally saw a piece on the History Channel, called American Presidents, which added the missing piece - the historical context. Each president got about 10 minutes at the most (except for LIncoln), but the experts were able to spin out a good narrative. I have to say I have a new appreciation the Missouri Compromise and how badly Andrew Jackson messed up our banking infrastructure. You can also see the University of Virginia American President Online Resource which has essays for each president (again why couldn't have I had this in high school?).

So now that I'm an instructional designer, how would I approach learning the presidents? First, I would let the students use something like the UVA Website (or maybe Wikipedia) as a resource. It would make a great study guide.

I think I would keep the research aspect also, but lessen the amount of factoids crammed in. How? I would assign only one president from each era to a student instead of every president. A student would only research maybe five presidents throughout the year, but know each one a little bit more.

And instead of compiling just the facts, I would ask for a review of online and maybe a few print sources. Bibliographies could be shared. And maybe some debates could occur - such as worst president ever (hint: most candidates were from just before the Civil War) or how viewpoints change over time. Maybe students could address why presidents from certain eras seem more "forgettable" than from other eras.

I do think knowing your president's and their impact is important for understanding the social and political history of the U.S. But even I have to admit that facts alone don't convey the history. The purpose of knowing dates and facts isn't to win a trivia contest, but to provide important details to the narrative of our past.

For instance the fact that over 50% of U.S. exports were of cotton in 1840 isn't just a fact, but probably the reason why few Northern politicians were abolitionists.