AP World History teachers at Westfield High School (just a few miles from the George Mason campus) have gone completely off the rails with a new policy that explicitly forbids students in their course from consulting any person other than their teacher or any resource other than their textbook (or class notes/handouts) for any assignment in the course. Any person includes the students’ parents.
Setting aside for a moment the idea that it is somehow okay for teachers to forbid students from talking to their parents about their school work (likely illegal and unenforceable in any case), let’s consider what Jay Mathews of the Washington Post calls yet another example of a “harebrained” classroom policy that students have to endure.
The policy states: “You are only allowed to use your OWN knowledge, your OWN class notes, class handouts, your OWN class homework, or The Earth and Its Peoples textbook to complete assignments and assessments UNLESS specifically informed otherwise by your instructor.”
I completely sympathize with the desire of the teachers to try something, anything, to prevent students from cheating, cutting corners, and generally not thinking for themselves. The problem with this particular approach however is that it is completely counter to (a) the way that historians do their work and (b) the reality of life in the world of ubiquitous information.
The teachers in this case must have been feeling a bit desperate if they felt that forbidding students to talk to anyone or consult any resource other than those handed out would be a good way to learn. Knowledge production in history is a collaborative endeavor and to teach students that it should be otherwise is to teach them about a discipline that I am not familiar with. Further, it encourages them to believe that the supposed freshman level college history course they are taking is what is expected of students in college, i.e., use only those resources given to you by your teacher. Not one person in my department teaches that way. Not one.
Further, speaking as one of the consultants who helped redesign the AP history curriculum a few years ago (the one being used by these teachers) I can state categorically that in no case and at no time did anyone working on the redesign anticipate that teachers would so categorically shut students off from other resources.
Now to the idea that students should be cut off from other sources of information online. I’ve written about his issue extensively in this blog. Regular readers will know that I am firm in my conviction that telling students they can’t use a resource like Wikipedia is a good way to stunt their intellectual growth. These resources are part of the intellectual fabric of the modern world, including history, and so to cut students off from them is to deny them the chance to examine them critically.
I guess I’ll have to add Westfield High School to my list of places I’ll never get a job…