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Learning to Learn: Teaching the Humanities in K–12 Classrooms

The ongoing discourse among educators, students, parents and business leaders about the value of studying the humanities most often centers on higher education. Of primary concern is how institutions of higher learning can prevent the elimination of college humanities programs and whether anyone outside humanities departments believes these programs prepare students to be future leaders in all areas of society.

A quick Google search of the phrase humanities education would lead one to believe that the study of the humanities begins in college. In a certain sense, that’s true. While English (reading and writing), history, and sometimes foreign languages are taught in grades K through 12, they aren’t usually called humanities classes. Moreover, the way these subjects are taught to young students does not often reflect the widely recognized benefits of university humanities programs, such as encouraging dissent and debate to foster critical thinking. A growing awareness of the merits of early exposure to the humanities has contributed to a growing trend: some elementary, middle, and high schools are introducing the humanities to their students through college-level classes and pedagogical techniques, and the benefits are beginning to convince others to do the same.

How do these humanities classes differ from the history, reading, and writing classes that are already taught to students in K–12 classrooms? To begin with, K–12 teachers can engage in professional development seminars and programs that give them the opportunity to engage deeply in humanities subject matter and establish peer relationships with university educators. For example, the National Endowment for the Humanities funds summer programs hosted by universities and other cultural institutions for K–12 educators across the country with the goal of moving “some of the best, rigorous humanities ideas and practices out of the university and into the K–12 classroom.” A report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences advocates for “partnerships that span public and private sectors, academic disciplines, and all levels of the educational system.” It recommends “greater collaboration between primary and secondary school teachers and leaders of higher education and cultural institutions to establish cohesive K–12 humanities curricula to ensure basic competencies in problem-solving, critical analysis, and communication.”

Along with programs that train teachers and promote collaboration among colleagues, projects like TH!NK, in which college-level philosophy is brought into elementary schools, are being implemented with great success. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, argues that TH!NK  is helping combat, from the bottom up, the perception that the humanities have no practical use. “It has often been said—by me, anyway—that no industry treats its main supplier with greater indifference than higher education treats the K–12 school system. . . . We can show our commitment if we reach out to the young people who will become our students, before they become convinced that their only way to success is to major in marketing or finance.” The fact that few fifth graders have even heard of philosophy doesn’t matter to TH!NK’s designer, Marcello Fiocco, a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. “Not only is philosophy a most natural skill—one for which every person has the capacity—it is of the greatest practical importance. . . . Philosophy is a skill rather than a subject matter. Philosophy is critical thinking.” As Cassuto says, “You might say that the students are learning how to be members of a democracy while they’re in grade school.”

In addition to introducing their students to nontraditional courses on subjects like philosophy, religion, and ethics, primary and secondary school teachers and administrators are also looking at how college humanities courses are taught. Helping students learn how to learn is arguably the most important thing teachers can do to prepare students to navigate higher education and their future as lifelong learners in a rapidly changing society. In a report issued by the National Education Association, the authors argue that our education system is no longer adequate to prepare students to be global citizens in the twenty-first century and beyond. Students must learn what they call the four C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Humanities classes tend to value debate, discussion, and dissent, all central to mastering the four C’s, over hierarchical, top-down relationships between teachers and students. As stated in an article in Harvard Magazine, “Twilight of the Lecture,” this active-learning model of pedagogy “overthrows the ‘transfer of information’ model of instruction, which casts the student as a dry sponge who passively absorbs facts and ideas from a teacher.”

Francine Prose, in an article in The Guardian, recognizes the many eloquent essays and articles in which those who teach and study the humanities defend their value. She reiterates what many have argued: that “these areas of learning provide the ability to think critically and independently; to tolerate ambiguity; to see both sides of an issue; to look beneath the surface of what we are being told; to appreciate the ways in which language can help us understand one another more clearly and profoundly—or, alternately, how language can conceal and misrepresent. They help us learn how to think, and they equip us to live in—to sustain—a democracy.” While bringing college-level humanities courses and pedagogical techniques into K–12 classrooms has obvious benefits for students, and much has been written on that subject, getting kids hooked on the humanities from an early age might be more effective at attracting and retaining future humanities majors than all the prohumanities articles out there.


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