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Professor S.G. Grant, former dean of the Graduate School of Education, is leading a project to redesign New York state’s social studies curriculum.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Former dean tackles social studies reform
September 30, 2014Tweet
Was the American Revolution really revolutionary?
That is one of the questions former Graduate School of Education (GSE) Dean S.G. Grant believes could help transform the social studies curriculum in K-12 schools not only in New York, but across the country.
“Social studies is more than people, places and events,” Grant said. “Those things are critical, but there has to be a reason to try to understand them. The old theory that you have to teach the facts first and then ask kids to think about them has been completely discredited.”
Grant, who stepped down as dean at the end of August and returned to the GSE faculty, is serving as the principal investigator for a nearly $3 million grant from the New York State Education Department to create units for the state’s K-12 social studies curriculum.
As leader of a 90-member team of writers, content experts and teacher reviewers, Grant is advocating “big ideas” to frame the way social studies is taught.
For example, rather than a teacher beginning an American history unit by telling students to read the first page and write down everything that is important, he or she may ask: “How revolutionary was the American Revolution?” Phrasing the question that way challenges students, Grant said, as they often presume the name itself means that a revolution was successful.
“Historians have been debating this topic since the American Revolution and are still debating it,” Grant said. “It turns out to be an interesting question. What was revolutionary about the American Revolution if it preserved the social status of the wealthy whites, Native Americans, slaves and women? None of these roles changed as a direct result of the American Revolution. If it wasn’t a social revolution, was it an economic revolution? Was it a political revolution?”
One of Grant’s favorite compelling questions goes to third-graders who are often looking at the larger world for the first time: Where are we?
“That question will send kids into gales of laughter,” he said. “Yet it turns out to be a complicated question. ‘Where are we?’ has a physical dimension and a political dimension to it. Where are we as citizens of New York? Where are we as citizens of the United States? You can explain simple questions in complex ways with students, but still teach everything that New York state requires in a way that frames it differently than a march through social studies.”
Grant’s work on a publication by the National Council of Social Studies called “College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework” drew the attention of John B. King Jr., New York state Education Department commissioner, earlier this year. He and other officials asked the dean to lead the state-curriculum project with a grant to Binghamton University from the Race to the Top Fund. The proposal came with a one-year window. The deadline for completion: June 2015.
“When the idea was first pitched to me, I said: ‘I have a job,’” Grant recalled. “The thought of doing two-and-a-half years of work in one year while doing a full-time (dean’s) job was daunting.
“I thought long and hard about whether I could do justice to two big tasks: being dean of a Graduate School of Education and being the project manager of a $3 million grant.”
Grant made the decision to leave the dean’s position in late July after the state Education Department said Grant’s team could also play a role in changing the state assessment program.
“The shelf life of a dean is pretty short,” Grant said with a laugh. “I thought this would be an opportunity for someone else to come in and push forward with new ideas.”
Professor C. Beth Burch was named interim dean of the Graduate School of Education in August.
For Grant, it was the end of a six-year reign that saw the Graduate School of Education achieve a number of successes, such as developing an undergraduate minor in education, redesigning its elementary education program and starting a master’s program for working teachers in New Orleans.
“This is the only dean’s job I’ve ever applied for,” Grant said. “I love the faculty and the range of programs we have here. The idea of focusing clearly on the core mission of schooling was important to me. “
Among the goals Grant had when named dean were raising the visibility of the school and increasing research productivity.
“(GSE) has brought in 10-11 new people over the last six years and every one of them is a first-rate scholar in his or her field,” he said.
Grant also worked to broaden the local impact of the school by forming “active partnerships” with local districts, speaking at Rotary Clubs and meeting with superintendents and principals.
While Grant remains on campus and will return to teaching, he is more likely to meet with team members and colleagues such as Kathy Swan of the University of Kentucky and John Lee of North Carolina State University. They both worked with Grant on the national “College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework” project.
Grant and his team plan to develop 14 “annotated blueprints” of social-studies units, along with five “abridged” blueprints per grade level, by June 2015. The team will also work on professional development for teaching the units.
“Even that is a small slice of the social studies curriculum,” Grant said of the 84 units that could be in publication next year. “One of the things we are trying to figure out is how to harness the energy of teachers and district officials across the state in developing additional blueprints of units. It would be great to have three different units about the French Revolution, all with a different, compelling question.”
The social-studies curriculum reform could even go across state borders. New York is making the project open-sourced, Grant said, so any state could decide to adopt the plan.
“There is potential for kids and teachers in Kansas to use some of the units that a fourth-grade team developed at Binghamton University,” he said.