Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sam Wineburg and Suzanne Wilson, "Wrinkles In Time and Space"

Article Review in KAS 297: Teaching History in the Tertiary Level
By: Mark Richardson T. Rovillos
21 January 2012

Sam Wineburg and Suzanne Wilson, “Wrinkles in Time and Space: Using Performance Assessments to Understand the Knowledge of History Teachers,” in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), pp. 173-214.

Sam Wineburg and Suzanne Wilson’s article studies the use of performance assessments in understanding the knowledge of history teachers in the secondary level. For the longest time, the assessment of teacher knowledge in their chosen / assigned discipline has been based on an “easy to administer and easy to score” national standardized tests1 which gave the public the impression that “teacher knowledge is something easily defined and packaged, readily contextualized and transported.”2 The authors believe that the shift to a performance-based assessment would result to a change in perspective towards teaching – a move from being bureaucratic to becoming more professional. The study is based on Stanford University’s Teacher Assessment Project (TAP) which is one of the first to develop and field-test performance assessments for teachers.3 The project develops models of assessments which serve as prototypes for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards – the agency responsible for the certification of teachers in the US.

The article presents the results of the study conducted in 1987 of two teachers who took the three-day field test of an assessment center for history teachers. Although both shared certain similarities in so far as knowledge of subject matter and working environment is concerned, they displayed “intriguing” contrasts in their response to questions and in how they performed in the exercises. This was attributed to the almost thirty years of experience that separated the two as well as the period when the teachers completed their undergraduate degrees. The older teacher (Mr. Barnes) graduated in the 1950’s and has twenty-seven years of teaching experience while the younger teacher (Ms. Kelsey) completed hers in the 1980’s has been teaching for only three years.

Aside from the short introduction where standardized tests and performance assessments4 are explained and differentiated, the article is further divided into eleven parts although the majority of the paper is devoted to the presentation and explanation of the results of the exercises performed by the teachers.

The Exercises

The teaching performance of the history teachers was assessed through nine exercises but only three were included and analyzed in the article. This includes (1) Evaluations of Student Papers; (2) Use of Documentary Materials; and (3) Textbook Analysis.5

The first exercise involves reading and responding to a set of student essays. The teachers were instructed to develop and explain the criteria to be used in grading the papers; to identify the “level of knowledge of the group;” “to mark and make comments on each essay”; and, to think of remediation strategies for students. Mr. Barnes and Ms. Kelsey both focused on whether the student addressed the question and was supported by relevant and specific facts; followed the mechanics of the language; and, the quality of expression. Interestingly, they differed on three aspects: first, in their general assessment of the group wherein Mr. Barnes focused on the students’ ability while Ms. Kelsey looked into their beliefs and misconceptions of history; and second, in their plan of providing support to poor performing members of the group.

The first exercise provided the researchers an opportunity to develop hypotheses on why the two teachers differ in their assessment of the student papers. The teachers seem to have differing views on the roles and responsibilities of students and teachers; on theories of learning; on the curriculum design; and, on their conceptions of historical knowledge. These hypotheses became the basis in analyzing the performances and responses in the succeeding exercises.

The second exercise tested the teachers’ ability to plan a classroom activity using primary sources, particularly eight written and three pictorial documents on the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Taking into consideration the students’ abilities, the two teachers were initially apprehensive in the use of primary sources in the classroom. However, Ms. Kelsey saw its wide range of pedagogic and curricular possibilities as long as specialized instructional supports (scaffolding) are in place or that activities involving documents be diversified to suit the level of the students. Unfortunately, Mr. Barnes dismissed the idea of using primary documents in his regular history class because it is beyond the reading level of his students but considers it for his Advanced Placement classes in order to provide students “a flavour of what historical research is all about.”

In this exercise, both teachers seem to hold similar views on the complexity and difficulty of historical knowledge in so far as historical interpretation is necessary in the study of history. However, this exercise further validates their differing views on school history (curriculum design). On the one hand, Mr. Barnes believes that history is only about facts and events for average students while only those in advance placement classes are capable of understanding the interpretative aspects of history. On the other hand, Ms. Kelsey believes in the indispensable role of interpretation in history that she wants to engage all students in interpreting the past provided appropriate strategies suited to the level of the students are employed.

The third exercise looks into the teachers’ ability to evaluate a particular textbook on the basis of its contents, readability, and appropriateness to the classroom setting. Both teachers again differed not only in how much they wrote but more importantly on the historical soundness of the text; on the effects on students’ understanding; and on the pedagogical usefulness of the supplementary materials.

Based on the results of the exercise, the two teachers’ conception of historical knowledge, among other things, has become more apparent. Although it can be said that Mr. Barnes has an extensive knowledge of “textbook history,” he seems to be less knowledgeable about the developments and current trends in historical writing which is not true for Ms. Kelsey being a product of a more recent historical scholarship.

“The Contexts of Judgment: Wrinkles in Time and Place”

This part of the article summarizes and clearly explains the point of the study and why it was entitled as such. The reviewer understands the article as a means to explain why and how history teachers differ in their understanding, and conception of historical knowledge as well as their pedagogical approach to history, not to mention their perception of students’ and teachers’ responsibilities. Wineburg and Wilson call attention to the importance of contextualization in so far as “understanding the historical understanding” of teachers. The dissimilarity in responses and performances of Mr. Barnes and Ms. Kelsey represent what the authors call “wrinkles in time and place.” These are gaps or lapses in the continuing study and / or teaching of history. The almost 30-year gap between Mr. Barnes and Ms. Kelsey in so for as historical scholarship and teaching experience accounted for this so called “wrinkle in time.”

What makes this article more interesting for the reviewer is that it presented alternative assessments and alternative actions which may arise from their study of Mr. Barnes and Ms. Kelsey which aims to

“… describe some options and explore their implications, to pose but not answer dilemmas of interpretation and action. [And] By sketching out different ways these data can be acted on, …hope[s] to highlight the slippery nature of using such assessments to set standards of teacher excellence.”6

Thus, the article presented different ways of looking at a good teacher vis a vis his / her teaching strategy. Our standards of a good and effective teacher reflect our context and value judgment as according to Wineburg, “teaching, like history is bound by place and time.”


1 In the United States, The National Teacher Exam (NTE), also known as the Praxis Series™ tests are taken by individuals entering the teaching profession as part of the certification process required by many states and professional licensing organizations. Retrieved from: The Praxis Series™ Tests (19 January 2012)
2 Sam Wineburg and Suzanne Wilson, “Wrinkles in Time and Space: Using Performance Assessments to Understand the Knowledge of History Teachers,” in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), p. 173.
3 “TAP developed performance exercises in secondary history / social studies and elementary mathematics, and a series of portfolio assessments in secondary biology and elementary language arts.” ibid, 175.
4 Wineburg believes that performance assessments in teaching means “asking teachers to teach a lesson to students, grade student papers, sketch out a unit plan, evaluate a textbook, watch and respond to someone else’s teaching, participate in a group planning session with other teachers, and so on.” ibid, 174. Also, “[Performance assessment is] a test in which the test taker actually demonstrates the skills the test is intended to measure by doing real-world tasks that require those skills, rather than by answering questions asking how to do them. Typically, those tasks involve actions other than marking a space on an answer sheet or clicking a button on a computer screen.” Retrieved from (19 January 2012).
5 ibid, 177.
6 ibid, 202-203.

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