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The Content of Thinking: Ambitious Content

TCoT - Ambitious Thinking

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“Differences in culture can produce conflict in the form of discrimination, which, if actively protested, can lead to reform.”

This is a “big idea,” according to Dr. Jennifer Pease, an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. It’s the sort of big idea that future teachers can use to thread together an entire semester’s worth of lessons in, say, an eighth-grade history class.*

*And like many great ideas, it originated with a student – in this case, one of Dr. Pease’s former students.

It’s also indicative of what we mean when we talk about “ambitious content.” What are the overarching ideas that spiral through content standards, and are foundational to developing student understanding in a given subject?

Cognitive science helps inform the answer to this question. For example, in early reading, ambitious content requires students to connect word sounds (phonemes) to print representations (graphemes).* In math, ambitious content calls upon students to reason abstractly – to represent an equation visually, symbolically, and verbally.

For more on this, see The Science of Early Learning

Listen to Dr. Jennifer Pease discuss her approach to developing future teachers’ content understanding

A major challenge for teacher educators, however, is that they cannot possibly teach all of the relevant content standards to their teacher-candidates. As a result, when it comes to content, effective educator-preparation programs need to focus on depth rather than breadth. Rather than trying to cover all content standards and related curriculum, effective teacher-educators should help their teacher-candidates analyze and prioritize content based on big ideas.

This is why Pease focuses on “big ideas” in her general methods course. With her teacher-candidates, she unpacks the Virginia Academic Standards and related pacing guides and textbooks from local school districts, and teases out themes that cut across them.

“There’s a constant modeling that shows itself in the planning I do on a regular basis, and then what [teacher-candidates] see in the actual class,” Pease says. “We know that they are not going to remember all the facts that they learn, but if they can remember the big ideas that help frame the learning that they’ve done, that’s going to make the learning more enduring.”

Without big ideas, Pease knows that content is at risk of becoming, as she puts it, “massively forgettable.”*

*For more on the importance of memory in learning, see The Science of Learning, questions two and three.

Teacher standing in front of whiteboard in conversation
Student looking up from laptop and gesturing in conversation
Teacher standing in front of students and desks
Teacher-candidate looking at a piece of paper on her desk
Two students sitting next to one another at a table looking to the right
Two students looking up at the front of the classroom

Dr. Stephanie van Hover, a professor of social studies education at Curry, is another teacher-educator who organizes her teaching around big ideas, including one that is of particular importance to history teachers: contextualization.

First, some context on contextualization: Virginia’s Academic Standards call for students to develop “historical thinking skills” by, among other things, “synthesizing evidence from artifacts and primary and secondary sources to obtain information about events in Virginia and United States history.” But to analyze a source, the reader must place it in context, and understand how the time, place, and circumstances in which it was produced influences its creation.

This particular idea spirals throughout the content standards. Students must continually place evidence in context, and the nature of the evidence and what we ask students to do with it increases in complexity as students progress through middle and high school, in particular.

“To understand the nature of evidence, you have to know information,” says van Hover. “We ask people to analyze, to compare, to contrast, to assess, to think critically – and we love the words ‘critical thinking’ – but you can’t think about nothing. You need to know something in order to be able to think about it.”

Listen to Dr. van Hover discuss historical thinking.

To appreciate the big idea of contextualization, consider Taylor Swift. Yes, that Taylor Swift.

On a fall morning, we watched van Hover model for her teacher-candidates how to contextualize a Washington Post headline:

Taylor Swift’s stunning statement: Famously apolitical star slams Tennessee Republicans, endorses Democrats

“What do I need to know in order to understand this headline?” she asked her teacher-candidates. “I’m going to model for you. When you model, you’re making your thinking visible to students.”

Van Hover then modeled how to unpack the prior knowledge necessary to properly interpret this headline, dividing it into “Big C context” – facts surrounding the time and place – and “little c context” – facts surrounding the immediate source.*

*For more on the Big C / little c framework, check out these resources from the Teaching Channel

  • Big C: 2018 is an election year and control of both houses of Congress is contested; there are close Senate and House races in Tennessee.
  • Little c: Pop star Taylor Swift, who resides in Tennessee, has a very large social media following, particularly among 18 to 29 year-olds, a demographic group that does not typically vote in mid-term elections.

Note that historians seeking to understand this headline in 100 years would need even more context: What is the relevance of social media in 2018? Why was Swift considered “famously apolitical”? And why did she intervene in this particular election, and not just shake it off?

(Sorry, we had to.)

Watch Dr. van Hover use a headline about Taylor Swift to make historical thinking visible.

In modeling how to explore ambitious content, van Hover is diligent in using the actual standards and curriculum teachers will be asked to teach in Virginia. So, she pulled up Virginia Academic Standard VUS.12b – students can explain “the origins and early development of the Cold War and how it changed American foreign policy” – and a voluminous list of “essential knowledge” included in the state’s 2015 Curriculum Framework.

For a beginning social studies teacher, this list may appear daunting. But van Hover’s point was not to intimidate. Rather, she wanted to illustrate how using the big idea of contextualization could help candidates make sense of the content standards.

To do this, she gave candidates three textbook accounts of the Cold War’s Gulf of Tonkin incident (one of those pieces of “essential knowledge”) and asked them to practice the Big C / little c exercise.* “How have our textbook accounts of this same event changed over time?” she asked.

*Interested in reading the accounts? Check out History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History, by Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward.

Watch candidates use contextualization to analyze textbook accounts of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Through their teaching, Pease and van Hover design instructional experiences they believe will foster the thinking of all their teacher-candidates. In so doing, they model how rigorous and respectful dialogue is possible with all students – consistent with what we think of as the Democratic Spirit.*

*The writer David Foster Wallace described the Democratic Spirit as “one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others.”

In van Hover’s words, “the most important skills we can teach students are the nature of evidence, to ask good questions, to engage in inquiry, to assess the trustworthiness of sources, and, particularly, today to engage in high-quality, evidence-based, respectful discussion about crucial questions in our history and our society.”

This idea is particularly salient in Charlottesville, where the legacy of slavery and racial segregation continue to be real and visible – not just in recent protests, but in starkly different student outcomes. And while schools alone cannot surmount this country’s grotesque racial inequities, effective teachers can make extraordinary contributions to the lives of all their students.

As Pease puts it: “I want our teacher-candidates to think about their students as having the power to change the world.

“We just need to give them the opportunities to do so.”



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