The Agnes Irwin Approach to Developing Historical Thinking for the Next Generation
Every school has a set of purposes and priorities for its students, such as mastery of an evolving core curriculum, building varied skill sets, and developing habits of success, among many others. As we enter 2024, these essential purposes, and more, remain foundational at Agnes Irwin, yet we are keenly aware that our graduates are navigating an increasingly complex and uncertain world. Educating students to meet the challenges of their time requires a dynamic learning environment. Ongoing, behind-the-scenes curriculum development supports this work by finding the sweet spot where effectiveness and engagement intersect.
CURRICULUM DEVELOPMENT IN HISTORY/SOCIAL SCIENCE
In the past year, the AIS PreK to 12 academic team meticulously reviewed the history and social science curriculum through the lens of addressing the skills and qualities our girls will need in the future. Strong critical thinking skills associated with history, civics, geography, and economics are necessary tools for our girls to be future-ready and globally-minded. Teachers balance the rigor and relevance of the curriculum to spark students' interest while meeting learning outcomes. Defining the building blocks in these disciplines through the Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools empowers teachers to help students learn the transferable skills they need at every developmental stage – each step informing the next. Ultimately, our students become not just informed individuals, but critical thinkers, active participants in their communities, engaged citizens, and lifelong learners.
TEACHING CRITICAL THINKING AND CIVIL DISCOURSE
The mission of the AIS Department of History and Social Science is to “explore the remarkable depth of the human experience, equipping [our] students with the skills and tools needed to navigate an interdependent and increasingly complex world. As active agents of history, they form a personal connection with the past and leverage their skills in critical thinking, ethics, leadership, and storytelling to affirm and understand peoples and cultures different from their own."
With these goals in mind, our faculty re-emphasizes the importance of thinking for oneself and forming one’s own ideas and opinions by examining claims, scrutinizing evidence, and engaging in thoughtful analysis. We are actively teaching girls not what to think, but how to think. In our commitment to fostering responsible and thoughtful individuals, the principles of civil discourse are also emphasized time and again. In a diverse society, it is crucial for our girls to engage in respectful dialogue, even when faced with differing perspectives.
BUILDING A FUTURE-READY TRANSFERABLE SKILL SET
Another key part of the process was identifying the transferable skills that our students should master in order to engage in more challenging, technical reading and to develop their proficiency in informational and argumentative writing.
#1 Skill: Argumentation, Evidence, Causation
In order to construct a persuasive and well-substantiated point of view, the girls learn how to cultivate argumentation, properly and ethically use evidence, and understand the concept of causation. With these skills, they gain an appreciation for the complex cause and effect that underlies historical and societal developments.
#2 Skill: Sourcing, Evidence, Corroboration, Perspectives
Ethical sourcing, evidence analysis, corroboration, and the identification of multiple perspectives help our students critically evaluate sources and consider multiple viewpoints. This not only enhances their understanding of historical events but also equips them with the tools needed to navigate the information-rich landscape of the modern world.
#3 Skill: Historical Interpretation, Contextualization, Chronological Reasoning
Agnes Irwin students learn to place historical events and developments within broader contexts which equips them to understand how various factors interplay over time. This skill is crucial for making sense of the intricacies of history and society, to draw meaningful conclusions from historical data and to see the links between past and present.
PREK TO 12 HISTORY/SOCIAL SCIENCE CURRICULUM
This school year, social studies was reintegrated into the Lower School homeroom classes using the program InquireEd which is an inquiry-based approach, allowing students to engage in investigations and make real world connections developing key transferable skills to include use of evidence and understanding causation as they begin to understand the complex web of cause and effect that underlies historical and societal developments.
The fourth grade began the year investigating the question, “How should we use the natural resources of The United States?” In our first inquiry, the girls defined what natural resources are, investigated regions of the United States, learned about sustainability, explored the use of natural resources, and used real life national events, such as the Dust Bowl, as case studies. They concluded the unit with a call to action in which they share what they learned throughout the inquiry and consider community changes that could be changed. Students made 3D replicas of natural resources in particular regions, 2D graphic designs and artwork, and public service announcements with written brochures.
Throughout their four years in our Middle School, history students at Agnes Irwin begin to see the threads that connect societies across time and place. By the time they are approaching the Upper School, they have a firm grasp of history’s role in shaping a diverse and interconnected world, and a mastery of foundational research and writing skills. They understand the global impact of historical developments and recognize the shared human experiences that unite diverse cultures.
Starting in fifth grade, students begin to understand the history of civilization. The first significant research project centers around mythology in ancient civilizations – the girls learn how to identify credible sources, create a formal bibliography, and synthesize their work into a formal presentation. In the sixth grade, the curriculum is designed to integrate history with the arts as the curriculum builds towards an end-of-year Medieval Day performance that showcases their year-long endeavor to broaden their perspectives. In seventh grade, students explore the interconnection of world cultures, enhancing their global perspective and cultural understanding. This paves the way for the eighth grade, where students are given increased project choice and independence, which allows them to engage deeply with topics such as immigration and civil rights.
The Upper School history curriculum emphasizes critical thinking and research methods, among many other skills, while aiming to equip students with the skills to analyze sources and navigate biases in the age where students increasingly rely on social media for their information.
Our curriculum explores a wide range of cultures and historical events, while recognizing the value of student choice in cultivating engaged, lifelong learners. Ninth-grade Global History I culminates with a deeper look at 19th-century imperialism. Students choose a method to demonstrate their knowledge such as a poster, magazine article, social media account, or a TED talk. In Global History II, tenth grade students examine many sources and develop arguments to prepare for a mock trial on the Russian, Mexican, or Chinese Revolution to explore the question: “How effective are revolutions at improving people’s lives?” By eleventh grade, students are digging deeply into American history, and in one unit, explore historical memory and monuments. In another, they pick a counter-culture movement to research and become an expert in to share with the class via infographics.
Finally, our Honors Capstone program offers any eleventh or twelfth grade student the chance to delve into scholarly work on a chosen topic and write an extensive research paper that they then connect to an urgent local or global problem and propose a solution to share with the AIS community. Some previous topics have included (with the class in parentheses): Protesting Asian Beauty Standards (History of Women’s Protest and Human Rights) Nazi Linguistics and the Danger of Language Prescription (Rise of the Third Reich and the Holocaust) and The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative: Failures and its Impact on Geopolitical Stability (International Relations).
The impact of our curriculum strategy is not merely theoretical; it's tangible. It can be seen in the thoughtful discussions of our students, the projects they undertake, and the depth of understanding they exhibit. Our impact is measured in the growth of individuals who emerge from our school not just with knowledge, but with the ability to think critically, respect diverse perspectives, and contribute meaningfully to the world.
Dr. Elizabeth Rossini, Assistant Head of School
Jake Greenberg, Chair of the History and Social Sciences Department
Krysta Zadroga, Upper/Middle School History
Lauren Sweetser ’08, Middle School History
Caitlin Sweeney ’99, Lower School Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator, 4th Grade