Q & A with Robert Elder

Raphael Li

What is your name?
Robert Elder
What is your current position at Carmel Hight School?
I’m a social studies teacher
What is APUSH and how is it different from regular U.S. History?
Advanced Placement is a program in the United States and Canada created by the College Board, which offers college-level curricula and examinations to high school students. American colleges and universities may grant placement and course, credit to students who obtain high scores on the examinations. As far as the differences, students in AP classes are expected to critically analyze historical reading material using logic rather than their innate biases. They’re actually expected to read it and think about it. And this requires gaining a considerable amount of fact-based knowledge.
Why it is important for high schoolers to develop critical thinking skills and discussion skills?
So the teacher in me wants to look at you and ask you why you think that’s important. I mean, I actually gave it some thought and this is what I would say. Critical thinking and discussion are the basis for encouraging curiosity, enhancing creativity, improving problem-solving skills and frankly, promoting independent thought. I mean, if you don’t have critical thinking skills, it’s very difficult to function in the modern workplace because you have to be able to respond to things in real-time. What I mean by that is people expect a response relatively quickly. You don’t have a week as a letter travels from one office to another and then back again with a response, typically have to respond within 24 to 48 hours, at least initially then you build on that. So critical thinking skills are really important.
How do you use these critical thinking skills in your life?
Oh, you know me, I’m too literal with stuff. I mean, my response, my written response to this would be constantly and with great devotion. I mean, the use of critical thinking skills and discussion skills. I mean, I’m a teacher and a lawyer by training and critical thought, the ability to actually tear a problem, apart point by point and think about it forms the basis of both of those disciplines. I will say that one of the dangers of truly critical thinking, though, is that you can forget that questions actually have real-world impact and so while it is important to tear things apart, Question element by Question element by question element and then to analyze each of those you also have to make sure that when you’re dealing with people that you’re you’re not forgetting that people do not always respond in a way that critical analysis would suggest a response. So you can’t lose sight of your humanity either because you can’t think like the robot all the time. Mr. Spock does that, and what you find out, and I’ve just been in the Star Trek series, is that critical analysis, Logical thought would get you so far. But if you’re actually dealing with people, sometimes you have to step back and think with your heart.
How do you promote discussion composition in your APUSH classes? And do you purposely conduct Socratic seminars or do you work discussion and debate into your teaching style?
You know, it depends on the question being asked. Some questions Students in AP level classes are relatively familiar with, for example, one example of a question which might be very good for Socratic discussion would be: Was the United States justified in dropping two atomic bombs on Japan following World War Two? That type of question is something that most people have considered at some point. And so by the time you get to World War Two in AP history, the AP course materials have allowed people to develop their own ideas or to support the ideas they already had with the correct vocabulary, ideas and distinctions. So not correct, but applicable. Correct is not the right word. Other things, other ideas are better suited to in-class discussion because students are developing their knowledge as you go. For example, most students do not necessarily have a very broad background in the Spanish American war prior to studying it. And so having a Socratic seminar on that, even providing materials ahead of time is tricky because it’s not important. They haven’t thought about it yet. It doesn’t inspire. So it just depends on the question. That’s what I would say.
How do you mediate classroom discussions to maintain the balance between letting people express their opinions and making sure no one is accidentally insulted?
First, you have to establish the classroom environment that promotes respect. Students have to understand that their their positions are going to be heard. However, discussions should be focused on the questions themselves and the ideas being discussed, not on the people offering their opinions or conducting a discussion. The other thing here is you ask me how your words. How can I make sure that no one is accidentally insulted? I can’t. I mean, I can establish a classroom culture that promotes the respectful interchange of ideas. But ultimately, whether somebody is insulted, it’s up to them. And I’m not giving out as a punt it’s not a snarky answer. I can’t do that. All I can do is try to promote a classroom culture that promotes respectful interchange. And that begins with me respecting ideas of students and then leading discussions in such a way for promoting students to lead discussions in such a way that respect isn’t gendered.