Excellence in Teaching
Associate Professor of Education
College of Liberal Arts
Right: At Mill Pond in Durham, Joe Onosko enjoys nature.
Unlike most people, Joe Onosko's biological makeup includes a particular gene—the teaching gene. His grandfather, three great aunts, mother, and stepfather were all teachers, so it was only natural for Onosko to turn his passion for history, philosophy, psychology, political science, and art into a career as a high school social studies teacher.
Always assuming he would teach in the public schools, his journey to become a college professor was serendipitous—his critique of a journal manuscript written by the School of Education dean at the University of Wisconsin resulted in a research assistantship and graduate study.
Throughout his career, Onosko has strived to positively impact social studies education and schooling more generally. His research has focused on authentic learning: creating school environments that challenge and engage students intellectually, and help them find meaningful connections between classroom ideas and the world today.
"The more time I spent in schools, the more I realized that teaching was less about transmitting information and pontificating from the podium, and more about connecting with kids through dialogue and addressing a much larger segment of their lives. His goal is to "help them become competent adults able to deal with personal and social issues, and to motivate them to find their voices and participate in public life."
Onosko is active in state level educational policy and social studies curricula. He chaired the writing of the United States history and world history sections of the newly–adopted New Hampshire Social Studies Framework. He and a history department colleague, Judith Moyer, have secured $2.6 million in federal funding over seven years to support "History in Perspective," a project designed to improve the teaching of U.S. history in our nation's public schools.
"My goal is to get students to justify the positions they hold regarding the many issues we examine, whether it be conceptualizing intelligence, deciding if it's appropriate for teachers to share their views on controversial issues, or supporting a national curriculum rather than 50, separate state curricula. I want them to develop the analytic tools—and confidence—to examine and critique ideas and points of view that are being advocated by experts," Onosko says.
He also wants students to understand that most topics in education involve numerous contested issues. Experts and concerned citizens disagree on the facts, value priorities, remedies, and compromises. "This is generally somewhat of an awakening for them," he says.
By exploring a range of viewpoints on issues with would–be teachers, Onosko helps them develop their own philosophies and classroom practices. This, in turn, better equips them to enter classrooms where they will encounter students, fellow teachers, administrators, and parents with diverse views.
"I would like to see a social studies profession that presents, in a fair–minded way, the multiple viewpoints that exist in various areas of public controversy," he says. "I would hate to see the profession degenerate into a competition between the left and the right to see who can get more teachers into social studies classrooms."
For Onosko, taking a pluralistic, democratic approach to social studies education and encouraging teachers to have an open exchange of ideas in their classrooms supports his strong belief that educators have a responsibility to improve society.
"I think young people today are as concerned about our country and the world and as committed to helping young people as any generation. That's what keeps me enthusiastic and hopeful. If I lost faith in their potential to become outstanding teachers, I don't know what I'd do," he says.