How have external expectations constrained teaching and learning in history, and how might the digital turn disrupt those constraints?
The readings in Module 3 directed our attention to the elements of historical thinking in regards to how they have remained at the heart of history teaching over the past decades of the 20th century. They also painted a vivid portrait of a stagnating discipline that is in dire need of change. In Everyman his Own Historian Becker lays out the essence of history and how it has been and should be approached in teaching. As he explains, “that every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in the light of its own restricted experience, must inevitably play on the dead whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind.” Thus, he encourages teachers and professors of history to not only consider the rigid facts, but also allow for the historical thinking process, model and have students practice this thinking, which may yield a variety of interpretations. Furthermore, he alludes to history being an “imaginative reconstruction of vanished events.” Becker elaborates on how, “It is thus not the undiscriminated fact, but the perceiving mind of the historian that speaks: the special meaning which the facts are made to convey emerges from the substance-form which the historian employs to recreate imaginatively a series of events not present to perception.” Keeping these ideas in mind, external constrains, such as knowing the facts and showing progress in historical thinking based on standardized test greatly undermined the success of teaching history.
Kelly’s article of Teaching History in the Digital Age, points out again that our teaching methods have not changed over the past century. Students’ struggles in the 21st century seem to ironically echo students from the 1917. He quotes Bell saying that “Too many other students take all statements with equal emphasis, keep all parts of the discussion upon the same level, and become hopelessly confused by the multiplicity of details.” Kelly then adds, “If Bell’s description of his students from 1917 sounds much like descriptions we often hear (or purvey) of our own students, at least some blame should lie in the fact that our teaching methods have not changed much since 1917.” The common vein that runs through these readings is the focus on factual understanding, not necessarily the promotion of historical sense, thinking, or practice. Moreover, some general assumptions of teaching history also presented constrains in student learning. As Kelly notes, “factual knowledge is often conflated with correct understanding—we assume that if our children know the facts, they will understand the facts.” In addition, students also assume that they know history whether it is the knowledge of main events in the nation’s history or the understanding of people who played part in it. I agree with Kelly’s recommendation that we should “destabilize their assumptions about the past” not to make it strange, but to force students to grapple with historical evidence on its own terms, “not based on stereotypes they bring to that analysis,” so they can begin to question the broad generalizations and formulate their own views. A dangerously misleading aspect of the same assumption is what James Axtell calls assuming self-knowledge, when students assume that because they are women, blacks, immigrants, or Republicans, they have a unique insight into how these groups of people thought and acted in a certain time in history. Thus, the recent attempts in teaching history guide students in the direction to “alienate the familiar.”
I believe that the digital turn does offer a disruption in the assumptions, stereotypical thinking, and false knowledge and offers a new way to investigate history with an open mind and with a fresh look at people even if things don’t make sense at first. Wineburg, in addition, offers his assessment of the changing scene for teaching history in the future: those who teach it must know it, the “great human interest” of history must translate into the classroom activities, and reconsider the way we assess historical thinking. Teaching history in the digital age allows access to multitudes of information, documents, primary sources, interviews, images, and more at a mouse click away. The abundance that surrounds factual history not only makes it more interesting or makes history come alive, but it also enables students to expand their thinking, the way they experience, compare, or question certain aspects of events or reactions of people.
While Levesque offers a definition: “Historical thinking is, indeed, far more sophisticated and demanding than mastering substantive (content) knowledge, in that it requires the acquisition of such knowledge to understand the procedures employed to investigate its aspects and conflicting meanings …”He also adds that “To think historically is thus to understand how knowledge has been constructed and what it means. Without such sophisticated insight into ideas, peoples, and actions, it becomes impossible to adjudicate between competing versions (and visions) of the past.” Technology aids us in helping students achieve that desired sophisticated insight, as Kelly concludes in his article, “The best way to use digital media to teach them[students] … to create learning opportunities that make it possible for our students to do history—to practice it as we practice it—to help them make history, using their own creative impulses, rather than simply giving us what they hope is the correct answer to a question we have posed.” Although technology is not the sole solution for eradicating teaching problems, it could however offer more resources and a new way of teaching, learning, and assessing historical knowledge that may direct our children to become the kinds of citizens we want and need for the future.
Becker, Carl L. “Everyman His Own Historian.” American Historical Review 37, no. 2. December 29, 1931. p. 221–36.
Kelly, T. Mills. “Teaching History in the Digital Age.” Digital Humanities. 2013.
Wineburg, Sam. “Crazy for History.” The Journal of American History 90, no. 4. March 2004.