Revising Teaching History with Guidelines versus Instructions

Thinking about how we can revamp teaching history is a daunting task because of how broad an undertaking it is. It involves challenging traditions, challenging authorities with years of seniority, and thinking about how many classrooms need to be reached in order to affect change. When I am faced with large tasks like this, I attempt to break them down into smaller parts in order to scratch each tiny task off the list until, lo and behold, I’ve completed the enormous task that led to procrastination because I was scared of facing it. After reading What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee last week and Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charging the Future of Teaching the Past by Sam Wineburg this week, I’ve attempted to transpose this strategy to my thinking of ways to better teach history.

When discussing teaching history in new ways, I cannot help but think about the many friends I grew up with that returned home and now teach at the K-12 levels. They care deeply for their students, but seem overburdened with tasks that don’t involve teaching, and they are charged with following instructions in teaching standardized tests and curriculum. This leaves little room for being imaginative or creative in their teaching styles. I believe this can hinder the quality of teaching. With this in mind, I’ve attempted to synthesize the aforementioned books as well as the blogs and articles from the Designing History’s Future class in order to identify a few themes. I believe that outlining themes allows for creating general guidelines for instructors versus tying them to exact specifications on how to manage their classes. Although the ultimate goal is to elicit quality learning in students, all may be for naught if we overlook the self-actualization of instructors and not address their job fulfillment.

I have identified a few themes that I believe provide the foundation for teaching history better. There may be other themes, but I believe they stem from the ones that follow. First, a few learning priniciples Gee provided resonated with me. The first is the active, critical learning principle, which essential states that everything about the learning environment should point toward an active, critical way of learning. His third and fifth principles involve semiotics. He avers that “learning about and coming to appreciate interrelations within and across multiple sign systems (images, words, actions, symbols, artifacts, etc.) as a complex system is core to the learning experience” (p. 207). He also states in the fifth principle that learning involves thinking about the relationships of a semiotic domain and being able to use that knowledge in other semiotic domains (p. 207). These principles form the most basic tenet of the works and pieces read so far.

For example, the essence of what Gee proposed in his book is repeated throughout Wineburg’s work. In chapter two of his book, Wineburg discusses reading historical texts. He states, “Texts emerge as ‘speech acts,’ social interactions set down on paper that can be understood only by reconstructing the social context in which they occurred. The comprehension of text reaches beyond words and phrases to embrace intention, motive, purpose, and plan – the same set of concepts we use to decipher human action” (p. 67). Upon examination, this is a manifestation of Gee’s principles. In order to understand a historical artifact, we must dive into its context. We must be able to, as Wineburg demonstrates in an activity in which he had participants interpret aloud and explain excerpts from Abraham Lincoln in his debate with Stephen A. Douglas in Ottawa, Illinois, understand the goal of the individuals, the social milieu of the time, the relationship between the artifact, its creator and its audience, and a number of other contextual aspects. I believe that in order to understand these details, one must delve into the semiotic domain of that time.

But understanding a historical artifact does not stop there. To interpret the artifact or text adequately, one must be able to transfer knowledge from one semiotic domain to another. Wineburg explicated an activity by a teacher named Richard Stinson in chapter nine, in which Stinson was able to transfer this knowledge. He brought his class to tennis courts with different types of equipment and balls, and stipulated they could do anything they wanted with them as long as they utilized every piece. In short, the more energetic students used them all until those uninvolved spoke up. Negotiations and compromises were made so that all who wanted to be involved were included. Stinson then attempted to transfer this to the classroom to demonstrate that America’s system of laws was created through debate and compromise. This eventually took a more serious turn during discussion as a number of moral and social debates about current events were discussed during the following class meetings. Other demonstrations of this tenet are found in examples throughout the book.

As I said before, I think laying this initial, relatively broad foundation will result in other classroom strategies or benefits. For instance, breathing life into historical figures will be a result of attempting to recreate a semiotic domain from the past. Critical thinking will come in the form of weighing differing opinions and identifying different voices about the same issues. Concurrently, this will also help refute the lone voice found in textbooks.

The benefits from the foundational guidelines could go on. But there is no need to write all my thoughts about it now, for I have an entire semester to develop and polish them. But for now, I believe starting relatively broadly should be the first step. Then, encouraging collaboration and peer sharing of ideas and strategies might allow for another semiotic domain to be developed for instructors, thereby aiding their learning of pedagogy as well. Until next week.

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