By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education
As a teacher educator, I am concerned that I am training my students how to teach yesterday’s students rather than tomorrow’s. Therefore, I was interested in seeing what T. Mills Kelly had to say, in Teaching History in the Digital Age (2013), about best practice for today’s and tomorrow’s students. As it happens, I also recently read The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, which is going to be my university’s One Book next year. Carr focuses on how the Internet has shaped how we think and view the world. Carr points out that, according to recent brain research, how we access and store information alters the physical properties of the brain. He contends that the practice of getting small amounts of information from a variety of sources may help us be more efficient information gatherers but at the cost of the ability to concentrate and reflect on what we are gathering.
Carr’s argument seems to parallel and support Kelly’s ideas in several ways. Traditionally, history teaching has relied on imparting knowledge and analysis, usually in the form of lectures, which research has shown is not the most effective approach. Perhaps partly because of this method of teaching, history is often seen by students as the acquisition of facts and not as a process of gathering and analyzing data. Also, Kelly says that the notion of perspective is often ignored, e.g., what is included, what is left out, why it is included or left out.
Kelly contends that the digital age offers historians the opportunity to help their students become historians, analysts, not just fact collectors. Not only do more students go to online sources rather than print, but today’s students are used to creating on the Internet — not just consuming. Kelly asserts that educators need to take advantage of this tendency in order to create learning opportunities that promote active engagement and not just passive acquisition through lectures and reading. He does caution that instructors must teach students that their role is not to remix or remake history. They should not give in to their desire to change primary sources so that they are “better,” a tendency that Web 2.0 savvy students may have. However, this type of engagement with history gives the instructor and students opportunities to examine the ethics of a variety of issues that can come up in projects, from plagiarism to the manipulation of information to support one’s point.
Digital literacy is also an issue: What is good info? What are reliable sources? The Internet has made available an abundance of primary source material. However, just because a site is popular or comes up in the first few hits on Google does not mean it is a reliable source. Students must learn to work with a variety of sources and to be critical users of these sources. According to Kelly, historians have to teach students how to use information and Web 2.0 resources to prevent projects from becoming mere collections of facts. Digital literacy includes learning to use various tools to locate information in time and space, and can provide different perspectives for analyzing the material. Kelly suggests that even sources such as comments on Flickr and Wikipedia can be useful if used appropriately. He offers some simple exercises that instructors can use with students to demonstrate how Wikipedia entries evolve, how Google customizes hits for the user, and how to use reference management packages.
Kelly points out that historians not only study history but they also present what they have learned in various formats, especially essays. Instructors of history know that the process of writing, of making the abstract concrete, helps writers examine and analyze in ways they may not otherwise, using critical thinking skills. Kelly states that, according to neuroscience, there is a cognitive gain from the process of preparing information for presentation to others.
Writing in the digital environment requires different expectations from the instructor, but it is still presentation of material. In order to be an effective learning activity, it must require collaboration among students. This means that students must be taught how to work with others online, how to become a community of practice — not just a social network. Calling on the expertise of others is an important skill that students can and should learn through these projects. By using Web 2.0 to “make history” that can be seen by a larger audience rather than just writing a paper to be read by the instructor, students have the opportunity to engage with others beyond the classroom walls. Kelly asserts that a more active approach to history learning will result in students who not only know about history but understand it. He refers to Wiggins and McTighe’s “backwards design” approach, which is actually the creation of higher order learning objectives for what students will learn and be able to do.
One of Kelly’s major concerns is that students can and do use digital media. He contends that it is up to educators to help them use it in a way that enhances their educational experience, in a way that is fun, comfortable, and familiar to them while giving them the critical thinking skills to use it appropriately in historical (or other) contexts so that they become historians themselves and not just consumers of historical facts. For example, he explains that students who create their own blogs, rather than blogs that begin and end with a course, are more engaged with them. It not only gives them the chance to document their work with links, videos, etc. but also the opportunity to interact with others in the creation and maintenance of their projects. He also points out that a by-product of the use of technology is that it provides students with prompts, links, etc. that can help them develop better analytical reading strategies.
After reading these two books, I am convinced that I need to rethink how I am teaching my students if I want them to be 21st century educators. This type of open-ended teaching will turn off those students who want to be traditional teachers. However, if word gets out that teaching really is cool, up-to-date, and creative, we might attract a new breed of teachers who can and do think outside the box and are able to educate students who do more than score well on standardized tests.