Blog Post #3: Historical Thinking & Teaching

What took me by surprise in this week’s readings was the fact that not only has the teaching of history not changed much over the past 100 years, but also the fact that it was recognized as problematic! In 1897, Burke Hinsdale said “The lecture is not the proper vehicle for conveying elementary knowledge of history.” In 1906 Charles Homer Haskins examined the idea that first year seminar classes were focused too much on lecture that emphasized an excessive amount of factual data for students to absorb. Sam Wineburg examines Professor Carleton Bell’s questions of “What is the historic sense?” and “How can it be developed?”. Bell posed these questions in 1917 and Wineburg mentions “these questions still nag us today.” So then why in 2020 is lecture still a prominent form of teaching history and why are we still pondering these concepts that were questioned a century ago?!

The EdWired Blog takes this issue and seems to really focus on how history teachers go about handling procedural knowledge. Notably, by focusing on the need for teachers to get comfortable with coding, technology and digital tools. While this would allow for historians to be able to implement and utilize historical documents and artifacts in digital databases, would it allow for an enhanced classroom experience and create an interactive experience for students? Interesting side note: I had the privilege of visiting the back vaults in the Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. My first, and really main, takeaway was how basic and simple the mineral cataloguing system was- and I don’t mean that in a positive way. The specimens were housed in wooden drawers, reminiscent of the old library card catalogue system. Inside each drawer was a typed (type writer style) index card label. I believe I made a joke about how low-tech the organizational system was and I got a sort of “if it’s not broken, why fix it”. And that could be the crux of what could be the issue with little advancement in the teaching of history. If it’s not broken (or just a little broken) why fix it?

Going back to the issue of technology addressed in EdWired, I have often wondered with history if there is a correlation between the instruction of events in the past with the use of minimal technology. Meaning, history teachers aren’t really held to a higher standard of incorporating technology as they are always focusing on the past which, of course, is less advanced than the current day. Let’s take a high school with limited resources. The school has a few new computers with up-to-date software and technology. It’s an easy argument for school administrators to decide that such technology is not necessarily needed for history classes and would be better suited in coding or computer classes, the library, or perhaps specific art courses, like graphic design or computer animation. The history classes would, sadly, be at the bottom of the recipient list. Hence the default mode of lecture to history students.

Food for thought…

Was the highlight of technology for history classes in the 1980’s with the Oregon Trail computer game???