Taking High School History Education Beyond the Bubble Sheet


Imagine high school students designing and building websites where users from around the world could immerse themselves in a particular time and place and confront the problems of yesterday.  Not only could these be potentially fun and informative experiences for a wide array of people online, but the students would have gained a profoundly rich and relevant educational experience along the way.

Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” published by the Journal of American History, is a discussion by eight digital historians about the nature, challenges and opportunities new media has been bringing to historical scholarship.  It covers a number of issues and questions of great relevance to students and faculty in academia today.  While the participants did not address the issue of history education at the secondary education level, I got excited thinking about their ideas in that context.

I recently completed fifteen hours of observations of history classes at a suburban high school in Northern Virginia.  This school is considered top notch, serving middle and upper class students.  I didn’t observe a single discipline issue, but I also did not observe much divergent thinking, creativity or opportunities to build digital literacy or collaboration skills.  This school is really not unusual in that regard, and it wasn’t the only school I’ve observed.  After all, we’re in a standards-based era where content coverage is required and memorization is the most valued skill.

In order to prepare young people for tomorrow’s rapidly changing labor force, many education visionaries have been challenging the current status quo.  Skills like critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, advanced communication and listening, personal discipline, independent thinking and initiative will be key to a world where basic jobs will easily be automated and technologies will regularly make our content knowledge on most subjects obsolete.

“Give them more STEM!” is the cry of those who are clued into the need to shift from the current “Industrial” model of education.  However, those who emphasize Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) often overlook the humanities as a place for students to grow their brains and capacities for a wide range of endeavors in their lives.  History without digital media offers many transferable skills as it grows the mind’s capacity for deep thinking.  With digital technologies, history educators can take teaching to a new level.

Here are some highlights from the JAH forum:  Michael Frisch advocates a digital history that gives users a “dialogic encounter,” where historical problems are presented in a provocative and unresolved way.  Digital history, he asserts, gives us a unique opportunity to not fall into the hole of making history linear, controlled, controlling and didactic.  Kirsten Sword is enthusiastic about the bridges that historians can build to popular audiences with creative digital media.  Steven Mintz wants to see the interactivity of digital media used to create history that involves intellectual exchange, going beyond technological bells and whistles that are merely entertaining.  These historians also talk about the possibilities that new media has for representing history because of its highly visual nature.  Images, sound and video can be used in new ways, adding dimensions that the traditional monograph’s text-dependence cannot.

Let’s put this all together in practical terms and return to my opening hook.  William Thomas talks about the opportunity to develop students’ digital literacy as producers of digital products.  Just because kids today are “digital natives” does not mean they are necessarily fully digitally literate.  They are just more comfortable with technology.  History education can be one of several places where schools help students acquire greater digital literacy as well as those other wonderful skills of the mind.  Imagine an assignment where students are placed into small teams and given a list of history topics to choose.  They pick their topic, explore the content and discover the questions historians have grappled with in that field.  They are asked to produce a website that represents the historical period and place.  They must incorporate the use of primary sources.  They must create ways for users to explore this place and bump into the historical questions and problems of the topic.  Students from a computer programming class (if offered at the school) could collaborate with the history students, or the class could be taught how to use certain software.

To make this happen, solid scaffolding would be needed.  The teacher could break the project down into several progressive steps and teach the relevant skills needed at each stage.  Teams could meet with the teacher at different stages in the project for support, feedback and instruction where needed.  A website like Moodle.com could be used by students to manage their work together and each student could take on a specific role toward making the project happen.

This type of inquiry-based, collaborative learning project could be incredibly powerful.  The time it would require would be substantial.  In fact, it probably would not be doable in a school that’s under the gun with testing and content regurgitation.  However, a charter school or private school, where flexibility and innovation are structurally allowed and supported could be places to try this out.  Or a large public school that offers electives could offer a digital history class.  Imagine that at the high school level!

I think high school students would be very challenged by such a project.  It would be demanding on a number of levels.  However, with the right pedagogical design and a well-trained teacher to support them, I suspect we would be blown away by what students could do.  Digital history could take learning well beyond the realm of worksheets and bubble forms in our public high schools.


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