Working with the Europeana 1914-18 collections in the history classroom – Part 2/3: Teaching vs. Learning

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Teaching and learning are not synonymous. Their relationship is quite complex. You have to be aware of the fact that for example what I am writing here will be understood differently by every reader depending on his or her prior knowledge, concepts and interests.

School traditionally focusses on teaching, although we should think more about learning. Thus, I would like to take a closer look at history education from a learner’s point of view to stress the changes caused by digitisation. Of course, the table below is putting a quite complex reality in a simple pattern. Nevertheless I hope it will help to understand the changes and differences caused by the “unlocking” of sources.

Table history education 20Using the “unlocked“ sources in the classroom creates an “archive situation”. If you take this thought seriously, it means a fundamental shift of the way students can learn history in school. In fact, the concept you will work with in the classroom is far from being new: it is called project-based learning (PBL). In Germany, for over 30 years thousands of pupils participate every two years in the Federal President’s History Competition. What they do there, is nothing else than what I have been describing: To a given topic they raise up their own questions, they look for sources, analyze them and create a product to present the results of their work. The point is: Until now, this way of working remained an exception in the history classroom. Often, it is difficult, if not impossible, to go to the archives or to talk to contemporary witnesses within one or two history lessons. With the digitisation of sources, we can work this way on a regular basis in ordinary history lessons.

The curriculum is and will be prescribing the contents for history education in schools. The textbook is based on the curriculum and delivers “one” story that students are supposed to understand and to learn. Now, history education can change from this top down perspective to an approach where learning is based on the interests, questions and skills of the learners. It is all about activating and engaging the students: Not to ask them to sit and listen, but to make them do something; something which is meaningful to them. The compulsory topics of the curriculum stay the same, what changes is the way of approaching them. The following diagram resumes the main idea of this shift from teaching to learning:

history learnerDigitised sources and tools are used for digital storytelling. Nevertheless, the stories told by the students are not becoming arbitrary. There are criteria how to tell “history” as e.g. sourced based evidence, cogency and reasoning. Students have to be able to analyse sources, to identify and to discuss opinions and perspectives. History analysis as well as narrative techniques have be learned and practised to use them properly. So there is still a lot to do for the teacher. In addition, we need instruments to individually evaluate the skills of the learners to be able to help them improving.

Before finally talking about practical ideas for history lessons on the First World War, I would like to add some remarks about technical requirements:

Obviously, you need access to the internet. To do so you furthermore need a computer or other devices. To work individually or in pairs, you need a certain number of these devices. The equipment is different from school to school, though in general the standard is not to high and there are far less computers and devices than actually needed. One possibility is to allow the use of students‘ mobile devices in the classroom.

By then, you only have to provide computers or other devices for those who do not have one of their own. If you make a policy in your institution, it is called BYOD („Bring your own device“, see also the UNESCO publications on Mobile Learning). I know that in many, probably most of the schools this is not allowed. Students‘ devices are banned. Why? To me, it seems a question of perceiving these devices not only entertainment electronics but also as learning tools.

And what about this marvellous machine that will revolutionise teaching: the Interactive Whiteboard? Well, in my humble opinion, not much. If you start working with individual devices on a regular basis, it is pretty clever to use an interactive whiteboard every time you want to focus the attention of your students: for example, when introducing a topic, when explaining how to do something, to analyse a document all together or to present and discuss the student’s working results.

In a precise phase of a lesson an interactive whiteboard can be a powerful tool, however it is almost a misuse if its use brings us back to permanent lectures enriched now by pictures and films. Most of the whiteboard materials of the publishing houses work like this: They offer a complete structure for a lesson or even a whole teaching unit. You find a succession of prepared sheets where „interaction“ is restricted to the point that you can move an object, write down a word or click on the presentation to have an additional information. To me, this is not of much use. A powerful new tool is used to repeat the oldest way of teaching. If you want to talk about learning in the digital age, well, then talk about learning not about technology.

The third and last part will give some exemplary teaching ideas based on the given general remarks how to approach World War One in the history classroom using the Europeana Collections 1914-1918.

[Click here for part 3]