Learning How to Teach History in a Digital Age

[This post originally appeared at ProfHacker.]

You only have to read a few of Mills Kelly’s posts at his blog Edwired to pick up on his overarching argument: historians should pay as careful attention to scholarship on teaching as they do to the scholarship in their fields of research. There is a growing body of “Scholarship on Teaching and Learning,” demonstrating, for example, that lecturing is the least effective method of teaching. Kelly contends that historians “have remained stubbornly ignorant of the history of teaching and learning in our discipline.” In his recent book, Kelly provides his own contribution to this scholarly literature with a book focused on the pressing question of how we should go about Teaching History in the Digital Age.*

Kelly has organized his book around a series of gerunds: thinking, finding, analyzing, presenting, and making. These actions are the constituent parts of teaching students how to think like a historian. This basic taxonomy of skills is common ground for all historians, though presenting and making as substitutes for the more typical writing may come as some surprise. Kelly takes up these modes of the historian’s process in turn and considers the new possibilities and potential pitfalls for each in our digital age.

The “thinking” chapter discusses how to teach historical thinking, as opposed to the content or coverage model. This chapter is the anchor for all the others, since it lays out the idea that students should be learning to be like a historian rather than absorbing content. This idea is perhaps not controversial, but Kelly points out that it has not often been implemented. Evidence from American Historical Association surveys and other sources show that fewer than half of history syllabuses assign online primary sources. The difficulty, as with so many things digital, is in the implementation.

Implementing these ideas about teaching history is the theme of the remaining chapters. The “finding” chapter is about how history teachers can transition from the “pedagogy of scarcity” to a pedagogy of abundance, when millions of high quality sources are available online. This chapter is about not just teaching students to find sources but also helping them to evaluate what they’ve found. In the “analyzing” chapter, Kelly discusses what students can do with sources once they’ve found them. This chapter combines the skill of historical interpretation of sources with marking up texts with XML and displaying them with GIS. The “presenting” chapter begins with the idea that the way prose is written and consumed has changed, and that the standard course paper is poor preparation for the kinds of writing students will actually do. This chapter explores other ways of turning research into a worthwhile product, from blogs to online exhibits. The final chapter, “making,” discusses the possibilities for students to create historical products, and also how to guide them. The chapter has a fundamental optimism, backed by experience, that students will learn when they are encouraged to make history for themselves.

History teachers will come to this book with varying levels of technical competence. Some readers will be new to the digital age themselves, others will already feel at home with APIs and computer code. This book is no tutorial in how to use HTML, but beginning users will find Kelly’s explanation of the ideas behind technologies like HTML and XML useful. But readers who already understand these concepts need not skip over such passages, since they will find them a model of how to explain these technologies lucidly to their own students.

The question of how to teach history in a digital age is often contentious. On the one side, the old guard thinks the professional standards history is in mortal danger from flash-in-the-pan challenges by the digital that are all show and no substance. On the other side, the self-styled “disruptors” offer over-blown rhetoric about how digital technology has changed everything while the moribund profession obstructs all progress in the name of outdated ideals. At least, that’s a parody (maybe not much of one) of how the debate proceeds. I suspect that both supporters and opponents of the digital share more disciplinary common ground than either admits. Kelly is certainly no stranger to the controversy, having provoked a lot of ire, some reasoned discourse, and, judging by student evaluations, some learning with his courses on “Lying About the Past.” But this book is a demonstration that both sides share the same historian’s concern about sources and the past. Kelly tells an anecdote about a student who re-scored 1940s news reels with Mozart’s Requiem and the music from Jaws and how difficult it was to persuade students why historians could not consider such a re-mixed source “better” than the original. Nor does this book promise a technological utopia, since Kelly writes that “technology is never the answer to a teaching problem.”

This book is intended for historians. Most of the pedagogical problems that it discusses are closely linked to history, if not unique to it. Teachers in other disciplines will want to write their own guides to teaching in a digital age, but in the meantime there is much in this book that other disciplines can profit from.

Finally, the bibliography is a helpful guide to the current state of the scholarship of teaching and learning in history. If, like me, you feel the need to get up to speed on this field, you could do worse than to use this bibliography as a guide to the key contributions.

For all the importance of the scholarship on teaching and learning, teaching is still a craft learned primarily through experience. Kelly’s experience with teaching with the digital since 1996 is another feature that comes out in this book. And while you’re gaining experience in teaching, this book is a good way to borrow some experience for yourself.

* The book is available in hardcover and e-book from the University of Michigan Press, and also in a free Creative Commons licensed web version.