06 February 2010

History Teachers of the Future

This is an interesting piece on Islamic perspectives of history and it spurred the thoughts that follow.


Perhaps it is because of my age or point in my career, but I've been thinking a lot lately about what history education is going to look like 10 years from now, 20 years from now, and so forth. I'm becoming more and more convinced that if you are looking at another 15 years in your career, what we are doing now will look like "Abraham Lincoln writing on a piece of slate by candlelight" to our colleagues (or us if we're still teaching). Here's a couple things to think about:

First, the increasingly diverse population of America will demand a more complex approach to history education. We experience this in the school district I teach in when we have frank discussions of American Indian perspectives and how those are best infused into our classrooms. Corresponding with that will be the great challenge of retaining some sort of "American" narrative that provides some semblence of unity for the population, the citizenry. I am increasingly convinced that governing in this environment is becoming more and more challenging and the pressures on political leaders will be enormous. Think about the power that Fox News and AM talk radio, for example, has had on the image of Obama in the past 12 months. 63% of self-identified Republicans believe that he is a bonafide Socialist, according to a recent survey that is considered credible. 39% believe he should be impeached. I site these statistics as an example of how the political narrative can be changed by media outlets in a dramatic way in a very short period of time. Whether one supports Obama or not, it is symptomatic of our charged environment that this has happened. To put this in context, realize that since the late 19th Century, for any mainstream American politician to be labeled a "Socialist" is politically devastating. Now the charge is out there and we are witnessing the "echo chamber" effect and if people hear all of this enough, they start believing it. The President is a pragmatic politician (most of them are) who has people from the left wing of his party upset at him as much (or more in some cases) than his Republicans foes. How do we help students navigate the complex media environment that we are dealing with? The kids that sit in front of me every day are having a lot of difficulty sorting all this out. (sidenote: I also think Obama illustrates the incredible naivity that voters often have about the ability of one person to "fix" the problems facing the nation -- and certainly, politicians who are seeking office do a lot to promote this type of thinking. It inevitably leads to disappointment). Realize also that both parties use these tactics to drive their narrative and we end up with "parallel universes" in which, as one man told me recently, we are unable to talk to each other about political issues because our ideas have become fixed. Hence, the "straw man" fallacy of argument drives the debate -- each side defines the other in the most extreme terms possible, leading to the sense that we are completely polarized. One question I'm left with is, "what actually unifies us anymore?"

Second, along with this polarizing political environment, picture students sitting in front of us with a Kindle or some other type of reader that has replaced the textbook. The device will connect them to e-texts, on-line libraries, TV, data-bases of all sorts, video resources, instructor's notes, and on and on. This is coming faster than we realize and it will completely revolutionize the classroom. In spite of all that "power" students will still need adult practioners who understand how to synthesize all this. Otherwise, their knowledge will be piecemeal, fragmented, and lacking coherence. Perhaps it will take a generation of history teachers that are actually part of that contextual environment in their formative years to really understand it.

Third, the preceding paragraph highlights the upside to technology and as we all know, there is an incredibly negative aspect to all of it as well. The "multi-tasking" phenomenon with student's lack of ability to focus on anything in a prolonged way, internet addiction, social networking -- these all produce some major baggage for young people. Increasingly, we have a generation of young people (and adults) who retreat from authentically understanding the political culture and move into private worlds. The increasing body of research on this is convincing and, as far as I'm concerned, devastating.

How we "swim" with this new environment will determine how effective we will be with the new students that walk into our classrooms. It will determine our relevance (or not) in the curriculum. Our job has never been more challenging. What are the important discussions that we need to have with our students based on the world they are inheriting? What should we be asking them to read? What should our courses look like? If ever there was a time when we have to "keep our eye on the ball," this is it. Teaching is not for the faint of heart in 2010.

1 comment:

Hayley Lane said...

I wanted to leave a comment on your statements in paragraphs two and three. Regarding your statement that electronics will soon be prominent in classrooms, I completely agree. I believe that these will allow for kids to learn even more, and will greatly benefit history students, as they will be able to see history in the making. While studying to be a teacher, I will find ways to add this into my curriculums and find ways to create new technological forms of studying. The use of electronics in classrooms will also reduce the use of paper and everyone, including Mr. Rykken the Tree Slayer, will benefit from this.

On the statement in the third paragraph regarding multitasking and vocabulary, I would like to argue some facts. Multitasking is a new thing to our world, generations like yours did not do this. This is because you all were not exposed to as many forms of media that hit from all sides. My generation is finding a way to deal with the information that is constantly being thrown at them, and is finding a more efficent form of multitasking. I believe that your statement about my generation only having 800 words in their vocabulary was extremely detrimental to us. We are creating expansive, wonderful technology, revolutionizing an outlook on the world, and fixing mistakes made by your generation. We are wonderfully intelligent people, and just because we do things that are different from your generation, and learn differently, does not make our way of doing things any less effective than yours.