Can Digital Tools Transform Historical Education?

The most memorable history test I took in high school was multiple choice and one of the questions—I kid you not—was “What was the name of Franklin Roosevelt’s dog?” It’s hard to imagine a worse example of history pedagogy or any test that could possibly do less to cultivate historical thinking. For over a century, history teachers, especially at the secondary school level, but sometimes at the college level as well, have focused more on coverage and historical content than they have on teaching students how to think historically. They have favored passive forms of instruction—lecturing to their students—over more active forms of engagement. And many have used textbooks—either because they are expected to do so or because of the ease of using them—that offer seemingly authoritative accounts of the past that actively work against students understanding history as a form of constructed knowledge based on an always fragmentary body of evidence. While historians have long recognized that they must provide their students some kind of framework or narrative so that they will be able to remember the many date, places, names and other facts that are commonly part of history instruction, few seem to have yet transformed the way they teach or their learning objectives to cultivate more student engagement with historical thinking skills. That high school exam stands out as a particularly bad example because it was not only asking students to regurgitate facts, but was testing us on facts that have no historical significance (sorry Fala!)

While history is the study of change over time, the readings for this module highlight just how little has changed in the ongoing effort to change how history is taught. The ongoing debates are so familiar as to seem stuck in amber: should the focus of history instruction be content knowledge or procedural knowledge? What should we do about the fact that our young people never seem to have the basic historical knowledge that their teachers expect them to? Should teachers be lecturing to their students in large classes or trying to teach hands-on historical skills in small classes? Teach using primary sources or textbooks? For as long as history has been its own discipline, it seems, historians have been debating—and criticizing each other—about how best to teach history.

But it is not primarily, a difference of opinion among professional historians that has led to these seemingly never-ending pedagogical debates. Rather, I would argue that external expectations—expectations that arise from the unique nature of history as a field—have constrained history teaching and learning. For one thing, the teaching of history is a deeply politicized. History—a shared sense of the past—is a crucial part of collective identity and is central to the construction of national identities. Nation-states develop and promote official accounts of the past that serve their identity needs; as a result, history teaching in public schools is often expected to cultivate patriotism and a shared national story. Setting aside our ongoing history wars over whether US history classes should offer a narrative of America’s greatness or should explore the darker aspects of America’s past, the identity uses of history favor a focus on content over procedural knowledge. What matters for those who want to use history to cultivate national or group identity is the shared story that gets told in textbooks, not the process of historical knowledge construction. And indeed, while professional historians often argue that historical thinking skills are vital to cultivate engaged citizenship (producing people who can assess and weigh evidence, ask probing questions, recognize arguments), that version of citizenship is not necessarily one that people with political power want to cultivate. (I know this sounds pessimistic, but just look at the many disinformation campaigns that have been part of our most recent election cycle).

Beyond these pressing political issues, the structure of America’s secondary educational system has also constrained the teaching and learning of history. As Sam Wineburg points out in his article, “Crazy for History,” history teachers are typically not required to be trained in the discipline and may well themselves believe that the goal of history instruction is coverage and content knowledge. The standardized tests used to assess historical education are usually multiple-choice tests that focus on content. While it is possible to design standardized assessments to measure historical thinking skills, the existing structure defines success by how much content knowledge teachers can cram into their students. Students then come themselves to equate history with learning a set of facts and by the time they reach the college classroom, they need to be “untaught” much of what they have learned so that they can become comfortable with the idea that there is no single historical truth, that history is a way of thinking, and that historical interpretations are shaped by many factors from the evidence available to the perspectives of the author.

History education has been stuck for such a long time that it’s no surprise that some historians have embraced the potential of new digital technologies with great enthusiasm. Ed Ayers, who chides professional historians for being slow to adopt digital technologies, sees many benefits of digital technologies. He argues that digital tools offer historians new ways to reach out to the broader world, if they will only accept the challenge. Professional historians, Ayers insists, can use digital tools to “take our discipline out into the world, showing that the historical record matters, that some evidence is more trustworthy than other evidence, that context is necessary for understanding of the past” (Ayers, 513). The vast and growing repositories of digitized materials make it possible for teachers to eschew textbooks and to teach using primary and secondary sources available online. The digital turn also offers creative teachers new tools to cultivate active rather than passive learning in their history classrooms. T. Mills Kelly argues that digital technologies have the potential to transform classroom teaching by making it easier for teachers to create opportunities for students to do history themselves rather than just hearing about it. Students today can create maps, tell their own historical stories in videos, make podcasts and websites, even recreate historical artifacts using 3-D printers. Digital tools, in other words, make it easier to students to be historians and to learn by doing.

But I don’t expect that the digital turn will end debates about how to teach history or what to cover in a history class. These new digital tools aren’t going to undermine the power and presence of standardized tests. They aren’t going to transform teachers who are not trained as historians to start thinking like historians. I am pessimistic that the teacher who gave me that standardized test in high school will go out of their way to embrace the potential of digital tools in the classroom. And while the digital arena can certainly be used to cultivate historical thinking skills, we have already seen how digital resources can also be used to promote misleading historical narratives and to create “deep fakes,” or avatars of historical figures saying things that they never actually said.

The digital, like everything else, can be put to a variety of uses. A historian who wants to transform their courses and teach historical thinking skills will find a host of resources to do so as a result of the digital turn. But I suspect the digital will also be used in other ways: to reinforce the idea of a single historical truth, to aid those who want to focus on content, and to make it even easier to give those standardized tests that ask students to regurgitate historical facts.

Sources Referenced:

Edward Ayers, “Everyone Their Own Historian,” Journal of American History, December 2018: 505-513

T. Mills Kelly, “Thinking: How Students Learn about the Past,” in Teaching History in the Digital Age 2013.

Sam Wineburg, “Crazy for History,” Journal of American History, March 2004: 1401-1414.

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