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Most of the time we give you context for the news, but sometimes we are the news. NPR had a recent feature with Nobel-winning physicist Carl Wieman in which he talks about his efforts to encourage “active learning” in the sciences. Wieman talks about all of the hallmarks of active learning: small groups, engagement with the material, working through problems, not sitting and listening to long lectures. Wieman is not alone in advocating this, nor is this call new, despite the headline “Hey Higher Ed, Why Not Focus On Teaching?”

As a result, one question and answer stood out

Are the active learning teaching techniques applicable as well to the humanities, among those teaching Shakespeare or art history, or for that matter, a K-12 classroom?

That gets to be a more complicated issue, and I would argue on the basis of the research on learning that they almost certainly apply to most of the humanities because you can identify a historian … How they think about things, how they evaluate sources, etc. They have very much clear, expert decision making processes, and we have that. We know how to teach those better, but we don’t have people in those fields who have tried them in the classroom.

While many other historians have or are currently writing eloquent responses to this story, let me just shorthand all of those for you.

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If you’re not in academia, which hopefully many of the readers of this blog are not, it is not surprising that you might think all history classrooms look like lecture halls full of sleepy students pretending to take notes while an old dude in a patched tweed coat drones on and on at the front of the room. That’s what you see in movies and on TV, and it may have been what you experienced in college.

But it’s not an accurate representation of what goes on in most history classrooms in 2017, nor does it take into account all the reasons why that style of classroom might persist despite the desires of the professor.

And so, there are really just two basic takeaways here. First, Wieman says “We know how to teach [the thinking processes of history] better, but we don’t have people in those fields who have tried them in the classroom.”

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Everything he is talking about is being done, day in and day out, by thousands of historians across the country, in community colleges and Ivies, in small classrooms and large.

Historians have been doing those things for ages because they are the methods of our discipline. Despite the persistent stereotype, I don’t know a single history professor whose ultimate goal for their students is passive memorization and then regurgitation of material. Reading historical texts, analyzing them, writing about them, and discussing them with others is our bread and butter.  Yes, people do still lecture, though many of us do it very sparingly, and lots of historians are working on how to do it more effectively.

Secondly, any serious discussion of the kind of classrooms Wieman loathes and loves that doesn’t acknowledge the financial and structural constraints facing universities and professors is worthless. It’s not just about “good management.”

To be very blunt, lectures can be done on the cheap and delivered to hundreds of students at a time. In particular, if you are a publicly-supported university and have seen your state appropriations decline and then plummet, this is appealing, even if there is abundant research to support other methods of learning. In the throes of the recent recession, there was plenty of discussion of the “efficiency” of purchasing lectures given by faculty at top universities, to spare the expense of paying flesh-and-blood faculty. Good pedagogy? No. Driven simply by a failure to understand good pedagogy? Not really.

When I was a graduate student at a flagship state university, one that managed to maintain state funding far better than others during the recession, I usually was a teaching assistant for 250-person lecture course. We and the students attended two lectures each week, given by full-time (though not necessarily permanent) faculty, and then each teaching assistant taught three 25-28 person discussion sections on Friday, in which we engaged with students in all the ways that Wieman wanted. When I advanced and taught my own courses as a graduate student, I taught “small” classes of 40 people in which I employed the techniques of active learning as best I could.

Were these large lectures and smaller discussion sections the “best” way to teach students historical thinking? Perhaps not. Would state governments like to fund universities so that faculty could use the sorts of teaching methods that are best for their discipline?

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Moreover, most of the teaching of history in the US at this moment is done by highly-qualified, engaged scholars with the highest degrees in their field who are hired by the course, or by the semester, often with little notice, paid very little, and not compensated for any “extra” work, including the work of course preparation. While many of the methods of active learning are not inherently “more expensive,” they often require investments of time that non-permanent faculty simply don’t have or won’t be compensated for.

These are some of the basic realities of teaching history on the college level as I see them –  from my experience at a large public university and a small private university, from reading about pedagogy in higher ed, and from talking to colleagues across the country and abroad. If NPR has any interest in talking to me or anyone else in the trenches, we’d be happy to talk, as we’re already talking about this all the time. Just know that we won’t offer any pithy answers or easy solutions.

If you want to read more about how historians are thinking about pedagogy and trying new things, there are lots of great people writing online. Teaching US History is a great place to start. I write there, and on my own blog, as does the awesome Kevin Gannon. The good people at Digital Pedagogy Lab are thinking and doing about teaching and learning all the time. Or you could just check out the #twitterstorians feed on Twitter and see what we’re talking about.

 

 

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