The History Curriculum in 2023 (Making)

When my sons were young I spent a fair amount of time in their elementary school helping with this and that. More than once I wondered why it was that an elementary school had a science lab, but not a “history lab”? When I watched the children in the science lab what I saw was engagement, enthusiasm, and excitement. How many of us see that in our history classrooms today?

One reason that we see far less engagement, enthusiasm, and excitement in our own classrooms is that, by and large, history education remains a passive learning experience for students. To be sure, many creative history teachers at the high school and college level design interesting opportunities for their students to be more engaged. But the vast majority of history classes still rely on the (mostly) one way transmission of knowledge from the teacher to the student. And even when more creative teaching strategies are employed, they rarely tap into the creative energies of the students. Instead, those strategies (mostly) ask students to complete tasks designed by the teacher.

And that’s too bad.

I’ve spent most of the past decade looking carefully at the ways that history is taught in the English speaking world and one of the things that struck me over and over was how history education negates the creative potential of students. Other than asking them to think creatively about the arguments they might devise from the sources they’ve found and analyzed, we just don’t give our students much room to exercise the creative parts of their brains. Is it a wonder, then, that history classrooms (as compared to elementary school science labs) are pretty quiet places?

With each passing year our devotion to this style of teaching will be more and more problematic, because our mostly one way style of instruction runs counter to the ways that young people use digital media. While those over 30 tend to see the Internet as a zone of extraction–a place to find information or purchase goods–a significant and growing share of those under 30 also see the Internet as a zone of creation–a place to create and remix content and express themselves. A recent report from the Pew Internet Project and a book by Mizuko Ito are well worth reading for more insight into this shift in use of the Internet among teens and younger adults.

Because increasing numbers of our students are using the digital realm as a creative space, and because there is no likelihood that they are going to spend less time on their computers any time soon, we need to change our teaching to meet our students where they live. Otherwise they are likely to see history as a discipline increasingly irrelevant to their lives.

Fortunately, the way forward is already marked out for us.

A few enterprising historians have already begun to ask what the maker movement might offer us when it comes to pedagogical innovation. For example, Bill Turkel teaches a public history course called Designing Interactive Exhibits in which students “learn how to embed their interpretations in interactive, ambient and tangible forms that can be recreated in many different settings.” In other words, they learn to take advantage of innovations in physical computing and desktop fabrication (among others) to create new interactive historical exhibits that will engage the public in new and exciting ways.

I am increasingly impressed with the possibilities of desktop fabrication, especially 3-D printing, for unleashing the creative potential of our students. Rather than simply asking our students to write about the past, we can now ask them to recreate complex objects from the past such as this scale model of segments of the Berlin Wall. I chose this particular example because in 2009 we set up a segment of our own Berlin Wall here on campus and then invited students to tag it as they saw fit. For the next several hours dozens and dozens of Mason students exercised their creativity on that wall, so many in fact that we had to run back to the hardware store twice to buy more spray paint. Then we invited them to demolish the wall, a task they took to with equal gusto. These students were engaged with the past in very interesting ways. Building such a wall in the middle of campus every semester is impractical. But using a MakerBot to recreate a model of the wall which is then painted according to the students’ sensibilities is quite practical.

For such things to be practical, we’d need to build one (or more) “makerspaces” for our students to work in. Given that interest in the maker movement crosses disciplinary boundaries, I think it’s a safe bet that we’d find some allies on campus in other departments who might also be interested in seeing such a learning environment created for students to think and play in. Working with colleagues in other disciplines interested in “making” (art, graphic design, engineering) will also give us new opportunities to explore interdisciplinary work–something historians just don’t do enough of–and we certainly don’t create incentives for our students to do.

Desktop fabrication is but one way that we can give our students new and interesting opportunities to “make history.” Digital storytelling has been around for more than a decade and offers a mature model of another way to let our students play with the past in creative ways. Our students also need the opportunity to make history in other ways — mobile apps, historical games, and other interfaces that connect learners to historical evidence and interpretation that we haven’t even thought of yet (but our students may have).

If we put our minds to it, there is no reason why we can’t come up with many ways to create the same level of engagement, excitement, and enthusiasm I used to see in that elementary school science lab. We just have to be willing to be different. And we have to be willing to turn out students loose, let them exercise their creative potential. If we do, they are very likely to surprise us in ways they never will with a carefully crafted essay.

[Next post in this series]

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6 Responses to The History Curriculum in 2023 (Making)

  1. Jeremy Boggs says:

    The Berlin Wall example is pretty fascinating, Mills. Curious if you’ve thought about what kinds of things you could teach, or what kinds of things students could learn, from printing a model of the Berlin Wall and painting it? I visited Berlin for the first time this past summer, and was awed by art on the Berlin Wall. And since we’ve got a Makerbot here in Scholars’ Lab, I’m tempted to print some segments. (Someone’s already provided some segments of the Berlin Wall on Thingiverse.)

  2. Shana Crosson says:

    I’m intrigued by the concept of a History Lab. I work at a history museum, and we envision our whole program for students to be a big history lab, not a bunch of dusty objects behind glass cases. Another successful program to engage students in history is National History Day. While not quite as inventive as you suggest, students can use their choice of media to tell their story: digital storytelling through videos and websites, plays, exhibits or even a paper. I’d love to see History Day expand to mobile apps, games and more!!

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  4. Ray Palin says:

    Within a typical 180-day public school academic year, I’d hope there’s time for some of the maker movement and/or other creative, authentic historical practice. As long as state-wide content standards and accountability tests exist, however, a focus on creation couldn’t be the foundation of high school history classes. Unless by 2023 a new assessment framework is developed, I’m afraid that your curriculum could work for a college history major, but probably not for a student at the secondary level. I hope for such a change. … I’ll read your other posts in this series.

  5. Mills says:

    Thanks for the feedback on this. You are correct that state standards would have to change for this sort of innovation to happen at the secondary level. One way to move that process along a bit might be through changes in the AP curriculum. But that too is slow to change. I think theist likely source of change at the K-12 level will be on the margins…teachers finding ways to work these sorts of innovations into what they do by finding ways to show how such interventions serve the standards. I remember when smart boards first appeared and teachers were told there was no way the boards could fit into the existing framework. Now schools increasingly see them as basic necessities.

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