Tag Archives: ISSOTL

A Terrible Tip

In the December 2012 edition of the AHA’s newsletter Perspectives, Patricia Limerick, the new Vice President of the Teaching Division, announced a new Association project, “Tipping Points for Teaching.” The project, as described by Limerick, has two main goals: to (a) gather and curate teaching tips from AHA members that can then be disseminated via a web interface, and (b) to somehow use these examples of teaching to help persuade “voters and public officials to recognize the value of face-to-face education…”

I will admit that there might be some benefit that accrues from collecting and disseminating exemplary teaching exercises that members might contribute to the website. But on the whole, I think this whole effort is a terrible idea.

Because calling something a terrible idea is a pretty blunt statement, I want to be very specific as to the reasons for my criticism.

The AHA is the largest and most important organization representing historians in the United States, so any AHA project signals to not only members, but to the historical profession, and the general public what the Association considers to be important work. The message of this project, at least as it is described in Perspectives, is that teaching about the past can best be improved by gathering and disseminating “tips.” Such a stance devalues teaching as an intellectual enterprise, reducing it instead to a cluster of skills that can be learned through imitation, and worse, essentially ignores two decades of research in the scholarship of teaching and learning in history – an effort that the Association has fairly consistently supported throughout those two decades.

As described, “Tipping Points in Teaching” makes no mention of the pioneering work on teaching and learning history of American scholars such as Sam Wineberg, David Pace, Leah Shopkow, Lendol Calder, Robert Bain, Keith Erekson, and Laura Westhoff, or of our colleagues in the UK, Paul Hyland, Sarah Richardson, and Alan Booth, or of Stéphane Lévesque and Peter Seixas in Canada, or of Sean Brawley in Australia. Nor does the site’s workflow diagram offer any hope that the work of these scholars will have any place in the website. In other words, those AHA members coming to this website will have no way of accessing the most important research on the subject they are interested in.

Imagine if the AHA announced a new project focused on the analysis of an important historical topic and invited members to contribute their best public lectures on this topic in lieu of essays that cited evidence to support the author’s conclusions. There would be howls from across the country that these lectures offered nothing of substance – artful presentations, perhaps, but no substance. But because the subject of this project is teaching it is somehow okay to resort to collecting “tips”?

A second problem with this idea has to do with the goal of promoting the benefits of face-to-face teaching. If the Association’s goal is to somehow stave off what I’ve termed the Online Course Tsnami, a website offering visitors a database of exemplary teaching exercises is about the worst way I can imagine going about this defense of face-to-face instruction. I’m sorry, but a database of inspiring teaching tips is going to convince exactly no one that face-to-face instruction is too wonderful to be replaced by online delivery systems.

No amount of assurance by otherwise excellent teachers that their students really “got it” in class is going to convince skeptics that face-to-face instruction is better than online instruction. The case for face-to-face instruction needs to be made with data derived from research, or not made at all. Data driven research on learning outcomes is what will make the case, and nothing less.

If the Association’s intention really is to put its weight behind a defense of face-to-face instruction, then the funds the Association plans to spend on the Tipping Points project would be much better spent sponsoring serious research that has the potential to demonstrate how learning outcomes differ in face-to-face and online educational environments. Or, failing that, the AHA should use its resources to help a team of scholars secure grant funding to conduct these sorts of studies.

Finally, the way this project has been described in Perspectives betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Internet works. Once upon a time it was the case that it made sense to have people submit content, curate it, then post it online. But the advent of Web 2.0 changed all that. Now the crowd curates the content, votes it up and down according to popularity and usability, and the staff that once would have done the curation is there to resolve disputes, monitor for abuse, and promote the project.

Back in 2008 the Association proposed something similar with respect to historical websites. That project was never realized. As planned now, this teaching project will be hugely staff intensive and if it does result in a flood of contributions, will at worst collapse under its own weight, or at best will simply become too large to keep up to date.

Given all these problems, I hope the Teaching Division reconsiders this plan. I would hate to see the scarce resources of the Division used on a project that really has little hope of success.

After Standards and the Future of History (Day 2)

During the second day of the After Standards conference here in Sydney, an issue that really animated discussions among the delegates was whether the AHA (Australian Historical Association) was the right body to represent all historians in Australia during a time of significant transition in the profession?

Unlike the American AHA, the Australian AHA has not, until very recently, aspired to represent all historians in Australia. Instead, their mission has been to represent those who work on the history of Australia. And it has been an organization focused on research about the past and has taken no significant notice of teaching and learning.

A member of the secretariat of the association attended the sessions and asserted that the association was interested in and likely to expand it’s focus to teaching and learning as well. I was asked to describe how such things worked in the States. I explained that our AHA was both similar and different.

Our AHA is and has been clearly much more interested in teaching and learning for decades and has a Vice President for Teaching. At the same time, the senior staff person at our AHA detailed to focus on such issues, is also tasked with focusing on women and minorities, both a dilution of her efforts and a kind of ghettoization of all three subject areas.

The other issue we spent a fair amount of time on in Day 2 discussing the skills versus dichotomy. I hate this way of presenting what we do, because it’s a false dichotomy in my mind. Do we ever teach skills without reference to content? Do we ever teach classes without any reference to the skills of historical analysis? I suppose the answer can be yes in isolated cases, but in my experience only rarely do we keep the two separate.

That said, there were many good ideas presented on how various faculty members use this of that strategy to teach both things simultaneously. The richness of this discussion speaks volumes for my call in yesterday’s post for more and larger common discussions about teaching and learning in the profession.

After Standards and the Future of History

This week I’m at the University of New South Wales (Sydney) for a conference called “After Standards: The Future of History.”

The Australians have managed to do what the Americans failed to do in the 1990s; agree on national standards for history education. Many American history educators will remember what a traumatic disaster it was trying to get national standards in place in the U.S., but here the process was much less painful. Of course, for all it’s geographic size, Australia has a population the size of a mid-size American state…one like Virginia. Maybe it was easier here because there were fewer naysayers. Or maybe the Australians are just more civil when it comes to history education.

Part of my role here is to help make sure Australian history educators don’t make the same mistakes we have when it comes to standards-based education. Anyone with children in school in the U.S. knows those four dreaded words…teach to the test. The hope here is that the good parts of standards-based education can be implemented without the bad.

Given the negative experiences we’ve had with the testing mania that has overwhelmed American K-12 education in the past decade, you would be forgiven if you have a knee-jerk reaction to the very idea of tests and standards. But just because the idea has been implemented badly in most states doesn’t mean standards-based education is necessarily a bad thing in history.

And, as I’ve written here before, post-secondary historians have our heads in the sand if we think we won’t someday come face to face with state level history standards for colleges and universities. National standards are off the table for another generation, I think, but states are much better at implementing such things.

It seems to me that it is incumbent on those who oppose standards in all forms to demonstrate why they are always bad. For instance, I can make a very good case for every college history student…majors as well as students just taking a course…to be able to properly source a document he or she finds online or elsewhere. Tell me you couldn’t devise a test for that skill…

Given that Australia’s higher education system is approximately the size of Virginia’s, I’m hoping I will come away from this conference with some new insights and ideas that can be part of any future discussion of post-secondary history standards in the state system where I work.

ISSOTL 2010 (Liverpool)

This week I’ve been at the annual meeting of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Liverpool (UK). I came late to the conference both to save money and because I had so much to do at home, but was able to take part in the last two days of the event, including what several colleagues and I have named “the failure roadshow” in which we discuss moments of failure in our work in the scholarship of teaching and learning and what we learned from those failures. The session we put on went quite well — it’s amazing how much enthusiasm faculty have for discussing failure rather than success. I have to ponder a bit more on why that would be…

In addition to our session, I am here to meet with colleagues from the UK, Australia, and the US about putting together a book of international perspectives by historians on the scholarship of teaching and learning. We’ve come to realize that a group of us working in this area have spent a lot of time talking about our work, have each published a variety of essays on the subject, but we’ve never gathered them together in any way to allow a reader to see just how diverse our experiences are–and how much they have in common–when it comes to teaching and learning in history.

The closing plenary of the conference was a big disappointment for me as a historian. The two speakers went on and on about what they call “threshold concepts.” Threshold concepts have apparently taken British higher education by storm of late–a sort of new religion in the scholarship of teaching and learning. But as a historian I had to finally ask a colleague sitting next to me, “This is supposed to be new?” I remember reading work by Grant Wiggins/Jay McTighe and Sam Wineburg in 1999 that discussed these same matters in great detail, both in general terms (Wiggins/McTighe) and in terms specific to history (Wineburg). I suppose if one packages old ideas with a nice name like “threshold concepts” it seems new and exciting.

My own vote would be for a website, but I think the sympathy of the group is much more for a book, largely because a book still conveys seriousness of purpose to a larger audience of scholars than does a website. So I suppose we’ll have a book rather than a website. Either way it will be well worth the effort because I think historians have a lot to learn from a consideration of international perspectives rather than just their own local ones.

While in Liverpool I also managed to visit a few museums, including the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the International Slavery Museum, the Tate, and the Beatles Story. All were quite good and with the exception of the Beatles Story, all were free…a nice change from home. Although the Beatles Story museum was largely for the serious Beatles fan, even those too young to remember the Fab Four would, I think, find some things of interest. Of course, there was a “Beatles-Themed Starbucks” in the museum. What museum today would be complete without a Starbucks? I particularly appreciated the way that the Maritime Museum and the Slavery Museum did not attempt to minimize Liverpool’s central role in the Atlantic Slave Trade.