Active Learning and History Education

In September I talked about the online records management course I’m currently taking.  As the course has progressed I have thought a lot about content delivery and methods of active engagement.  One of the mandatory course features is participating in at least one online chat session.  The idea being that chats can provide a real time chance for discussion amongst course participants. 

The idea of fostering active discussion is great.  But without proper facilitation discussion can easily fall flat.  Discussion can turn into monologues, question/answer session, and conversations that fail to inspire further depth to class topics.  Thus far I’ve attended two of the chat sessions and both times was left with a feeling of wanting more.  Neither of the chats actually fostered any substantial discussions.  Rather, students peppered the instructor with questions for 45minutes without connecting thoughts or engaging each other. This situation isn’t unique to online delivery — poor facilitation can occur in the classroom just as easily as online.  It is also possible that in this case, Q&A is what the instructor saw as being valuable to students than a discussion based meeting.

Perhaps, my desire for meaningful discussion is somewhat inspired by time spent in classes where the core element of the course was discussion. Many upper year and graduate history courses I took focused on student interpretation and moved away from a teacher telling students all ‘the facts.’ Personally, I found this style of education more conducive to my learning style than large lecture classes where I will admit to doodling or snoozing away more than a few classes.  

So, is discussion a necessary element in a learning environment? I’m not sure it is essential in absolutely every situation, but students and teachers/facilitators find it beneficial. Of course, lecture style presentation does also have a place in education and can work well alongside discussions.   Discussion allows for a different form of learning and creates a level of personal engagement that is often not included in more formal lecture style approaches.  Some of my most worthwhile and memorable education experiences occurred outside of a classroom.  I have little memory of what my first year Russian history professor lectured on, but I can tell you all about the discussions my Historical Approaches class had during a prof’s office hours which were held once a month in the campus pub. 

Small workshops, group tours, and hands-on-learning are all methods of facilitation which can encourage discussion amongst participants.  Many heritage organizations and public history practitioners see history education as a dialogue that tries to actively include the audience in the learning process.  With a topic such as history, that many people associate with boring elementary school lessons, I think active approaches to content delivery are key.   Heritage organizations that see regular visits from the public are in a unique position to reach audiences that may never open a history book.

What have been some of your best education experiences?  Has a museum or heritage site visit inspired you to look at history differently? 

Photo credit: My Silent Side

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