Teaching History in a Scale-Up Classroom 2.0

Or should I call this History in a Scale-Up Classroom Reboot? Whatever. I’m going to change how I teach my course in the Scale-Up room this spring. I’ve already blogged on this, but as of 5 pm yesterday, I think I’ve managed to rejigger my class to solve some of my pedagogical concerns and some of the more strident student complaints.

For those of you who don’t quite understand what a Scale-Up Classroom is, well, you need to keep reading this blog every Wednesday. And you need to go back and read the last 20 posts on my adventures teaching in the Scale-Up room. Finally, you need to read this working draft of an article that is currently under revision. To summarize in less than 50 words: the Scale-Up room is a large, active learning classroom consisting of 20, round, 9-student, table with three laptops each. The tables are designed encourage collaboration and each feeds a large monitor that will allow the tables to share their work with the class. Scale-Up teaching (with the UP originally meaning University Physics) originated in STEM fields and humanities faculty have only recently ported this kind of architecture to their large-scale teaching needs. As far as I can gather, my class is the first Western Civilization class in a Scale-Up room.  

Scale Up Panorama

I have made three major changes to my course this semester:

1. Less uncoverage. When I first designed the class, the goal was for the students to write a Western Civilization textbook. Each table would be responsible for a single chapter. At the end of the semester, I would combine the chapters together to produce a survey of Western Civilization from the Bronze Age to the end of the Middles Ages. My approach focused more on historical methods, textual analysis, and writing then covering events, people, or states. This approach – related to the “teach the conflicts” approach in the study of literature – is sometimes called “uncoverage”.

Students did not like it. Groups focusing on Greek history wanted to study Roman history too. Students working in the Middle Ages wanted to learn more about Antiquity and vice versa. Groups focusing on social history wanted to know about warfare or politics or economics. We sometimes complain that our students aren’t interested in history, but after one semester of teaching with an “uncoverage” approach, I can attest that students DO want to learn about the past. While I could have dismissed this interest by saying that it depended upon a traditionalist, narrative approach, I was encouraged enough to hear that students wanted more coverage that I couldn’t resist giving it to them.

This semester, the groups will not only complete 4 general assignment dealing with key aspects of the Bronze Age, Greek, Roman, and Medieval West, but also do more focuses mini-chapters on particular aspects of the Greek, Roman, and Medieval world. This will give them more breadth in their exposure to the past, and also satisfy a pedagogical concern of mine.

2. Repetition is the Mother of Learning. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a strong believer in repeating a set of basic ideas over and over until I feel everyone has learned them. The original design of my Scale-Up class focused on guiding the students through the writing of a single chapter. This allowed me and my teaching assistant to get very hands on with their workflow, organization, writing style, and final product. This process took about 8 weeks and the results were finely-crafted, 5000 word chapters. 

Unfortunately, each table went through this process once. Next semester, I’ve paired down the process and sacrificed a bit of the hands-on intervention in the work of the groups, but each table will go through the process of writing a shorter chapter three times.

The work for each chapter will focus on four steps: (1) Discovery: the tables will have to identify and understand primary sources to support their work, (2) Organization: each table will have to organize their material chronologically or topically, organize the structure of their chapter, and communicate with other tables to avoid unnecessarily overlap. (3) Drafts: each table will produce a draft and circulate it to the class. (4) Revision: I continue my crusade to get students to revise their work, refine their style, and avoid simple problems with grammar and proofreading. These four steps will be covered in three, 2 hour classes.  This process will happen three times for each table over the course of the semester.

3. Working Together and Working Separately. One of greatest challenges we faced last semester was classroom management. My teaching assistant and I were constantly on the go from table to table trying to help groups with both specific and general concerns across four thousand years of history and across various levels of preparation and performance. SO while one table was struggling to use Linear B texts to present arguments for Bronze Age Greece, another table was trying to organize a section that addressed the social, political, and military significance of Agincourt. This was hard to do and inevitably some tables did not get the attention they needed. This was primarily because some tables surged ahead while others lagged behind. 

To deal with this I have divided the class into three sections. For the first two sections, covering the first 6 weeks, each table will work on the same thing and share their processes and results. The goal of this is not only to share the work of tables that find their collaborative rhythm more quickly, but also to simplify what my teaching assistant and I do every class period. Rather than dealing with the massive span of history and the various issues of process, we can focus on process. 

The one area where I refused to make any changes is in how I execute group work. The tables will remain stable over the course of the semester. Students will be given few opportunities to opt out of group work, and their grade will largely remain dependent on how they function as a group. I know that students dislike group work and this will prompt complaints, but I remain committed to providing students with a better group experience rather than abandoning group work altogether. 

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