I am back on campus for the first time in almost 15 months and looking forward to thinking more about teaching this semester. One of the first challenges will be the 140 smiling faces tonight in the Scale-Up classroom. Readers of this blog know that I’ve been teaching in the Scale-Up room for few years now (you can read more about it here), and have been moderately successful porting a History 101: Western Civilization class into a collaborative learning environment.
During my year away, the folks coordinating the use of the Scale-Up room asked that faculty using it be a bit more explicit in articulating the philosophy behind the room and its attendant benefits. So I decided that I would do a brief presentation on the history of active learning in history during my first session in the Scale-Up room tonight.
Oh, and I thought it would be cool if I organized it like a film strip mostly because I like the BEEP noise in the recording that would advance the film strip to the next image.
So here’s my opening film strip in 25 slides.
In the beginning, there was the seminar.
It was invented by historians in German and imported to the U.S. in the late 19th century.
The typical seminar involved a group of 8 to 15 students arranged around a table (the seminar table).
This group of students studied original documents that they called “primary sources” and shared their research with one another in a critical environment.
The best seminar rooms provided access to basic reference works, maps, and specialized works of history to help the students understand ofttimes difficult documents.
The goal of the seminar was collaborative, active learning in the service of history.
The seminar arrived at the University of North Dakota in the early 20th century at the hands of renown historian Orin G. “Orangey” Libby.
He had learned history through seminars at the University of Wisconsin under the guidance of Frederick “The Frontier” Jackson Turner.
At UND, the seminar thrived and produced the first generation of historians of the state of North Dakota.
While it was mainly designed to educate graduate students in history, it was quickly adapted to other history classes.
As the university grew and history attracted more and more students, the seminar became difficult to maintain, because it was such a hands-on learning experience.
With the rapid growth in university enrollments both at UND and around the country, new methods for teaching students history emerged.
These methods sought to refocus student attention from hands-on learning from “primary source” documents and specialized libraries to building massive factual repositories in their heads.
The best way to give a large number of students the tools necessary to think about history without giving them access to “primary sources” was to fill their brain with raw material for history: names, dates, places, battles, dynasties, and countries.
This could be done at an impressive scale and this led to the famous “lecture bowl” style history classrooms filled with bored students.
This method created the impression of knowledge – students could recite the names and dates of important people and events – without the substance derived from working together to read primary source documents.
The professor went from being an experience guide and resource who led students through the difficult work of reading primary sources, to a fact dispensing machine tasked with filling brains with the most important bits of knowledge.
Needless to say, this system sucked for both the professor who became Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and for students who began the annual tradition of claiming they’re not good at remembering dates.
It also led to the rapid growth of the textbook industry which sought to make it easier for students to learn names and dates while at the same time presented a watered down version of historical analysis. Unfortunately, showing someone how to tie a knot is not the best way to teach someone to do it.
Textbooks are expensive and usually make money for big corporations.
The Scale-Up room is a modified return to the seminar system.
Each table will function like a small seminar in which participants will work together to produce historical analysis.
Instead of the specialized libraries, we will use the internets and the resources available through UND’s library.
Instead of buying an expensive textbook, we’ll make our own textbooks.
Instead of memorizing a bunch of names and dates, we’ll actually learn how to write history.