Historical Narratives: Why Storytelling in History matters

In my personal experience, one of the most compelling aspects of history has always been the storytelling aspect of it. While I have always enjoyed the study of history as a means of understanding the world, it is the stories of the past which have truly captured and retained my interest in history as a subject. This aspect of history, however, is often overlooked when teaching the subject in schools. All too often, history as a school subject is associated with a rote recollection of a series of dates, events and persons with little in the way of a compelling reason to remember these beyond a test or exam. Using storytelling and narrative history, particularly with contemporary resources such as historical podcasts like those of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Daniele Bolelli’s History On Fire series can be a way to remedy this issue.

There is ample scientific evidence to back up claims of storytelling and oral recounting being effective from a learning standpoint. The reason why storytelling is so compelling has its roots in evolutionary psychology. Marina Bianchi, in a 2014 research paper entitled The Magic of Storytelling: How Curiosity and Aesthetic Preferences Work argues that the telling of stories arouses an intensely pleasurable sensation both externally and internally. One of the psychological appeals of storytelling, Bianchi argues, is that it presents otherwise unfamiliar information in a familiar format. For students who may otherwise be unfamiliar with a topic such as World War Two or the Ancient Roman Empire, utilising storytelling and narrative forms of history can be a powerful way of making a connection. This can take multiple forms, such as a history book which utilises a narrative format or even through oral transmission to students.

Two examples of historians (although Dan Carlin humbly eschews this label in favour of the more modest ‘fan of history’ label) who are expert at narration and storytelling are the aforementioned Carlin and Daniele Bolelli. Through their critically acclaimed podcasts Hardcore History and History on Fire, they take historical events and figures and bring them to life through vivid narration and gripping storytelling. Despite their podcasts frequently spanning several hours in length, they have nonetheless both amassed large audiences on the strength of their narration. Although they are often referred to as ‘popularisers’ of history, their works are academically rigorous, with months of research going into each episode. One of the best parts of both Carlin’s and Bolelli’s podcasts is that they often raise pointed questions for the listener. Both podcasts are effective in taking historical subject matter and placing it in a contemporary context. These podcasts, while going into extensive detail on their respective subjects, also contain some conjecture and commentary interwoven into the accounts. This conjecture raises interesting questions, which can be utilised to spark discussion among students.

There are of course drawbacks with utilising these or other podcasts in the teaching of history, as is the case with just about any resource. Carlin’s and Bolelli’s podcasts are quite lengthy, so limited excerpts rather than entire podcast episodes series would likely be the way to go when designing activites around their use. It is also important to note, in the case of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series, he is not a historian by academic background. Though his research is thorough, there are occasionally gaps and errors in his account, which Carlin himself readily admits. As a result I would caution against utilising his podcasts as a main resource to build a unit of work around. His podcasts are still a great supplementary resource however, especially as an engagement tool for students.

With these factors in mind, the Hardcore History and History On Fire podcast series are well worth considering using in a classroom context. They are accessible, engaging and thought-provoking, combining academic rigour with engaging narration and historical perspectives which are nuanced and also provocative at times. Combined with more traditional teaching materials, I firmly believe Dan Carlin’s and Daniele Bolelli’s history podcasts have a place as a teaching resource in any History classroom.

Advertisements

The Inquiry Approach, Direct Instruction and Teaching the Humanities

The idea of inquiry, or a student-driven approach to learning, is a fundamental one in modern Humanities education. As the predominant method of teaching the Humanities, it is important to closely scrutinise its effectiveness of the inquiry method of teaching. The inquiry method has a few key characteristics. Firstly, it is a student-directed form of learning, involving minimal guidance from the teacher. Secondly, students solve ‘authentic’ or real-world problems through investigation This method, particularly among University educators of Humanities teachers is taught also exclusively, at the expense of more teacher-directed approaches. Inquiry-based teaching has something of a ‘sacred-cow’ status within the education of Humanities teachers. It is taught virtually uncritically in university teaching courses. Inquiry-based learning is also embedded within the Australian Curriculum for History, effectively mandating its use in the classroom by teachers. Despite this, educational research casts doubt on claims on the superiority of inquiry-based learning.

There is mounting evidence that the inquiry approach may not be the most effective way for students to learn. This evidence applies across all subjects, but is a particularly relevant finding for the Humanities, where inquiry-based models of learning are particularly prominent. As is the case in any subject area, content knowledge and understanding is essential to any in-depth understanding of Humanities concepts. In the case of History, this means learning about key dates, persons, events and more. The simplest way to do this is typically to have the teacher simply tell the students this, or have students work through a textbook to familiarise themselves with key historical concepts and knowledge. This direct-instruction based approach is often dismissed as being boring or not engaging for students, and as a result is not always seen as an effective or worthwhile way of instructing students.

The insistence on lessons always being exciting and fun from a students’ perspective, as David Didau argues in a recent post on education website Learning Spy, is potentially misguided. The conventional wisdom is that if students are engaged through ‘entertaining’ lessons, learning will inevitably be enhanced. However, recent research suggests that this may not be the case. Indeed, it is more likely that improved performance and success is what enhances a student’s motivation and enjoyment of a subject, not the other way around as assumed. For teachers, the implication of this is simple. The focus should be on the subject content and teaching it effectively, even if that involves approaches other than ‘inquiry’ based learning.

One of the arguments against inquiry-based learning is that novice learners of a subject are not equipped to both learn new information and apply it to complex scenarios simultaneously, as is what occurs in inquiry-based learning. Cognitive science has shown that children, particularly in the initial stages of learning, learn much more effectively through extensive guided instruction. Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) argue that the inquiry method places an excess pressure on working memory in children, which becomes detrimental to meaningful learning in the long term. The most efficient learning, studies show, occurs when students are given examples, in-depth explanation followed by activities which closely replicate the information given. In the case of history, this means answering specific questions, guided by a teacher. Only when a significant amount of knowledge has been built up can students be expected to effectively utilise inquiry approaches to learning in History. Research by Professor John Hattie has also shown a much stronger correlation between direct instruction and student achievement than inquiry or problem-based learning approaches and achievement. In this research, factors such as teacher feedback, direct instruction and formative evaluation has shown the strongest correlation to student achievement across all subjects. By contrast, inquiry-based learning has relatively little positive correlation to student achievement.

To be clear, engaging lessons are an important part of teaching. The inquiry approach, by extension, clearly has some place in the Humanities classroom. In order for it to be effective, however, students must first have a strong foundation of knowledge. Without this, students have a severely diminished capacity to learn effectively through inquiry.

In Defense of Teaching the Literary Canon

In a recent tutorial for my Secondary Teaching class at university, the topic of classic and canonical texts, that is, influential and foundational texts for subjects and disciplines, came up. Specifically, the issue raised was whether such texts should be taught to secondary students or not. In recent years, there has been a decided shift away from such texts towards more contemporary texts. The most recent example of this occurring in an Australian educational context was the recent announcement by the New South Wales government that Year 11 and 12 students no longer had to study a novel or poetry.  As a pre-service teacher, these questions of how I intend to teach in a classroom are important. Even in the first few weeks of classes for my teaching course, I am beginning to think about my teaching philosophy as well as form opinions on trends in contemporary teaching. This question was the first time I found myself being in clear disagreement with the consensus in teaching, so I thought it would make for an interesting topic for a post.

Doug Lemov, the author of ‘Reading Reconsidered’, posits that teaching classic texts from bygone eras, if properly scaffolded for the reading and comprehension levels of a particular class, can be immensely beneficial for students. He argues that text choice is overlooked, with an emphasis almost exclusively on engagement. More difficult texts, including many classic or classic or canon texts are dismissed despite the opportunities present to engage with complex, intriguing themes, literary techniques and cultural context (Lemov, Reading Reconsidered, p.16). I am in agreeance with Lemov on this point. Reading these texts can provide students with the higher-order critical thinking and close reading skills necessary for success in higher education. Learning about these texts themselves allows opens up the opportunity for students to enter discussions about well-known texts and to understand cultural references which otherwise elude them. In a classroom setting, reading well-known texts allows ample opportunities for communal discussion and discourse, an essential element of any effective classroom learning environment. As many modern books reference or are structured on classic texts, there is also important inter-textuality and cross-referencing of books to consider (Lemov, p.22).

Lemov’s argument was presented in the context of English education. I take this argument a step further, as I believe classic and canonical texts should also be more prominent in the education of humanities subjects such as History, Civics and Economics. In the context of a history education, teaching about the works of famed historical figures, such as Plato, Aristotle and Herodotus has clear benefits. As primary sources of the Ancient Greek era, for example, these texts give an important insight into society at the time. They provide an important snapshot into the ways people at the time thought about and engaged with their world. In the teaching of economics, citing the works of important economists and philosophers of economics, such as Keynes, Hayek, and Smith are again important for setting a good foundation of knowledge for students. By directly studying the writings of influential economic theorists, students are much more aware of the principles they espoused which influence modern economics and can add much-overlooked context and nuance. These economists are notoriously misquoted and taken out of context for various ideological and political reasons, so learning directly from the source can help alleviate this problem.

Many of these works, of course, are complex and will require a clear plan and strategy of instruction from a teacher to teach effectively. Teaching entire texts from any of these authors would likely be beyond reasonable expectations for many high school students. Targeted excerpts, or updated adaptations using more modern English, are among ways to make these texts more approachable for students unfamiliar with older texts, while still retaining quality teaching. Aside from the technical skills reading these texts provide, they provide cultural capital and allow students to engage with sections of society they would otherwise not be able to. Lemov, in Chapter One of Reading Reconsidered provides an anecdote of a teacher from Britain, who as a student read the classic works of literature such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet. As a result, he went from being in the bottom tier of achievement in grade school to being top of his class in university. Though being from a working-class background which did not emphasise reading, his continued engagement with these texts allowed him to develop skills such as critical thinking and provided cultural capital necessary to engage with complex texts continually at university. This argument particularly resonated with me, as it reflects closely my own personal experience. As a child from a working-class background myself, reading canon texts of literature, philosophy, history and science has given me a substantial knowledge of the world in which I live and enhanced my critical thinking skills. In the same vein as the anecdote above, this played a major role in me being the first in my family to go to university, graduate with a Bachelor’s degree and continue further study towards my Master’s degree. Having experienced first-hand the potential of reading and engaging with the classics in my own life, I seek to provide the same opportunity as an educator to my students as much as possible.

The Economic Case for Humanities Education

The humanities subjects (History, Geography, Civics, Economics) are often maligned and underappreciated in the context of modern education. The lack of a simple, quantifiable measurement of their importance often results in these subjects being given relatively little attention compared to other core subjects such as English, Maths and Science. This is despite the Humanities, particularly History, being a core subject in the Australian Curriculum. To address this issue and to help promote the importance of Humanities education, a pragmatic line of argument, highlighting economic benefits as well as civic and cultural benefits is required.

The most common argument made against humanities educations in schools is that it holds no relevance to the ‘real world’ or has a clear economic benefit compared to subjects such as maths and science. This argument, however, is beginning to change within the business community. As the economy transitions from a traditional, manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge economy based on technical expertise and overall knowledge of business processes, the skills demanded by employers are changing. Soft skills, such as verbal and written communication skills are more and more in demand. A recent Conversation article found that miscommunication because of a lack of soft skills such as written and verbal communication as well as adaptable thinking, skills which Humanities subjects emphasize, costs businesses hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Addressing these skill shortages is a top priority among all industries. Humanities subjects, particularly subjects such as History, Civics and Economics are crucial in this regard. Mark Cuban, the billionaire investor, is one business leader who subscribes to this argument. He believes that in the future, liberal arts college majors and the soft skills they develop will be in ever-increasing demand by employers.

The cross-cultural knowledge which humanities subjects provides is also important in this argument. As the world becomes more and more globalised, an awareness of world nations and cultures is increasingly important. To be able to effectively do business with and communicate with people from a variety of backgrounds, a detailed knowledge of history, society and civics is imperative. Without this knowledge, businesses cannot adapt as well to the unique circumstances and requirements of each country and society with which it trades and interacts with, costing sales, output and more.

The challenge for humanities educators to prosecute the case for the humanities is clear. As Humanities educators, we are all aware of the benefits of an in-depth Humanities education, in terms of enriching students’ understanding of the world around them and their overall civic knowledge. This argument alone, however, is not a sufficient defence of the Humanities. It is important to also clearly and explicitly explain the economic and business benefits of Humanities majors to policy makers as well as the wider community. Only by doing this will the respect and attention the Humanities requires in relation to the Australian curriculum requires occur.