Civic Discussion, Ideological Diversity and the Humanities Classroom

The issue of political polarisation and bias in classrooms is a time-honoured one, having been an issue as old as the profession itself. Students, parents and the community, at times understandably, have been weary of teachers being biased and partial in the way they approach contentious issues in the classroom. These concerns are particularly relevant in Humanities classrooms, which deals extensively with societal issues and debates. Recent political events, including elections and terrorist attacks and the resulting divisive discussions and rhetoric, have only further enhanced these issues and concerns. As Humanities teachers, it is crucial that we naviagate these issues with students in an even-handed, calm and thoughtful manner.

Such concerns around ideological diversity and debate in classrooms have been heightened for a number of reasons. One of these are widely-reported  protests on college and university campuses across Western countries, Australia included, in which speakers are de-platformed, shouted down or otherwise prevented from speaking freely. Ongoing research has shown that there is a lack of ideological diversity on campuses. A report from Heterodox Academy, an organisation led by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt which seeks to increase ideological diversity in academia, shows just how pervasive the problem is. Data shows from the report shows that at some colleges, there is a ratio of more than 10 faculty members identifying as liberal or left-of-centre for every conservative or right-of-centre member of faculty. Although less often mentioned, there is also a problem with ideological diversity in primary and secondary classrooms.

When teaching Humanities subjects at a Secondary level, it is important to remain impartial and not push an agenda onto students. As teachers, we are rightly mindful of diversity in terms of gender, race and so on. At times, however, the profession fails to promote ideological diversity. Too often, classrooms can resemble echo chambers, where only a narrow set of views and opinions are discussed and explored. There are a few reasons why this is the case. One of the main reasons for this, unsurprisingly, is that school classrooms generally reflect the ideological viewpoints of the community in which they are situated (Hess, 2009, p.6). By extension, teachers may, without realising, internalise the dominant viewpoints of the school community in which they are a part of.

In order to cultivate ideological diversity in the classroom, at a minimum, clear, effective and strong principles of classroom and behaviour management must be implemented. Students speaking and voicing an opinion must be able to talk uninterrupted, even when raising points which may go against the consensus thinking of the classroom or may be controversial in some way. It is also essential to model to students how to respond, in terms of what constitutes and appropriate and inappropriate response to challenging ideas. It must be made abundantly clear, for example, that personal insults or denigration are completely unacceptable and that clear consequences will occur for students who violate this basic classroom expectation.

In order to do this effectively, a significant level of introspection and critical reflection on our teaching practice, particularly our manner of communication is necessary. At times, this will require also reflecting on our own belief systems, political beliefs and so on. Research has found that teachers who are willing to explore confrontational and controversial issues with students implicitly encourage students to do likewise (Hess, p.6). In order to teach students the skill of civil discussion on complex and contentious issues and encourage diverse viewpoints on them we as teachers must model these behaviours ourselves. This means conducting ourselves in a professional manner, not only in the classroom but in other avenues where such topics may come up, such as social media. In the same way we must avoid our classrooms becoming merely ideological echo chambers, we must avoid falling into similar habits when discussing contentious issues online or in person outside the classroom.

Technology and the Classroom

The ever-increasing influence of ICT in all classrooms is one of the fundamental issues facing educators of all students, whether at a primary, secondary or tertiary level. As a pre-service teacher who finished my high school education a mere seven years ago, the changes in the sophistication and prominence of technology in all aspects of education has been remarkable to witness. Keeping pace with the advances in technology and its application to teaching has been one of the more complicated aspects of my development as a preservice teacher to date. Being up to date with new technology in teaching is simultaneously one of the more important aspects of the profession for a preservice teacher to come to terms with, as its importance to teaching becomes more and more pronounced.

The rapid advancement of technology and its influence in classrooms presents a wide array of opportunities for meaningful and productive learning unheard of even a few years ago. The variety of activities, assessment and learning opportunities made readily available through the increase in availability of devices such as laptops, smartphone and tablet devices has increased greatly. Collaborative opportunities in particular are much easier than in the past thanks to the Internet and programs such as Edmodo, Google Hangouts and Skype.  Technology can be particularly useful for the administrative and assessment aspects of the profession. The ability to streamline marking processes through programs such as Google Docs and Google Sheets can potentially save a significant amount of time in this regard. In order to maximise these opportunities, it is important for teachers to educate themselves on new technologies and know how to use them within their subject areas.

As exciting as employing new technology is for a preservice teacher, elaborate technologies, particularly in the hands of new teachers can result in losing sight of what is most important, which is meaningful and effective learning for students. In my early attempts at lesson and unit planning, I am having to continually remind myself to maintain a focus on what I want students to learn, as opposed to what devices or technology I might utilise to get there. Without effective, targeted use of technology which is pertinent to the topic or subject at hand, learning can actually be hampered. If computers and the Internet are not utilised in clearly expressed and deliberate ways, they can quickly become a source of distraction for students.

There are other potential drawbacks of using digital devices, particularly in subjects such as English and the Humanities, my areas of teaching, in terms of reading and note-taking on digital devices as opposed to pen and paper. Studies have shown that note-taking using paper and pen consistently results in greater retention of knowledge as opposed to note-taking on a computer. Similar studies have also shown that reading a paper book results in greater knowledge retention than reading on a screen. Since reading and note-taking on reading which occurs within the classroom are two fundamental activities which occur frequently in any English and Humanities class, these findings should make a teacher think carefully before utilising ICT in place of more low-tech teaching methods.

To finish, I pose some questions to you, the reader: How do you utilise new technology and social media within your teaching practice? How do you account for the potential pitfalls of these technologies and maximise their beneficial aspects in achieving learning outcomes within your subject areas? It would be great to get some of your thoughts and perspectives on this topic.

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.