The essays in this collection seek to bridge the divide between our research expertise and how we impart the knowledge and passion we get from this expertise in our classrooms. Undergraduate and graduate programs in History are not designed to teach historians how to teach, so if and when we get in front of a classroom, we can often draw on our experience as students to help guide this work. And for many of us, drawing on our experience as students means setting up our classrooms to mimic a traditional lecture-style class that may not resonate with our students nor the passion we feel for our research. We may feel that we need to go “beyond the lecture” in how we teach history, but what this may look like and how we’d go about it could feel very unfamiliar and intimidating. While traditionally it may have been assumed that the goal of an undergraduate history course was to foster appreciation of the past and the work of historians, the work of teaching and learning today is more nuanced and complicated – as we know from being both a teacher and a student.
While my undergraduate degree was in History, my graduate degrees were in Education and thus I rarely engaged in History without also connecting it to how it could be, or was taught. My work, more broadly, continues to focus on the nexus between the two. So, while things like learning theory, SoTL or STLHE, may be new to some, instructional theory and instructional design are neither new nor revolutionary to those who have been working with educational theory. This work is grounded in decades of formal research and centuries of teaching experience and practice. I have found that engaging these ideas with the study and practice of History allows for more robust way to think about History and its connection to the world around us.
In particular, I like to use educational researcher Joseph Novak’s conception of “meaningful learning” as a way to clearly summarize principles of learning in regards to history. Novak is an educational psychologist who worked with noted cognitive theorist David Ausubel in the 1960s and drew on this work in the 1970s to develop concept mapping as a method for demonstrating learning. For Novak, concept mapping is a method that leads to “meaningful learning”: the constructive integration of thinking, feeling, and acting leading to empowerment for commitment and responsibility. While Novak comes from a traditional educational theory background, elements of his definition of “meaningful learning” can also be found in works of critical and radical educators interested in transforming schools into emancipatory sites of education such as Paulo Freire, who Novak cites directly.
According to the meaningful learning theory, meaningful learning is able to occur when three things happen:
First: The content has to connect with what the learner already knows. Learning does not happen in a vacuum. New content has to be scaffolded onto a learner’s cognitive structure in order for the new content to stick. Sometimes connecting to prior knowledge means connecting with a false or inaccurate narrative in order to in order to dispel with more accurate information, other times this connection just provides depth and breadth to information they already have. But this connection to prior knowledge is key for any and all learning. Instructional methods that connect to students’ prior knowledge can include games, reading supports, field trips, discussions, but there are more ways for us to do this in classroom. What knowledge are your students bringing into the classroom? What instructional strategies can you use to bring these out?
Second: The learner has to make the choice to learn. Another way to say this is that the learner needs to feel that learning is safe for them; that adding to or expanding their prior knowledge won’t challenge or betray the cultural or social connections they hold. If a learner does not feel like the learning environment is safe for them, they will shut down and make the active choice to resist learning. Herbert Kohl’s classic essay “I won’t learn from you” is a really nice rumination of this point. Some ways to make the learning environment safe in the history classroom is to simply acknowledge that history is personal, or that some topics need greater guidance for working through than others, or that there is content that should be holistic and respectfully taught rather than quickly added to a lecture. Safety for student is also tied to pedagogy. Students can make the choice to learn if the learning environment is set up in ways that are familiar and comfortable for them; if they feel that they can engage in learning new information in new ways without seeming “stupid.” So, for example, if we make use of online and digital learning environments or if we create supports to guide students in their reading, we are setting up conditions for students to engage with materials in ways that may be more individual to them, and thus more safe. There are many more ways that we can create space for students’ safety and choice in the Canadian history classroom. What are ways we can bring this idea of student choice into our classrooms more holistically?
Finally: For meaningful learning to occur, not just general learning, the content itself has to be meaningful. While Novak does not define explicitly what he means by “meaningful,” I like to think of it as content that has connections to students’ lives now and in the future both inside and outside the classroom in and for the wider world. Meaningful content is always defined and redefined as we learn more as historians, as we get to know our students, and as we respond to the world around us. In particular, at this moment in time we can see meaningful learning opportunities in how we are able to expand our notions of Canada in ways that Indigenize and decolonize our understanding of this land and Canadian history. Many historians are also active in public history and demonstrating “real-life” avenues for bringing history to the service of the public. History can also be meaningful in the projects we set our students up to create and in the opportunities we provide to them to bring primary sources together. However, meaningful student learning can, and should, be meaningful for you as well. Investment in and excitement for classroom practice is infectious. If you are teaching with enthusiasm, as many of the instructors featured in this collection are, your classroom will soon become a place that does not just provide meaning, but is meaningful as well. What other dimensions of “meaningfulness” can we bring to our classrooms?
This collection has brought together examples of the ways in which your teaching and learning strategies in the higher education history classroom can enhance your students’ experiences learning history, as well as enhance the ways history can be conceptualized and defined. As historians, educators, and academics, our abilities to think and communicate come down to the ways we build and develop networks of evidence, collegiality, and innovation, all of which can be practiced and developed in the classroom. It is so easy to think of our students as the ones in need of information and our job in the classroom is to give them this information. But the classroom is a space where knowledge is co-created and a thus place where we can learn the nuances of our arguments along with our students. Being open to the ways we can both teach and learn in our classrooms, allows opporutnity for your research to grow and take on new life – it allows for our pedagogy to go “beyond the lecture,” it allows for our research and analytic arguments to as well.
The collection is not exhaustive for going “beyond the lecture,” but it does provide many rich examples for the possibilities for meaningful learning in traditional history lectures and seminars. By thinking about the principles of meaningful learning in your classroom – the connections to prior knowledge, the safety for the student, and the incorporation of meaningful material – it can better enhance what we do in the classroom and, as a result, the history that will be produced in the future.