Hodder History Expert Blog

Technology (and the textbook)
By Ben Walsh
04 Dec
I was lucky enough to be in St Louis last week for this conference and it was such an uplifting experience. For a couple of years I have been working with a some US teacher educators, Stephanie van Hover of the University of Virginia and David Hicks of Virginia Tech, on the interesting but complex issue of how teachers manage the balance between their use of the traditional textbook and the new emerging technologies which are increasingly a part of education and, of course, everyday life. This collaboration emerged from earlier collaborations between the University of Virginia and the UK National Archives – you can see some of the results of some of that collaborative work here .

One of the key things to emerge from the collaborations is how much common ground we have, despite differences in curricula and culture. For one thing, the US teachers seem to like the Hodder textbooks! And on that front the timing was also pretty opportune as the conference coincided with the publication of my new IGCSE Modern World History book (I cannot claim this was planned!). Even more pleasingly, the US audience seemed to like the book, with its focus on activities to make students think, as well as comprehensive content coverage.  
Anyway, enough of the plugging! At the conference I saw some incredible technology and listened to presentations showcasing some very interesting research. I was also comforted to see that although there are obvious differences of context, history teachers in the US are wrestling with much the same issues that we in the UK are grappling with too. They labour under political interference, bureaucracy, pressures of high stakes testing, but ultimately they worry most about teaching good lessons and lie awake at night trying to make sure that they give their students the best possible education. What unites us is far more powerful than that which divides us.
Technology (and the textbook)

Let’s start with some of the technology, since that is why I was at the conference. I had been invited to speak to the Social Studies State Supervisors about ways of using technology in history teaching, specifically the question of how teachers grapple with finding the balance between using the textbook and using the latest technologies.

Does technology replace the textbook? And what happens to teaching if that is the case? Or can the two work together? The latter is my view of course. Textbooks still do an important job very well, and from what I have seen of online textbooks, so far they are either pages on screen (what’s the point?) or they are very driven by a single narrative and leave little or no room for the pedagogical dimension which drive good textbooks. I suspect I will get a lot of feedback on that comment from people who disagree, so all I will say is that my comments are based on what I have seen so far and if anyone wants to enlighten me I have a very open mind!

Anyway, the thrust of my talk was on ways that technology could complement the textbook. I think there are many ways that it can. I will not rehearse them all but I will focus on two. Both are timeline tools. Here in England history teachers are under pressure, mostly unfair pressure it should be said, to develop in the minds of students a grand narrative or big picture of national and indeed international history. I say 'unfair' because the discourse is framed in such a way to imply that at one time this was regularly, widely and successfully done. This is simply not the case, as David Cannadine’s The Right Kind of History has shown. The reality is that history has always been undervalued in England in particular. Another reality is that a big picture is not easy to develop, and I am not convinced that it is developed by just telling students a series of events or handing them a timeline and making them learn it. Such an approach was neatly summarised by Alan Bennett in The History Boys as ‘one ******* think after another’. Finally, let us remember that most undergraduates neither study a synoptic (as opposed to a long) course at university and fewer still emerge with this treasured big picture.

Nevertheless, I think it is a worthwhile ambition and history teachers are nothing if not ambitious. If anyone can do it then maybe they can. I have been playing about with a resource called Dipity, which is an online tool for creating timelines. I am impressed with how easy it is to use. And that is the key. If the teacher creates the timeline it becomes … well refer back to Alan Bennett. But if students are creating timelines then they are hopefully starting to develop that big picture and along with it some understanding of it. Imagine students using their textbooks to decide the key points from a topic. If there are 15 key events, and they are told that there is only room on the timeline for 10, they have to think about the events they will include and the events they leave out. And thinking drives memory. And within that timeline some events might be more significant than others. Some may be causes and some may be consequences. And if we think even bigger - what about a timeline at the end of several topics – say, 30 key events reduced to 15. That would get students thinking about whole topics but also themes within topics.
It is very difficult to do justice to Dipity in words as it is such a visual tool. This is even more true of the other piece of technology which wowed me which is Chronozoom. This is a collaborative venture between Microsoft Research and a number of US universities to create a tool which allows users to create their own timelines and place them in a wider chronological and also potentially geographical and/or cultural context. This is big picture writ large as Chronozoom starts with the timeline of the cosmos and zooms down to humanity, making you feel very small indeed. But it is easy to use and a fantastic way for students to, for example, develop concurrent timelines of events in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Or it could be used to show concurrent timelines of major political, economic and scientific developments in Europe. Chronozoom is free, and its power to enthuse students and make them think was brilliantly demonstrated by Samantha Shires, a teacher from North Carolina working in collaboration with David Hicks of Virginia Tech in a presentation on how they had used it to examine the causes of the First World War.
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