This is the first part of a planned two-part posting where I discuss the value of computers in schools. Unlike a lot of other posts that I’ve seen around the internet, I’m going to try to give the perspective of the teacher in the classroom, dealing with the day to day challenges and celebrating the successes as they rise; in other words, I’m trying to give a very ‘warts and all’ view of what it means. An important point: when I write ‘computers’, I really mean any kind of mobile, personal device – and I’m going to restrict my discussion to 1:1 devices, rather than computer labs – do schools still have computer labs? In particular, I’ll be talking about my own experiences teaching Year 7 History with 1:1 iPads in Australia, which is a new innovation at my school this year.
History is a complex topic. Once students move beyond their concern that it’s all about dates, places and faces (as in ‘who discovered this? Or who won the battle of that? Or where is this?), a whole world of scholarship, study and fascination opens up to many students. And it’s not the dry old, dusty study that so many people characterise history as – I mean, take The History Channel as an example of the general public’s continuing fascination with historical events and people if you want to see that people remain interested in historical things long after they leave school.
The problem with history in schools is twofold, though. (Actually, there are probably a lot more than two problems with history teaching, but I’ll stick to two for this post). History doesn’t really have a starting point – you just kind of get thrown in at the deep end with any kind of study. You want to look at WW2? Well, that’s fine, but it kind of helps to have some understanding of WW1, in order to get the most out of it. Or you want to look at the Romans? Okay, but that’s going to necessitate at least a slight knowledge of the Greeks. And so on. It’s very hard to cut out little parcels of history to study as complete blocks.
The second problem is that it’s not a simple subject to study. Unlike Mathematics, for example, where there is a fairly rigid definition of right or wrong, history is really the study of competing ideas and theories. It’s filled with questions of validity and doubt – why is that person’s opinion more important than another person’s? Why do we look at this culture as a historical study, but not this one? And, underpinning all of that, there are questions of morality – what was the right thing to do in this instance? Should this person be condemned or celebrated?
Strangely enough, though, it is these two uses that make history so well suited to the use of computers. I’ll write about that in my next post.