Category Archives: Editorials on education

“Learn More, See More”

Close-up of a blue human eye

Teaching our students to “see” our field is an essential aspect of what we do.  While I had a student recently express frustration with my midterm that tests for methodology as much as content–and, what would he need that for when this is a 101 class and he’s a computer science major–the simple fact is we want our students to see more of the world around them, not less.

History has a humanizing quality about it, but one cannot access that facet of the field unless one has an understanding of how history works.  Engaging humanity through another culture, even if it is a root for our own–especially if it is a root for our own–forces students to effectively open a dialogue with the people who came before.  But, that is impossible if we pretend to be the man behind the curtain and provide our students with a sterilized “history” that has already “answered” all the questions for the students.  Rather if we open the discipline up to students and encourage them to attempt formulating their own interpretations and engage directly with those of scholars, then we will expand their vision.

Perhaps, I should explain what I mean by “expand their vision” so it is not some empty platitude.  Neurologist Richard Restak explains that the eye does not operate as a camera lens, taking snapshots of “the world out there.”  Instead, it sees according to the knowledge of the scene already possessed, hence his expression which I borrowed for my title, “learn more, see more.”  If I, for example, brought a sailor, a marine biologist, an American historian, and a local businesswoman out to the point where Fort McHenry sits in Baltimore, each of their minds would seize on different aspects available in the scene, would be drawn to different subjects:

  • The sailor would likely notice the tides, the shipping lanes, and perhaps scan the port visible across the water;
  • The marine biologist would plausibly look for algae blooms, scan the fauna along the shore, notice the sea birds or other animals that the others might miss, and see the unwanted debris floating in the Bay;
  • The American historian would probably focus more on the Fort itself and scan the horizon for the landmarks during the War of 1812 or the Civil War, looking for the neighborhoods that were occupied or were battle zones;
  • The local businesswoman would doubtless take in the new developments in the surrounding neighborhoods visible from the point or, depending on what her business is, direct her attention to the port and its activities, BUT…

If she is a local, born-and-raised Baltimorean, she may well see many of the same things as her counterparts:

  •  Boating is such a big part of local Bay culture that she may be an enthusiast, herself, or have friends and family who are thereby having picked up something of their knowledge;
  • One cannot live on the Bay without being acquainted with the local animals and fauna, nor without being aware of the decline in its health and efforts to improve it, frequently hearing in the news, local radio, and PSAs about its conditions and what threatens it most;
  • The history of Fort McHenry is well known to locals who are proud of its place in American history and as the site where the star-spangled banner waved in the wind, inspiring Francis Scott Keys, held on a British man-of-war in the Bay, to pen the poem that became our national anthem.


The more we can add to what our students and our children see, the more rich and nuanced the world they live in becomes–the more alive!  When a person can scan the horizon and see in his or her line of sight a teeming vision of the community around him or her (whether it is a positive and pleasant sight or one that insights frustration or anger), boredom and disinterest remain distant.  Citizens are thus engaged in their community and in the world in which they live.  As a result, they can share more with all of us.

This same argument applies to the skills the field requires, not merely the content.  Seeing is a verb with many meanings.  One can see the scene in front of him or her and one can see patterns in verbal communication (which can later impact how one sees the scene).  We are a culture inundated with verbal communication: ads, news, social media, entertainment, etc.  It is crucial that we learn to digest that material effectively and critically.  It is also expected that as citizens we are prepared to engage in the dialogue, but for that to be useful the output has to be intelligible and preferably intelligent, even if contrary.

Historians have to read critically, recognizing what questions a source answers (even if that question was not already in their head when they sat down to read the source!) and which questions still need to be answered–this active reading and developed curiosity leads to interesting and productive explorations.  It also fuels useful discussion.

It is further incumbent on historians to interpret what happened in the past given the available sources and make an argument defending that interpretation.  This argument requires developing verbal skills in both written and oral communication.  This in turn should improve ones recognition of the patterns of argumentation one encounters.  (Please note, however, that this is precisely what textbooks and most documentaries do not do!  Rather, these forums provide the interpretation as fact–a squirrely thing in the field of history–not as a single interpretation that has been developed through one’s research into past sources, which are themselves often interpretations of an event and thus subject to critical reading, analysis, and interpretation.)

If we can help students to see these things in what they read and write we are training them to be successful whether they are stay-at-home moms or dads, computer science professionals, local businessmen and women, or historians.  It trains them to see information with a critical eye and ask the right questions, recognize answers, and intelligently navigate arguments.

body parts,eyes,persons,Photographs,women

Leave a comment

Filed under Editorials on education

The Tech-fallacy vs Quality Edtech

I’ve recently advocated a great deal of edtech.  My approach to education has always emphasized content and skills.  Because of this, I see a real value in incorporating technology into coursework.  There are, however, unfortunate side-effects that can emerge.

Recently, Jay Matthews wrote a Class Struggle column for the Washington Post online, called, “How computers can hurt schools,” discussing a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.  He describes the case of Melvin highlighted in the lawsuit whose English class functioned “virtually” with little to no interaction from his teacher.  The computer was, in his teacher’s mind, supposed to educate him.  It didn’t work.

I have also in the past advocated “slow reading,” bound paper books, and handwriting.  There are many advantages to technology, but it comes with its own drawbacks.  In this post,  I want to highlight the challenges.  These are a generous sampling of issues, not a particular tirade.

Access to technology
A great teacher in my area teaches STEM classes at an elementary school that has had a surging percentage of ESL students.  In her mind, technology is the equalizer.  If you were to walk into her classroom and watch her students working through a Robotic Legoes project in which they measure their designed cars’ ability to drag a load, you’d agree with her immediately.  The key to success has been her ability to write grants that allowed her to procure the equipment.

Few of her students have access to such technology at home, of course.  And, many of her ESL students without her instruction would not gain the advantage of expanding their English vocabulary.  Technology works in this case because the school owns it–the students need bring nothing but their thirsty minds–and the teacher is excellent at maximizing gains.

I advocate using technology to do a number of projects that many students simply cannot do unless the school provides the access to the technology.  Incorporating smart phones or tablets only works if every student has access.  Does this mean we will add such technology to our school supply lists?  Perhaps it means teachers in low-income areas need to learn to write grants as part of their training.

Screen time
South Korea is one of the most strongly plugged-in, high-speed technological cultures.  They recently halted a plan to transition all textbooks to e-books.  The reason for this was centered on studies about the dangers of excessive screen time.  These include brain-patterning and chemistry that develops over time, mimicing addiction.

In general, students with higher screen time hours tend to have a host of attendant health problems.  Some of these are cognitive though many are related to inactivity.  There are also concerns about reduced face time with other human beings and minimized time outdoors.  Besides concrete health concerns, such as a lack of sunlight and its natural provision of vitamin D, this creates a disconnect with the natural world which will, among other side-effects, challenge future conservation.

The reliance on getting information digitally impairs a slow, concentrated ability to read in depth for comprehension of complex ideas.  Scanning is a useful skill for a quick upload of information–I use it all the time when I am referencing a source for a particular idea or concept to be sure of the context.  But, true comprehension of complex ideas, whether in a great work of literature, a written study, political analysis of an issue or legal problem, a work of philosophy, etc., requires more than a cursory scan.

It is also an essential cognitive skill to maintain and foster.  Slow reading promotes the ability to focus deeply.  This is a basic skill used in decision making, destressing, and problem-solving.  It is also life-enriching.  Consider the difference between the experience of social media memes and contemplating a Raphael, Van Gogh or El Greco three feet from your nose.  As with much of “slow” movements it comes back to experiences.

I am an advocate of using technology to recreate experiences that cannot be otherwise accomplished.  You can use the web to create a virtual field trip even if the resources are not available to make the trip any other way.  But, the understanding is that this is a substitute resource.  Emphasis on substitute.

History instructors can use leisure activities, food, music, etc. (see the sub-categories under my Experiencing category) to recreate another era.  These are also very social activities.  The learning is achieved together and it uses the human senses, which in turn stimulate the brain and its learning.

Poverty limits experiences, obviously.  While technology can be used to ignite curiosity and encourage experience, it can also deprive one of experience and reality.  Naturally, this comes back to balance.

Studies show that practicing and learning handwriting does important things for our cognitive development with language.  Many schools have already abandoned it in their curriculum.  Keep in mind that part of the issue here is literacy, the other part circles back around tothe aforementioned concern about access.

On the one hand, learning to write by hand is a stronger means to learn literacy.  On the other hand, anyone who cannot afford a computer can still write out a job application or send a letter to his or her politician.  That same citizen should know how to type, too, because some day he or she may be able to get a computer, but until then… it’s all about access.

Some students in our area-elementary schools are extremely poor, relying on school for two to three meals out of the day (with after school programs), going to school in the winter in flip-flops because they do not have shoes, missing the afternoon of classes if they spoil themselves because they don’t have a change of underwear when they go home, and having no money for basic school supplies such as paper and pencils, let alone tablets and computers.

Teacher participation
The final x-factor is the instructor.  Technology cannot be a substitution for instruction in a classroom setting.  You walk into the classroom and it’s game on, period.  Teacher interaction has an incredible impact on students.  Buy-in problems and student management troubles are often the result of poor teacher interactions.

I can look back on my own career and identify those moments when I created problems with my students that otherwise, with a different pattern of interaction would have shared a productive learning experience with me.  They were not problem students, but I created problems.  In the end, their rebellion was unproductive but justified.  I can also look back at those teachers who had a lasting impact on my life for a point of comparison.

If it can make that much difference, think how much impact ignoring a student can have, telling him, like Melvin, to learn from the computer.  How inspiring.

1 Comment

Filed under Editorials on education, Experiences, Tech tools

Things that annoy me as a historian (election thoughts)

I should qualify this post with the disclaimer that election seasons annoy me a lot, so this particular annoyance is probably just an extension of the many other misuses of history that pass so much gas with the elections and the various stumps and campaigns.

On Facebook, this morning, someone posted this comic:

Or, a brief non-history…

So, before I wrote this blog, I double-checked to make sure I hadn’t forgotten something obscure about the history of socialism.  I had not.  Socialism–the word and thus the concept, more or less–was first used in a French newspaper in 1832.  (The OED acknowledges that the roots are obscure, but the idea itself has far fewer direct parallels to historical eras than has been argued.)  Americans have not been decrying every new or progressive idea by hollering, “Socialism!”  I did not bother to double-check the years for which the various public institutions were invoked, though I may still look up the public water controversy of 1808 if I have some spare time.  I encountered this cartoon after it was shared from the Facebook page, “Being Liberal,” but I’m sure they found it elsewhere (it was the second time they had shared it).

In fairness, this isn’t really a post about elections, so much as it is a post about the misuse and abuse of history in politics which inevitably ramps up during the election season.  The current Tea Party, is not entirely accurate in its retelling of the original Boston Tea Party, either, which just demonstrates that political polemic abuses of the field flourish on both sides of the aisle.  (C-Span also captures such abuses regularly during congressional sessions, but they do not often get the same press or viral sharing that occurs during elections.)

History can be an interesting tool for the present, but the parallels can be overplayed.  I am starting to increasingly believe that we as historians and instructors of history should spend more time talking about the Nachlebens of history to show how applying history on the present can be used as a propaganda tool.  History majors usually get a healthy dose of historiography, but non-majors seldom do, and even the history majors do not always see the fallout of popular historiography.

In the end, I find this tendency at best embarrassingly stupid and at worst dangerous.  Rewriting the past to suit the ideological needs of a platform in the present does everyone a disservice and can unduly manipulate with damaging consequences, just as all untruths and lies can be used to manipulate.

It reinforces the importance of actually learning the field of history.  Aside from content blunders, a better knowledge of how we learn about the past highlights the limitations in making parallels because we appreciate the time’s unique culture that can differ in a thousand ways from our own.  I’m not saying we cannot evaluate the past with the present and vice versa, but we have to be cognizant of the inherent challenges.  Most people who pull from the past do so without that understanding which means they have only further confused the contemporary issue.

Besides, it’s damn annoying.

Leave a comment

Filed under Editorials on education

Teachers Speak About Educating the Digital Generation

Increasingly, students are not only becoming acclimated to the digital world and its tools, they are surpassing the competency of the adults around them.  This forces us to make a decision as educators: embrace the digital world or ignore it. The option is actually a false one as choosing to ignore technology is a losing option.  The students who have access to it will not ignore it and thus education will be forced to compete with digital technology, while the students who cannot afford the technology will be left unexposed to it and thus not learn how to use it to the same degree as their peers.

So, while research supports the value of handwriting and slow reading–best done with books as opposed to digital media and readers–it is clear that the digital tools must be integrated.  This can be as simple as allowing students to Tweet about works in progress, assigning students to design useful websites on historical persons or events, using role-playing games or assigning students to create such games, geo-caching or other scavenger hunts utilizing History Pin or Google maps,  create fake Facebook pages for historical figures, etc., etc.  If you are not so confident in your own skills, enlist the aid of others, including the students themselves (many of the ideas I just suggested can be found in posts on my blog).

Don’t remove students from the library, but be prepared to grant increased access to the historical eras you are teaching by means of digital access points and tools.  Don’t cut them off from the art museums that showcase humanity’s history, but allow them use of the internet to build their content-knowledge before they look at stone-carved hieroglyphs.  Don’t give up on books and paper maps, but allow students to also explore an historical era through a role-playing video game.

Use the technological skills of one class to help you develop technological tools for next year’s class.  In enlisting their help in teaching with technology they will learn more.  And, so will you.

Enjoy the short, below, and make use of the resources and activities I have amassed at my site (including posts for retaining the use of paper!), especially in my posts in the, “Experiencing History – Project Based Learning,” category and its sub-categories.  You should also check out the resources at and  For more from, “The Digital Generation,” by Edutopia, visit the website:

Good luck!

Leave a comment

Filed under Editorials on education, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Unhelpful High School Teacher – “It’s funny because it’s true…”

Teenagers are simply quite astute, though they rarely get credit for it.  In fact, because they are also often snarky–sometimes in a playful way, sometimes in a nasty way–they often get in trouble for it.  If we, as adults and educators, can think back to our own days as students, we can read the following memes with knowing mirth, even though it frustrates us that teachers still do this.  What’s worse, teachers do this and frequently do not have it addressed in their reviews, despite the ridiculous number of man-hours that go into teacher reviews and portfolio construction.

Many of us know we did things like this when we first started out, but the better teachers evolve and grow beyond certain stereotypical teacher-student relationships that have encapsulated so many of our own experiences and sometimes seem exist in the very walls of our teaching institutions.  Breaking free from the world of double-standards (no drinks in my classroom, but I have a Starbucks every day), superiority complexes (you came to the right conclusion, but by the wrong means), and illogical twists (tardiness will not be tolerated, but I may keep you 5 minutes late) that seem to be inherent in the us vs. them world of standard education is probably more difficult than most people realize because of convenience and ease in a difficult field.  But, it does not make it just and it does not make it easier for the students, nor can it be argued away by, “I survived it, so can they,” because education is not a hazing for initiates to adulthood–at least, it shouldn’t be.

Honest reflection on some these is probably a healthful dose of reality for many of us educators.  We may never be perfect, but we can always be better!  Enjoy!

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Well, points for honesty…

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Respect–that one-way street.

Unhelpful High School Teacher

As opposed to school work… that we do in school (for 8 hours a day).

Unhelpful High School Teacher

My expectations are my own, but I’ll grade you by them.

Unhelpful High School Teacher

When is it too late to save face?

Unhelpful High School Teacher

“There are rules, people!”

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Time is a’waste’n!

Unhelpful High School Teacher


Unhelpful High School Teacher

standards for you, but not for me

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Teaching through public humiliation, since…

Unhelpful High School Teacher

time continuum quandaries

Unhelpful High School Teacher

passing the “good” kids, the ones that don’t give you any trouble, the “easy” kids

Unhelpful High School Teacher

added motivation…

Unhelpful High School Teacher


Unhelpful High School Teacher

Be creative… but stay in the box.

Unhelpful High School Teacher

PowerPoint FAIL!

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Keep it clear as mud!

Unhelpful High School Teacher


Unhelpful High School Teacher

Adult logic.

Unhelpful High School Teacher

So, only one way to skin a cat?

Unhelpful High School Teacher

It’s like amber and fossils.

Unhelpful High School Teacher

Is this a trick?

Keep it real, Teach, keep it real.

Leave a comment

Filed under Editorials on education

Happy Teacher Appreciation Day, America

Today is the teacher’s day, the hard-working educator’s day.  Moreover, it is a day of appreciation.  This differentiates it from many other “Days” that are labeled on our calendar with something other than their Gregorian-designated number. 

It is a good thing for society to remember a group of people often–though not always–under-paid, typically–with some exceptions–underfunded, and generally–if not in every case–hard-working individuals.  I have been the direct beneficiary of some truly fantastic teachers and come into contact with some brilliant minds in the classroom and alternative learning venues.  They really do deserve recognition.

On the other hand, there are some truly horrendous teachers out there.  It does the cause of educators no good to pretend otherwise.  These are those who lack more than just funding, they lack imagination, empathy or education–in some cases, they lack all of the above.  When parents complain, they are told we cannot fire Mr./Ms. So-and-so for x reason (he/she will sue is a common explanation given).  Inevitably, these teachers, too, will be appreciated, today, and get a raise for another year served in the school system–assuming the system has the funds for raises, of course.

Much still needs to happen in the school system–even calling it a system makes some part of me cringe–but there are earnest, intelligent, hard-working educators and youth leaders working towards precisely that.  Organizations that “get it” are developing aids and rewarding those teachers who also “get it.”

What are the characteristics of those who “get it?”  Well, some of the most importart are the recognition that the students–capable, competent, knowledgable citizens–are the end, not test scores; that the content is as important as the skills; that the school “system” is not intended to be a manufacturing plant rolling out copies on a conveyor belt; and, that real learning is not accomplished through an artificial segregation of subjects, but through a multi-disciplined platform that involves doing and reflection of successes and failures.  These are some of the characteristics.

So, remember to appreciate those teachers who “get it,” those who see school as a dynamic learning environment, not just part of a system–often they are fighting the system and your support is essential.  These people will cultivate students who are leaders, innovators, and contributing citizens–many of whom will not wait until the designated period when most adults decide they are allowed to be leaders.  At a time when we agree that America needs a few tweaks (or more than a few), we need the teachers who not confined to the box to help our students grow outside of their comforts zones.  Thank them and support them, often.

Leave a comment

Filed under Editorials on education

Hooded penitents in Spain illustrate our need of history in understanding culture

Hooded penitents take part in Holy Week processions in Spain – Telegraph.

These images (from the Telegraph) will not translate well for an American audience.  The appearance of the hooded penitents will conjure a direct association to the KKK for most of us.  It is, however, an inaccurate association, despite how readily we will all make it.

The photographs are a perfect illustration of how much we depend on history in making sense of what we see in foreign encounters, cultures and texts.  How difficult is it to make sense of things that are foreign to us?  Do we immediately jump to snap judgments or do we look for sources and background on what we are seeing?  History teaches us the skill.

A knowledge of history will also provide a logical intervention preventing snap errors in our judgment.

Leave a comment

Filed under Editorials on education, Historian's Journal