Social Media and ‘Impact' Resources

There is still a belief in some quarters that learning in history is an unproblematic and aggregative affair, principally involving amassing a body of substantive knowledge about the past (Lee & Ashby, 2000). This is the ‘petrol pump’ metaphor for learning; the more hours of teaching there are, the more knowledge they will accumulate, the cleverer our students will be (a process assisted by the idea that the internet and new technologies will help to accelerate the flow of knowledge). This flies in the face of a considerable body of evidence that learning is not a straightforward matter, and that ‘just because you’ve taught it, doesn’t mean that they’ve learned it’ (e.g. Lee & Ashby, 2000; Sadler, 1994; Seixas, 1993). Learning in history, even in the hands of experienced and accomplished teachers, can be a ‘hit and miss’ affair. In what proportion of lessons do all the learners understand and retain all that the teacher is trying to teach? To what extent are learners able to apply their knowledge and understanding to other contexts? In the words of Wineburg (1997: 256): ‘The chasm between knowing x, and using x to think about y’. The idea that knowledge will be steadily and efficiently ‘poured into’ learners is a misleading one.

As those closer to the real world of the history classroom are probably already aware, the development of historical understanding is not just a matter of the hours spent in the classroom, or the quantity of resources available to the history teacher. However, new technologies and social media have increased history teachers’ access to what have been termed ‘gems’ or ‘impact’ resources (Haydn, 2013). An impact resource might be defined as a resource which enables history teachers to make a particular point about the past in a more vivid and powerful way, something which might enable learners to make a ‘micro-Kuhnian’ step in some aspect of their understanding of history, or which problematizes a historical issue or concept in a way which makes learners question their preconceptions, and makes them think about the issue on question in a way that aids retention (Willingham, 2009). An impact resource has the potential to evince debate and discussion which might shift learners’ thinking, or replace immature ideas about history with more sophisticated ones (Lee & Ashby, 2000). Lee and Shemilt (2004) use the metaphor of pupils being able to make a particular move towards a more sophisticated understanding of a historical concept. This can involve addressing pupil misconceptions, for example, the idea that primary sources are necessarily better than secondary sources, the idea that people in the past were stupid, or the idea that history enables us to predict the future in the same way that science provides ‘covering laws’. Thus, in addition to the facility which new technology offers to build up collections of high quality resources on particular historical topics, and to share and exchange ideas with other members of a community of practice, new technology and social media can also be particularly useful for addressing some of the misconceptions, weaknesses and immaturities in students’ historical understanding. To give some examples, Russel Tarr’s collection of recent media coverage of the debate about responsibility for the outbreak of the First Word War can help to develop learner understanding of the complicated relationship between ‘the problem of truth’ in history (Conrad et al., 2013), and the idea that there can be different interpretations of aspects of the past which may be in some respects, contradictory but which nonetheless contain elements of validity (MacMillan, 2014).7 The Wikipedia entry on ‘The Upper Peninsular War’ provides a good example of the sophistication with which historical information on Wikipedia can be invented and distorted.8 (The YouTube clip, ‘How Americans live today’, combined with the Wikipedia entry on the clip perform a similar function in relation to YouTube as a source of information).9 Adam Bienkov’s article on astroturfing (‘What it is and why it matters’) provides a helpful and concise explanation of this important development.10 John B. Sparks Histomap showing ‘Four thousand years of world history: the relative power of states, nations and empires’ is a powerful resource for showing students that the West was not always pre-eminent in terms of power and influence.11 The extract from the ‘Learn Our History’ DVD on ‘The Reagan Revolution’ which is available on the internet (together with the pages which detail ‘How we develop our content’ and ‘About Learn Our History’) can help students to understand how ideological factors can influence historical narratives, and how a veneer of academic plausibility and authority can be promoted.12

Given Tosh’s point about the very variable quality of history which is now publicly available (Tosh, 2008) it is important that pupils are inducted into the procedures which exist in the community of practice of historians to produce rigorous and ‘respectable’ accounts of the past. This relates to what John Slater (1989) termed ‘objectivity of procedure’, the rules and conventions which historians observe in their interpretations of the past (such as respect for evidence, corroboration, acknowledgement of uncertainty, exploration of the negative hypothesis, etc.). The internet offers a rich source of material which can assist teachers’ efforts to get across these procedures and conventions to students, and the history education communities of practice which have grown up in recent years can help to guide members of the community to the most powerful and appropriate examples of these resources.

We also want pupils to understand that historians do not recreate a ‘photographic’ image or account representation of the past which corresponds exactly to what happened in the past, and is the one and only ‘true’ version of the past, given the impossibility of reconstructing the past (Jenkins, 1991; Seixas, 1993). We want pupils to understand that knowledge is ‘differentially secure’ (Stenhouse, 1975), and that historians do not discover ‘the single and complete truth’, but work to get the best answer they can to the questions that they are asking, given the gaps in the historical record and the impossibility of recreating the past. Pupils also need to understand that the past can be approached from different perspectives, and that accounts of the same morsel of history can differ because historians are asking different questions about the past. A particularly important area is pupils’ understanding of the status and nature of historical knowledge. As Lee and Ashby state (2000: 200), if we are to take historical knowledge seriously, ‘It is essential that students know something of the kind of claims made by historians, and what those different kinds of claims rest on’.

For all these purposes, the internet offers a wide range of ‘impact’ resources which can help history teachers to make these points in a more powerful and effective way than when they were dependent on the textbook and their own subject knowledge.13 Social media makes it much easier for history teachers to collect and share powerful examples which might help to dislodge the tenaciously held but flawed beliefs of learners (Rosling, 2010; Sadler, 1994).

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