Breaking away from traditional classroom lectures: the future of history teaching

The Hill Times, May 11, 2015. (online edition)


The way people interact with technology has changed exponentially in the last 50 years. With this in mind, we wanted to understand how prospective teachers perceived their own formal University education. Is technology used in classrooms?

To our surprise, their answers revealed that though technology is a part of everyday life, it hasn't been applied to the way students learn about history today.

Deb, a beginning teacher in Toronto, describes her undergrad education as "taking notes, listening and writing papers, a midterm exam..." Deb is not alone. In fact, according to our results, 78% of respondents claim that their primary role in university courses was to listen to their instructors and take notes. Only half declared using computers very often in class, and only 6% said they visited museums or historical sites during their degree. These results are similar for students who studied in Ontario or elsewhere.So why are we still teaching history this way?


Back in time

On the eve of the Canadian centennial in 1967, A.B. Hodgetts, professor at Trinity College, performed a national assessment of Canadian education. In his influential report, Hodgetts (1968) painted a bleak picture of education across the country. He pointed to stultifying teaching methods, the boredom of students, a dearth of good published work on Canada, and an excess of textbooks that offered bland consensus versions of Canadian history.

Hodgetts placed the blame on the shoulders of educators. He criticized teacher-training institutions for not providing adequate awareness of and sensibility to Canadian history, resulting in "teachers leaving university to enter the profession with the same feelings and attitudes toward Canada as those held by Grade 12 students in high school." Hodgetts also blamed academic programs for much of the teachers' own traditional approaches for teaching history. Canadian history, the report claimed, "is much too purely factual, it is seldom used to develop historical concepts or ideas, and it is equally enslaved by the textbook."

As we approach the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Canada, Hodgetts' findings still nag us today.


The road ahead

Today's teachers enter the profession with advanced university degrees in their pocket. The great majority enter with deep commitment and passion, and are technologically savvy. But they have limited exposure to education as an active, investigative process. As Johanne, from Québec, observes: "I feel that lecture and textbook readings are very much part of a traditional teaching method that I am trying to break away from." This is not an easy task and many often conceive their teaching role primarily as lecturers and expert content providers whose mission is to transmit knowledge to students; an approach which has repetitively been shown as ineffective.

A key reason for this state of affairs is the educational background of teachers. In order for them to teach history or another subject in an investigative and critical way, they must be exposed to such approaches in the first place. As long as formal lectures dominate our classes, the results will continue to be the same. Prospective teachers will take the necessary course requirements and will often end-up teaching the same way they learned it in class, whether they appreciated it or not.

Fortunately, we know great many innovative historians and teachers who have thorough knowledge and a deep passion for education. More than this, they have developed their own personalized approach toward "engaging students," thus rendering the subject lively, personal, and active for learners.

Digital history is one domain through which students are encouraged to develop their own models of digital scholarship by using digital tools such as our www.virtual platform to conduct research and communicate their findings to the world. As University of Ottawa research chair in digital scholarship, Chad Gaffield contends, the "combined instruction-doing approach allows the individual to acquire the established wisdom of the coaching research findings, and will contribute more to their own and society's historical understandings."

Asking the next generation of teachers to simply take university courses and transmit knowledge is naïve and will not do in the 21st century. There is compelling evidence that what professors teach and how they teach it affect what prospective teachers think about history and the teaching profession. The sooner we realize this, the faster we can work collectively toward developing communities of best practices for our Canadian teachers.

The future of Canada demands no less.


The detailed results of this study, conducted by Stéphane Lévesque, University of Ottawa and Paul Zanazanian, McGill University, will appear in the McGill Journal of Education (Summer 2015).