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Learning Over Teaching: Being a History Education Strategist

posted Mar 1, 2016, 1:19 PM by Samantha Cutrara   [ updated Mar 1, 2016, 1:26 PM ]

Originally posted on The History Education Network's blog Teaching the Past: A Blog about Teaching History in Canada Aug. 16, 2015

In 2012, I was fortunate to start a new position at the Archives of Ontario as their Senior Coordinator of Educational Programming and Exhibitions the same day I handed in my final draft of my dissertation before defense. The job was perfect for me, and obviously ideal timing. In this role, I restrategized the Archives of Ontario’s Education Programme and developed a long term strategy for their Exhibitions Programme. I could draw on my skills, experiences, and expertise and while also collaborating with colleagues and building off institutional successes. This work was very fruitful.

In the two and a half years I was there, the Education Programme grew from seeing approximately 250 teachers and students a year to 3,000. I was able to collaborate with individual teachers, school boards, faculties of education, professional organizations, and research institutes like the Harriet Tubman Institute. With the trust and respect of my manager, I tried new things and developed a three point Education programme – online class resources, onsite workshops, and travelling workshops. I made these programmes speak not only to the curriculum, but also to the educational rhetoric and discourses that teachers were familiar with. In our programming, I stressed that we were an education programme at an archives, not an archives providing education programmes. This semantic shift shifted our language, goals, and approach from teaching eight-year olds how to determine if something was archival, to having eight-year olds (and 10 year olds, and 12, 13, 15…) understand that archival records were primary source records and that primary source records can help them learn new stories about the past.

The success of this programme grew almost immediately and we were able to create meaningful learning opportunities for students of all ages. We offered programmes for grades 3 to 12 and mainly focused on our introduction to primary sources workshops. In this role, I also could bring in my other interests, such as graphic novels and history learning, by hosting a one-day teachers’ conference and bringing in Scott Chantler, author of Two Generals, to come and speak. I also got to ground my work as a strategist and educator in the theory I was inspired by and developed in my graduate work and got to expand my professional networks from THEN/HiER to bring those collaborations to a new site and build or re-establish new partnerships.   

Our Exhibition Programme was another success and, since it was the last thing I did, one of my most treasured memories. The Archives of Ontario already had a successful Exhibition Programme with their online and travelling exhibits, but with the move to a purpose-built facility in 2009, they had a beautiful ground floor exhibition space that was not getting the attention it deserved. After a year of study and development, I developed a long-term exhibitions strategy that included the strategic implementation of the first exhibit, a centenary commemoration of World War I.

This strategy identified audiences, questions, aesthetic, and pedagogical considerations that needed to go into exhibits, and with our first exhibit under this strategy, Dear Sadie: Love, lives, and remembrance from Ontario’s First World War, we were able to explore how these things could work in the exhibit space. Working closely with the curator and a design firm, we created an exhibition that brought people closer to the stories found in archival records. We used letters, diaries, film, photographs, and even artefacts like a prosthetic leg we borrowed from another institution, to create personal connections to life before, during, and after World War I. And this strategy, and evidenced by the exhibit, was a success. Within a month of opening, we had received more media attention, more positive comment books comments, walk-in visitors, and education bookings than any other exhibition the Archives of Ontario had done before. With this exhibit, we also won provincial and international awards for concepts and design and the grand opening of the exhibit was one of the first events the LG attended upon coming into office.

This time at the Archives of Ontario was fruitful, fun, and professional rewarding, but by the time Dear Sadie was winding down, I didn’t know much more I could do there. I could maintain these programmes, of course, but the work from my dissertation kept coming back to me. I kept hearing the voices of students and the desires they had for learning history, and I knew that I had more to contribute to the discussion about teaching and learning Canadian history. I didn’t feel like the academic or educational communities were paying enough attention to the question ‘who is history education for?’ and wanted the voices and experiences of the students and teachers I worked with to push this question forward.

Thus, in January of 2015, I began the revision of my dissertation to an academic manuscript. I had said good-bye to the Archives at the end of 2014 and returned to the data from my dissertation to make a greater contribution in the conversation about teaching and learning Canadian history.

My dissertation, completed in 2012, was the result of my praxis from my undergraduate thesis, Masters’ research, and my doctoral research. I have been working on the same project since 2004 and it has evolved, developed, and responded to the climate of history education, individual practice, and my own learning since that time. My focus has always been on the students and their meaningful learning in class. How can a subject like History – a subject that can teach you about patterns, practices, successes, struggles, heartbreaks, and breakthroughs of people in the past – not be inspiring and meaningful for young people, especially young people who don’t feel like they have a strong voice in the present or opportunities for the future? My work sought to remedy this disconnect.

I argue that it is because when we talk about history education, we talk about teaching history more than learning history. With a focus on learning history, especially Canadian history, we as educators, shift the focus to what the students need and want from the narratives of the past rather than on what we feel like we need them to know.

In my dissertation research, I found that while teachers often say they want to teach for the students, a teacher’s desire or need for familiarity, their unchecked assumptions about their own beliefs about their students and Canadian history, and an institutional context that supports a lack of sustained engagement, results in many Canadian history classrooms structured with an underlying emphasis on teaching Canadian history rather than learning Canadian history. This means the importance of students’ learning is left at the expense of the teacher’s teaching. The teacher’s comfort can overrule the potential for students’ meaningful learning with the teacher reverting back to a narrative that they find familiar, leaving students – especially students who challenge what the teacher knows about herself, her history, and a national narrative – behind. To be clear, this is both an individual issue and also an institutional one. Schooling is not set up to privilege learning over teaching. While individual teachers enact these things in their classrooms, the institutional context they work in often doesn’t support this level of reflective teaching either.

What is most frustrating about this, is how strong students’ desires are to learn Canadian history – and to learn a connected and complicated Canadian history that allowed them to think, reflect, and discuss. In my research, students were very clear about wanting to learn history. Words like “want” and “wish” came up frequently as well as astute observations about the role of the teacher as a learning gatekeeper who didn’t always operate in their best interests. All the students I talked to, students from multiple neighbourhoods, schools, and backgrounds all were clear in staying that learning history was important, but that the history they learnt in school let down what they needed. To be clear, these aren’t the opinions of youth who have “done school well” and been academically successful. The majority of students I worked with were students who hadn’t “done school well” and were not academically successful. We need to listen to these students because, my research aligned with other findings that has showed that when students act out in their history classes it often indicates they want more work and attention from the teacher, not less.

In November 2015, I sent the first draft of Creating Possibilities: Meaningful learning in Canadian history to the publisher and can’t wait to get feedback and revisions from other scholars to make this an even more impactful contribution to this discussion of history education in Canada. I am also excited to be able to share my professional reflections from the Archives of Ontario in this academic forum and provide new perspectives on shifting discussions from teaching to learning in traditional and non-traditional sites of education. 

With the completion of the manuscript, I will finishing some other writing; specifically an article on Canada150 and how we need to take students’ wants and needs from Canadian history more seriously in commemorative activities and another article on the representations of gender in historical graphic novels. At that time, I will also be doing consulting for educators and institutions on ways to bring in more connected, meaningful, and delightful ways to teach and to learn Canadian history. 

Because of the last decade of work, I call myself a History Education Strategist and have been very fortunate that my skills, experience, and expertise have been able to come together to invite thousands of Canadians to learn and teach Canadian history – maybe even meaningfully! Contact me for more information about my current or future work.




Delight in Learning

posted Feb 16, 2015, 3:47 PM by Samantha Cutrara   [ updated Apr 8, 2015, 9:22 AM ]

Last week I visited two local museums: the Bata Shoe Museum and the Textile Museum of Canada. Both mid-sized museums specialize in a particular
collection and can often be forgotten in lieu of Toronto’s large museums that are very close by. Both museums had a permanent exhibition as well limited run, specialized exhibitions.

There is often a tension in history education – whether that is history taught and learnt through a museum, classroom, or archives – between providing education, entertainment, or the oft quoted “edu-tainment,” for 

Returning to the Bata Shoe Museum and the Textile Museum of Canada, I was interested in seeing their collections but also, in this visit, to be attentive of their curatorial exhibition choices in their permanent and temporary exhibitions. As a museum visitor, I visit with my eyes. I read the introduction in an exhibition and then walk around, identifying a visual narrative, and allowing myself to be drawn to specific artifacts that I am interested in knowing more about in the context of the narrative. I don’t visit an exhibition by reading, or listening if there is an audio-guide; I visit by exploring and looking, trying to make sense of the new ideas presented through object and knowing that, because I am there by choice, I can look and explore at my own pace and with my own agenda unencumbered by curriculum or mandate. Thus for me as a museum visitor, the bells and whistles of display play a large part in my reception of an exhibition. Am a delighted to be here? Do I look around and want to know more because I am in a space that has, without even showing me anything, changed my perception of this topic and the objects that will be presented? I immediately think of the trench in the Canadian War Museum: I am not interested in war, war fare, technologies of war, World War I, (nor is trench warfare a delightful topic) and yet through this exhibition design, I found delight in learning about an undelightful topic. The form of exhibition enchanted me to want to explore the exhibition, to know more and see more than I would with a traditional display.learners and visitors. There is an inherent assumption that if something is entertaining that it immediately loses educational value. Exhibiting artifacts without the ‘bells and whistles’ of entertaining displays can, it may be argued, put the artifacts at the centre stage and not the curatorial bias of specific content and context. However, we as museum professionals have an opportunity to use the bells and whistles of entertaining display to enhance the educational value of the artifacts we want people to learn from. This is the value of an exhibition: to do what cannot normally be done, learn what cannot normally be learnt, and display what normally cannot be displayed to provide new learning and new understanding about the world, culture, past and present.

I enjoyed the Textile Museum and saw their temporary exhibitions Urban Fabric: Portraits of a City and From Ashgabat to Istanbul: Oriental Rugs from Canadian Collections. There were some nice moments in the museum, but by and large I wasn’t compelled to know more or learn more. There were some beautiful pieces on display and their exhibition Urban Fabric: Portraits of a City clearly tried to broaden the definition of textile and appeal to a different a more urban, art-focused visitor than perhaps they usually get, but there was nothing about my visit that was delightful: that compelled me to know more and know deeper because I was enchanted by what I saw.

In contrast to that visit was my visit to the Bata Shoe Museum. I have visited the Bata Shoe Museum before and while I enjoyed my previous visits, I never
felt that it was a museum I needed to visit multiple times. In my most recent visit, I quickly walked through their permanent gallery, noticing that there were a few artifacts that had been rotated since my last visit, and moved up to a temporary exhibit they had on entitled: 

Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century. 19th century fashion was a topic that I am familiar with because of my work at Black Creek Pioneer Village, so I wasn’t expecting to learn a great deal more than I already knew. However, here was where I found delight in learning. Walking into the exhibition I was immediately taken into another world. The exhibit was created to look like a 19th century department store with each exhibit case enclosed in a wooden box that made the exhibit case look like a department store window. There was a vestibule with a bench, (fake) greenery, and a clear introductory panel you had to walk into the exhibit to read. I was delighted. I was enchanted. I wanted to learn more. Walking further into the exhibit were full-sized glass cases with clothing displayed in situ. The presentation of this exhibit, designed by Origin Studios, compelled me to learn more, read more, think more, and spend more time. This delight in presentation sparked a delight in learning and enhanced the objects, rather than detract from their value.

While budget, collection, and audience are considerations in exhibition design and one’s definition of delight or experience as a museum visitor can vary widely, these two visits demonstrated to me the importance of designing an exhibition for delight. For me, delight lead to exploration and exploration lead to learning – and learning by choice. This means that design of exhibitions need to be part of the curatorial vision of the exhibition. The design needs to tell the story in the same way the artifacts and the exhibit labels need to tell the story. Design isn’t secondary to the exhibition, it is the exhibition, and needs to be considered as such.      

Who is History Education for?

posted Apr 15, 2014, 5:51 PM by Samantha Cutrara   [ updated Feb 16, 2015, 3:50 PM ]

Originally published on June 15, 2011 on Teaching the Past: A blog about teaching history in Canada

We often talk about what history education is for – building national narratives, civic responsibility, or even critical thinking skills – but rarely do we talk about WHO history education is for. WHO ultimately benefits, grows, and is strengthened by the narratives we hear, the skills we teach, and the voices we emphasize? Is it the bureaucrats and politicians who have the ultimate say on what the curriculum will look like? Is it the teachers who need to interpret and assess the curriculum efficiently and perhaps even interestingly? Is it the Canadian nation writ large and those who have the power and privilege to maintain their power and privilege? Is it a general Canadian student who is expected to grow up to be a critically questioning, yet respectful, citizen in a changing, but generally unproblematized nation?

Lately I have been thinking about this question of WHO history education is for while I have been gathering data for my dissertation research. I keep thinking about what student-centric history teaching would look like and why it would seem so radical, even in classrooms that are focused on student success. I am very much interested in narratives and the knowledge that gets produced through narratives, so I keep going back to thinking that we as a nation are so tied to certain narratives that we are worried about exploring stories that challenge the narratives that seem familiar and safe. I’m not even talking about curriculum since, from what I know from the Ontario curriculum for example, there is room for interpretation about how the objectives will be met and with what content. So coming back to narratives may seem like a fairly reductive statement for such a large question, but I can’t help thinking that the students I have met – students who are bright and articulate, although perhaps not academically successful – are almost desperately interested in stories that connect to their lives and they just aren’t hearing them.

The strategies the students use to express their dissatisfaction are often resistant in nature and rarely read as being productive to the classroom environment. This is not uncommon to any history educator who has heard history be equated to the MOST BORING SUBJECT EVER, but I rarely come across students who have said that history should completely not be taught. Anna Clarke, who did research in both Australia and Canada, found that students said it was the methods used to teach history that made it seem boring. These findings were also supported by the work of Harris and Haydn in the UK.  While methods are a very large part of this question, I don’t think it is the whole answer.  I don’t have an answer, I don’t even think I have a real question, but I do have a feeling that that the WHO for history education are not the kids that I have been working with and that this is a shame. These students, students who are racially and economically marginalized, need a past to build on and stories to grow from and they are just not getting them in one of the only places where they would learn history.

So I return to my original question: Who is history education for? And if it is not for the students and their unique needs for the future, then why not?

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