Learning Over Teaching: Being a History Education Strategist

Post date: March 1, 2016

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.