Research into Practice: Tuning in to the “Chorus of History” Through the Use of Oral History in the Classroom

Using oral histories in history and social studies classrooms can highlight the fact that historical sources are authored and contain particular assumptions, biases, and perspectives about the world. They require critical evaluation to understand why people might have said what they said, why they might view particular events or issues in certain ways, the kinds of insights, emotions, and attitudes they have about what happened in the past, and the reasons they give for acting in the ways they did. Because oral histories have become more widely available and utilized due to electronic and digital means of preservation and access, they can be easily used with students of all ages. To learn more about the use of oral history in the classroom and consider how students can work with oral sources, I reviewed the work and ideas of Associate Professor Kevin Blackburn, a proponent of using oral histories in classrooms. 

In Singapore, Kevin Blackburn is an Associate Professor of Humanities and Social Studies Education at the National Institute of Education (NIE).  His ideas and experiences with the use of oral histories to teach history are of great use to teachers who are interested in having students work with oral history sources in their classrooms.

 In sitting down and conducting an interview with Associate Professor Kevin Blackburn (a prime example of the process of recording and using oral history), he revealed that he first began working with oral histories with his education students at NIE during what he refers to as the “Big History Revamp” in 1999. This move by the Singapore Ministry of Education towards an inquiry-based approach to teaching history and towards using source-based material in history education required pedagogical change and seemed like an appropriate time to introduce oral histories in his history courses.

Blackburn was drawn to oral histories because of the way they allowed for what he refers to as a “democratization of memory” (Blackburn, 2012). He asserts that throughout history, a large majority of the historical sources we have access to have been written and created by those privileged few with money, publishers, and an education. Many people throughout history were without access to publishers, but still possessed interesting stories, opinions, and points of view about the world around them. Their memories – the memories of the marginalized, minorities, and those with an outside perspective – can be brought to light and to the public through the recording of oral accounts and histories (Blackburn, 2012).

As Blackburn (2012) sees it, “ordinary people do extraordinary things.” Those whom we would typically refer to as nothing more than the “common people” are far from just passive eyewitnesses to the events that have unfolded in their lifetime; instead, as Blackburn declares, these people are the “chorus of history” and regularly chime in to supplement the song of the past.

Within the classroom, Blackburn has had aspirant teachers work on a family history project, in which they interviewed family members in order to look at the way people have lived their lives and to examine both the challenges they have faced and the defining moments in their lives. With this project, Blackburn revealed how he thought that the interview process and recording of oral family history allowed his students to better understand cultural change within their families. 

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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