Sparking Joy in History Classrooms, pp. 7 of 10

Joy also comes from a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves and this can come from helping students see themselves (their ethnicity, religion, gender, families, etc.) as continuous with the stories and accounts that are explored in class. Shared stories (of origins, accomplishment, hope and inspiration as well as of tragedy, suffering and injustice) give us a sense of belonging to larger communities that exist beyond the classroom. Students can feel a sense of joy by having opportunities to author and share their own interpretations and stories in the classroom community as well as broader communities (e.g., by using social media). The study of history can thus give students a sense of agency in seeing themselves in stories about the past as well as provide opportunities to tell their own stories. With guidance, students can learn to empathize with those in the past, reflect on what these experiences might have been like, and consider the extent to which these experiences were similar to and different from their own experiences. They feel a sense of being able to participate in and contribute to the classroom community and to communities outside of the classroom.

Give Students Autonomy

Students experience joy in learning when they have the autonomy to be self-directed learners. This means, however, that teachers and students need to be comfortable with struggle – not giving in to the feeling that we must help students avoid frustration when they don’t get “right answers.” In other words, teachers need to think about what it means to be an autonomy supporting teacher that scaffolds autonomy rather than provide procedural scaffolding to answer exam questions, for example. This means giving students options and choice in their learning with appropriate levels of guidance to help them successfully direct their own learning. For example, students would be supported to pursue their own questions to investigate historical topics.

If students generate and follow their own questions about the past, teachers have to be able to guide students through the inquiry process, help them negotiate the many demands of historical inquiry, guide them in looking for information and sources relevant to their study, and teach them how to proceed on their own and manage the many challenges they will face in studying the past. There is an emotional aspect to autonomy that teachers must scaffold as well. This means helping students manage frustration, feeling overwhelmed, and dealing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of multiple perspectives and interpretations. Teachers themselves must learn to manage the emotions that come from working in the ill-structured domain of history which depends on multiple, often competing interpretations, perspectives, and arguments. Creating a classroom culture that supports autonomy will require a significant shift on the part of classroom practice to give students greater autonomy to practice and develop self-directed learning strategies. 

Provide Variety: Experiential Learning and the Arts

For Dewey (1916) the study of history is an effort to make meaning and to recognize human connections (e.g., with others, between past and present, etc.). It is an effort to more systematically understand human experience in all of its varieties. And, because human experience is varied, learning about history is best done by providing a variety of learning experiences. For example, students can study works of art as sources that offer insights about the past. Artwork in all of its forms can serve as artifacts of analysis and interpretation that provide evidence about the past. The arts can also be used by students to express their own views and ideas about the past in a creative fashion. Students should be given opportunities to both work with artistic forms of expressions from different periods of history (i.e., music, film, artwork, literature, etc.) to understand the past as well as be able to create their own forms of art to communicate their ideas about the past. The past is both represented in and used as a resource in many forms of creative work.

Experiential learning through fieldtrips or fieldwork (in museums, heritage sites, historical landmarks, etc.) can help students see how history is used to communicate meanings about identity (e.g., what it means to be Singaporean), how the past should be remembered (e.g., through memorials or heritage sites), and future orientations (e.g., reference to “founding ideals” for future plans). By being more aware of how history is used for different purposes, students can better understand why there are historical debates and controversies in the public domain (over matters of identity, heritage, politics, etc.). Through such experiences, students see how history plays a role in everyday life and how particular sites and artifacts communicate meanings about past, present and future.

To spark joy in the learning of history, then, teachers need to reconsider the format of their teaching. Does it incite imagination and creativity for students? Does it allow for a range of engagements, interpretations and expressions? Apart from expanding their lesson plans to include field trips or the arts, teachers could also find novel ways to spark curiosity, interest and joy during their regular classroom teaching. Teachers cannot be afraid to experiment. At the very least, students tend to be appreciative when teachers try something different to try make lessons creative and enriching.

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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