How I would Teach History

6 Nov

How I would teach history

Meeta Sengupta
04 November 2013, 06:19 PM IST

It started with a discussion over a sentence from an NCERT text:

“The British saw large animals as signs of a wild, primitive and savage society.

They believed that by killing dangerous animals the British would civilise India.”

This was class 9, History.

After the usual outrage on textbooks and social engineering, I was asked a very interesting question –

“When my children come to me and ask me to explain this, what will I tell them?”

And my response was – “Tell them there is more than one book”

And that is how history should be shown – it can never really be taught.

As I wondered, I began to plan my perfect history lesson.

(Never having been a history teacher, this was an exercise in pure pedagogy sans content expertise (declaring that upfront). There are many ways to design a lesson, I promise this will not become a workshop on lesson plans!)

First comes the story of the people and the peoples involved. But can there ever be just one story when it is about people, their lives and the grand battles they commanded? Can there ever just be one version of the truth or just one perspective? With a prescribed textbook there is – by definition – a prescribed version of the truth.

Of course the perfect history lesson would have great students (a range of abilities in the class, not all academic) and great resources (libraries and access to materials). And as a teacher, I’d start off the story and then send the students off to find out more. To bring stories back to each other.

What is the risk here? One, cynical students would not bother. Two, if they work individually they may lose their way, if they work in groups they may get lost in the group and be able to shirk work. In this case, I’d send them on their journey of discovery in pairs, or triads. Three, they may all come back with the same story – and that is the risk every teacher takes in an unstructured quest. There are advantages to giving the student groups their head and letting them run wild and find out whatever they can. If the topic is rich in diverse stories – say the Empire of Akbar, World War II, then I would be happy to take the risk. If the thing to be researched is remote from the context of the students or does not have much depth in its tales, then I would certainly partition and direct the students to give structure and boundaries to their quest.

I’d ask them to come back and tell each other the stories they had gathered. I’d add some of my own. I’d ask them questions. I’d tell them to ask each other questions.

(I can hear some experienced teachers voices in my head now – where will you find the time? The class will be chaotic! It will go all over the place. When will you finish the syllabus?

This is when lesson preparation comes in useful. The art of teaching is based on the science of planning. While the class looks chaotic to the casual observer, it is the teacher’s task to ensure that the questions follow a pre-decided pattern. The experience and training of the teacher must ensure that the facilitation of the learning is skillful. If a teacher depends on a general idea of where the lesson should go, it will be less than successful – the pathway of questions and stories must be managed – that is the purpose and task of a teacher)

And then, I would show them sides. If there was time, I’d ask them to act it out, to take sides and tell the tale. I’d let them feel the need to win, the urge of the cause, the power of their tools, their trust and distrust in people and the pathos of loss. The lessons of history are about learning for the future. If these are embedded in ways that they stir questions, reflections and discussions, then a large part of the teacher’s job is done.

Will the lesson end as the bell rings to signal the end of class? I should hope not. There is more to history even if one is limited by one’s prescribed syllabus. Much in history is the art of making connections between societies, civilizations, circumstances and times. There can never be a history lesson isolated from other parts of history, or even separated from geographies, the sciences or even mathematics.

What then is the role of the teacher – is it one of a connector? In these times of access to information via the internet (hopefully to most in a few years) the teacher is not the person who tells the stories. The teacher curates and stimulates. The teacher seeds and watches over to ensure that the seeds germinate. If the teacher has embedded the questions, and shown the path to finding answers, it is enough to start.








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