Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology

Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology


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Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology by Kevin Kee

In the field of history, the Web and other technologies have become important tools in research and teaching of the past. Yet the use of these tools is limited—many historians and history educators have resisted adopting them because they fail to see how digital tools supplement and even improve upon conventional tools (such as books). In Pastplay, a collection of essays by leading history and humanities researchers and teachers, editor Kevin Kee works to address these concerns head-on. How should we use technology? Playfully, Kee contends. Why? Because doing so helps us think about the past in new ways; through the act of creating technologies, our understanding of the past is re-imagined and developed. From the insights of numerous scholars and teachers, Pastplay argues that we should play with technology in history because doing so enables us to see the past in new ways by helping us understand how history is created; honoring the roots of research, teaching, and technology development; requiring us to model our thoughts; and then allowing us to build our own understanding.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472035953
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 03/31/2014
Series: Digital Humanities
Pages: 348
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Kevin Kee is the Canada Research Chair of Digital Humanities and Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Centre for Digital Humanities at Brock University.

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Teaching and Learning History with Technology

By Kevin Kee

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2014 Kevin Kee
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-12048-2


What Has Mystery Got to Do with It?

Ruth Sandwell and John Sutton Lutz


Should history be playful? Fun to do? If it should be, at least as presented in secondary schools, it is not. Most students would be sympathetic to James Joyce, who said, "History is a nightmare from which I must awake!" In our enthusiasm to cover the syllabus, to show the big picture, the vast canvas of history, we have squeezed both the fun and the fascination out. To go from "Plato to NATO" we take the flesh from the stories and deliver only the skeleton. Typically, we ask students to commit this to memory and regurgitate it at exam time instead of teaching the detective work — the critical skills of the historian applied to evidence from the past. The most able teachers have shown us for centuries that we can make history engaging while we teach its most important lessons. Now, as we are able to explore the affinities between game-based learning and the goals and tools of history teaching, we have some new tools at our disposal to make history "playful."

In a 2006 article, Richard Van Eck argued that it is time that discussions about digital game-based learning (DGBL) move beyond research that has, by this point, already convincingly demonstrated its efficacy as a place for, or site of, learning. We need to move on now, he argues, to create "research explaining why DGBL is engaging and effective" and to provide "practical guidance for how (when, with whom, and under what conditions) games can be integrated into the learning process to maximize their learning potential." We take up Van Eck's challenge to explain and prescribe appropriate uses for history-related games as we explore links between our DGBL history project, the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History, and recent research and writing about historical thinking and knowing. (See figures 1.1 and 1.2.) More specifically, we draw on two separate academic discussions, one exploring research into the teaching and learning of history in the schools and the other relating to theoretical and methodological developments within the discipline of history itself. We suggest that the intersection, or overlap, of these two areas provides a research-and theory-based explanation for how the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History project works to include playful elements in the teaching of serious history. In the process, we also help to explain why this online history education project has become so widely used and so critically acclaimed as a way of teaching history.

The History Educators

Recent years have witnessed an increasing amount of research in the field of history education. Educators, long interested in how to teach students to think scientifically, have turned their attention to what constitutes historical thinking, or, in the current parlance, "historical literacy." There are a number of factors involved in this renewed interest in history education, but perhaps most often cited is the decline of the more general social studies movement in the wake of research documenting students' staggering historical ignorance about the origin and accomplishments of their own particular nation-state — this in an era of globalization with its increasing unease about the loss of national and religious identity following the end of the Cold War. Notwithstanding clear evidence that nationalism and indeed patriotism have been the engines driving often-intense public discussions about the purpose of history education, responses to the recent perceived crisis of historical understanding have been varied.

Conservatives have lobbied unapologetically, and sometimes successfully, for a highly partisan, nationalistic "return to basics" move within schools and museums, but there has been a significant movement in quite another direction as well: history researchers and educators alike are encouraging students to do their own "document analysis" — the interpretation of original historical or archaeological evidence from the past — as an important pillar of history education.

Their motives have varied. Many teachers and public historians (in museums, heritage villages, and other historical sites and monuments) have discovered that students are simply more interested in history, and seem to remember more of it for the final exam, when they can actively engage with original historical sources; because it keeps students busy, occupied, and apparently learning, this approach is widely perceived to work as an educational strategy. As a result, compilations of primary documents along with supporting educational materials have become a major industry, particularly in the United States.

Researchers in the field of history education do not deny that students can be more engaged by working with primary documents, but their strong advocacy of teaching students to use primary documents in the history classroom is not related just to the immediate appeal that working with these documents provides to students. Rather, researchers and theorists in the field of history education tend to share a conviction that, because history essentially is a dialogue among people about the interpretation of evidence left over from the past, then history education must, to be effective, at the very least introduce students to what history is by inviting them to participate actively in the process or practice of what doing history involves. Like the revolutionary science educators of an earlier era, history educators are suggesting that historical knowledge, like scientific knowledge, is not about knowing facts so much as it is about understanding processes. For teachers who see science as a kind of knowledge or process of knowing rather than simply the final product or conclusion, Bunsen burners and the techniques of scientific observation overshadow the memorization of complicated nomenclatures. For teachers who see history as a kind of knowledge or process of knowing, primary documents and the techniques of inquiry-based interpretation overshadow the memorization of events, names, and dates. As Peter Seixas has argued, it is only in this way that students can become truly engaged in the "community of inquiry" that comprises the disciplinary, evidence-based critical inquiry that history is. (See figure 1.3.)

Ken Osborne has pointed out that the idea that students need to "do history" in order to understand history — that is, analyze and interpret primary historical documents — is not new; the history teacher Fred Morrow Fling was actively advocating this practice more than one hundred years ago, and the idea has been an important component of progressive reform in educational circles ever since. The idea may not be new, but research in the field of history education is now documenting just how difficult it is to convey this to students. One of the unanticipated consequences of the increased use of primary documents in the classroom has been research documenting that, engaging as they are, these primary sources cannot on their own be relied on to provide an increased understanding of history. In his well-known 1991 study, Samuel Wineburg asked students and historians to think aloud as they read historical texts, both primary and secondary. He noted that whereas historians entered into a complex dialogue with the multiple meanings of the text, students were generally able to marshal only one question about what they were reading: is it true? With little familiarity with primary documents, without the appropriate background knowledge, and without an understanding of the processes of critical inquiry, students were simply not able to engage in constructing historical knowledge from the documents. As Wineburg has argued since, historical thinking really is an "unnatural act" that involves thought processes that are counterintuitive to most students.

Wineburg's work demonstrates that students need considerable scaffolding if they are to learn to use primary documents to construct knowledge about the past. The research of history educators such as Peter Lee, Ros Ashby, S. G. Grant, Bruce Van Sledright, Keith Barton, Linda Levstik, and Stella Winert has provided considerable evidence about how students as young as age 6 or 7 can successfully be taught the kinds of critical, evidence-based thinking they need to think historically. But it turns out that, left to themselves, students are reluctant to critically engage primary sources. Andrew Milson argues that students using web-based materials regularly sought out the "path of least resistance" when looking for ways of constructing historical knowledge, rather than searching for a more complex understanding. Other research has documented that rather than evaluating information from multiple sources, students using primary documents on the world wide web moved directly to search engines to find sites they thought would give them all necessary information to accomplish their task as quickly as possible, and in a way that was most likely to meet the approval of the teacher.

Barton's study of fourth-and fifth-grade American students highlights the problems. His research documented students' remarkable ability to engage critically with such issues as the contingency of historical narratives and the constructed nature of historical documents. But after students had critically examined the historical documents, Barton discovered "one remarkable and unexpected problem":

After three days of this [critical inquiry] activity, the teacher pulled students together to discuss their conclusions. ... Each student had an opinion, and they were eager to share. But none of the opinions had any relationship to the evidence that they had just spent three days evaluating. Students did not use the evidence to reach conclusions; they were just making up what they thought must have happened.

Barton aptly entitled his article "'I just kinda know.'" European educators have noted a similar reluctance in their students to bring critical inquiry to bear on history education in the classroom, and new research into levels of historical consciousness and differences between historical knowledge and historical belief is now underway to account for the phenomenon whereby students know about history as critical inquiry, but refuse to take it seriously. Keith Barton and Linda Levstik have argued that the solution to the problem is to be found in the articulation of a coherent purpose for history education, and have found it in history's unique suitability to provide students with the kind of humanistic education they need to participate in a democratic and pluralistic society. The study of primary documents, they argue, provides an important foundation for the kind of evidence-based reasoning that members of a participatory democracy need to deliberate on, and make decisions about, their society.

On a slightly different tack, Ruth Sandwell has argued that the problem is essentially epistemological: students do not engage with a critical evaluation of historical evidence because, in spite of what they learn about critical inquiry, they still believe that history really is a set of received truths that they must memorize and tell back to their teachers. Conducting reasoned, educated interpretations of evidence becomes just one more example of busywork in the classroom. And why wouldn't they? After all, knowing "the facts" rather than understanding the process is what they are most often, and most rigorously, evaluated on. As Peter Lee puts it, if students do not "get" the idea that history is dialogue among people about the interpretation of meaningful evidence about the past, and believe instead that it exists only by authoritarian fiat or only through the always-flawed accounts of individual eyewitnesses, then it becomes impossible, meaningless, or both, for students to understand history.

The Historians

Historians have changed a lot over the past fifty years. Since the defeat of fascism and the triumph of American modernity, historians have been increasingly rejecting the notion of a single unified narrative of history in favor of histories that are more complex and varied. They have expanded their studies beyond one class, gender, or ethnically defined group, and beyond their earlier, predominant interest in public life and formal political systems. As a result, historians' research and writing has become much more interdisciplinary, and much less the narrative of "the winners." This concern with a wider range of peoples and issues in the past has, furthermore, encouraged some historians to take (and admit to) a more active role in contemporary concerns, particularly those involving historical injustices based on gender, class, or ethnicity. They have become much more open about their concerns about contemporary, relevant issues, and the ways in which these contemporary issues have helped to shape their professional interests. As Christopher Dummitt phrased it in his article "Beyond Inclusiveness: The Future of Canadian History," "by far the largest fields that historians now claim to be affiliated with are those generally associated with inclusive history: social; women and gender; and cultural."

Dummitt goes on to articulate some of the problems that the new consensus on inclusivity has created, but this is not to diminish the fact that historians have become much more cognizant of the relationship between knowledge and power than they used to be. Not only do they believe that history involves more than the single narrative about the winners in the past, but many historians argue that portraying history as a particular one-dimensional narrative only helps to maintain structures of power within today's society. These changes are aspects of historians' growing awareness that their research is more a process of critical inquiry, a kind of knowledge, than it is a series of authoritarian, factual statements, let alone final judgments, about the past. The past is gone, and all historians can do is try to understand some of its meaning and complexity through ongoing discussions about how best to interpret evidence from the past that is meaningful in the present, albeit for a wide variety of reasons. (See figure 1.4.)

In moving beyond the positivism that largely defined nineteenth-century historical writing, historians are openly acknowledging that history is a process of critical inquiry, a painfully meticulous process of piecing together — constructing — into a narrative, pieces of evidence about a meaningful past in the context of what other historians have written about. Acknowledging that history is an interpretive act where historians enter into an ongoing dialogue with others about fragmented, contingent evidence from the past has had an important influence not only on what historians study, but on how they present their work. Increasingly, historians are arguing that it is not enough to be more inclusive in who we consider legitimate historical subjects, or how we represent them: our history needs to articulate more clearly the dialogical nature of our work. As historian Lyle Dick has recently argued, historians have identified the need to move beyond a focus on diversity of content toward embracing a greater diversity of form. In this regard, we might consider replacing univocal narratives or harmonized syntheses relying on partial perspectives or evidence with forms incorporating a larger selection of voices and perspectives. Instead of weaving the different strands together into tight narratives, we might be trying to combine different forms, genres, and voices into looser structures. Rather than seeking resolution and coherence, we might be juxtaposing conflicting and even contradictory materials to more accurately represent the contested character of the Canadian past and the actual diversity of perspectives bearing on its interpretation.

Like history educators, historians are increasingly declaring the importance of the processes of historical practice to good historical thinking. Three decades ago, the craft of conveying the complex interplay of forces was recaptured by European scholars in a method called "micro-storia" or "micro-history." Micro-history is a return to the story of real people with all the messy, fascinating, sometimes microscopic details of their lives. But the goal in exploring the details is to see the larger forces at work, forces that are invisible when the scope is much larger:

By reducing the scale of observation, it becomes possible to document the ways that particular people work out their lives within a shifting set of patterns — beliefs, practices, relationships — in which they make sense of their own lives, adapting themselves to each other and to their environment, or by changing their environment to suit their society. It is in people's day-to-day practices that they make the "innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules." It is in these practices that microhistorians hope to see and sometimes explain variation and change in history.


Excerpted from Pastplay by Kevin Kee. Copyright © 2014 Kevin Kee. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. What Has Mystery Got to Do with It? Ruth Sandwell and John Sutton Lutz,
2. "Why can't you just tell us?" Learning Canadian History with the Virtual Historian Stéphane Lévesque,
3. Interactive Worlds as Educational Tools for Understanding Arctic Life Richard Levy and Peter Dawson,
4. Tecumseh Lies Here: Goals and Challenges for a Pervasive History Game in Progress Timothy Compeau and Robert MacDougall,
5. The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books Stephen Ramsay,
6. Abort, Retry, Pass, Fail: Games as Teaching Tools Sean Gouglas, Mihaela Ilovan, Shannon Lucky, and Silvia Russell,
7. Ludic Algorithms Bethany Nowviskie,
8. Making and Playing with Models: Using Rapid Prototyping to Explore the History and Technology of Stage Magic William J. Turkel and Devon Elliott,
9. Contests for Meaning: Playing King Philip's War in the Twenty-First Century Matthew Kirschenbaum,
10. Rolling Your Own: On Modding Commercial Games for Educational Goals Shawn Graham,
11. Simulation Games and the Study of the Past: Classroom Guidelines Jeremiah McCall,
12. Playing into the Past: Reconsidering the Educational Promise of Public History Exhibits Brenda Trofanenko,
13. Teaching History in an Age of Pervasive Computing: The Case for Games in the High School and Undergraduate Classroom Kevin Kee and Shawn Graham,
14. Victorian SimCities: Playful Technology on Google Earth Patrick Dunae and John Sutton Lutz,
15. True Facts or False Facts — Which Are More Authentic? T. Mills Kelly,
Afterword Kevin Kee,

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