Historians love thinking about how digital technology can help us get better at historical thinking

There are lots of wizzy digital gizmos to be had that are really nice to view and work with. How much do they really help us get better at historical thinking?  There are loads of apps available to help you to learn facts and to test your knowledge – great! Remember that just amassing a knowledge of historical facts makes you great at pub quizzes, but not necessarily very good at history. There are also loads of apps that are a really appealing, new and fun way to find out stuff – great! Nothing wrong with that, but what can digital technology do that going to a museum, reading a book, even having the best teacher cannot? Actually, let’s qualify that last bit. I remain to be convinced that really good teaching by history subject specialists is not the main way that we all get better at historical thinking!  So, my question is: how can really good history teachers use digital technology to help students get better at historical thinking?

It just so happens that over half term I have had the privilege to work with a group of outstanding teachers from different parts of Europe who are starting to work with this very question.  This blog is about some of their initial thoughts.

Ease of access to the subject is made possible, meaning:

  • Historical thinking can take place at any time and in any place.
  • Mobile learning can happen – history on the move!
  • Museums, archives and libraries collections can be made available to all.
  • The teacher can be ‘with’ the student beyond the classroom, via online tutorials explaining historical thinking so that students can learn/revise at home (and parents / carers can help).
  • The expertise of historians can be made available to students via online tutorials and podcasts.
  • The experienced teacher can help the less experienced teacher via online tutorials too.

More and better historical sources are available, meaning: 

  • There is potentially no limit on the amount of sources available.
  • Accessing original sources – including in other languages is so much easier.
  • Sources from many perspectives can be presented for use.
  • Likewise sources from many origins.
  • Annotation, manipulation, drawing, cutting, revealing etc of sources are all possible to make source analysis easier.
  • Really high-quality resolution allows in depth analysis.

It helps make historical thinking explicit, so:

  • It is easier to make the stages of historical thinking explicit e.g. the steps involved in source analysis or the construction of an interpretation (such as a museum exhibition)
  • It also makes explicit alternative ways to present the past.

Interaction with the past and with others doing history is so much easier:

  • Digital technology allows interaction that can aid sense of place and time
  • Personification is facilitated: role-playing, humanising, viewing the perspectives of different characters on a narrative
  • Emotional engagement can also be facilitated.
  • Cross-border collaboration and assignments on the same topic (e-twinning) are possible.
  • Collaborative learning, debate and discussion are much easier.

Makes the subject more accessible to learners, because:

  • Access to higher level historical thinking is possible even if literacy skills are not at such a high level (for example, redrafting is less arduous, and relative significance can be shown visually).
  • It’s easier to adapt learning and learning materials to individual students.

More timely assessment of learning, because:

  • Easier to keep track of individuals’ progress more quickly.
  • Gamification: competition, rewards and interaction may inspire some students to assess and push themselves.

What can you add to these initial thoughts?  Where should history teachers be putting their energies to make sure that their use of digital technologies helps students’ to progress in terms of their ability to think historically?  Also, what can and should all history teachers be doing, not just those with a passion for surfing constantly for the latest iPad app, or a talent for coding? It seems to me that there is scarcely enough time in the curriculum for, and history teachers are too talented to need, lots of gimmicks.  What works and makes a difference?  Please share your thoughts.

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