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Making History Personal

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As I have grown in my professional and personal life, I have become an advocate for inquiry based learning. The key to inquiry based learning is that it makes the education process personal for everyone. Learning, education, and class material has the reputation of being a burden, or just not fun. I’m sure we all remember as students in school, no matter what grade, being told to read something and us dragging our feet the entire way through. We may have actually enjoyed the book, but being told what to read and what to get from it took all joy away from us. The projects and activities that have the most success in schools are the ones where students ask their own questions and find the answers for themselves. Students normally put much more effort into this because the learning is from their own desire and personal imagination. Going further into the 21st century, we can further serve our students’ educational growth by combining their imagination with technology and digital tools. This concept doesn’t just stop in the classroom, though: it can be implemented throughout all field of history. 

“We are not limited by the technology, only by our imaginations.”

Kee, Kevin, Eric Poitras, and Timothy Compeau. “History All Around Us: Toward Best Practices for Augmented Reality for History.” In Seeing the Past with Computers: Experiments with Augmented Reality and Computer Vision for History.

I have been fortunate enough to travel in the United States and globally to visit many historical sites. Out of all of these travels, my favorite experiences have been the ones that put me in the middle of the history and let me choose my own experience. The museum and educational center of Mount Vernon has a digital program for viewers called Be Washington: It’s Your Turn to Lead. My friend and I listened to historical actors like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson give us their opinion based on primary sources and then made our own decisions on situations like aiding France in the French Revolution before seeing how Washington’s decision played out in real life. Like Timothy Compeau and Robert MacDougall noted about their own historical game, this “inculcates historical thinking skills, such as grasping different perspectives and recognizing the biases inherent in primary sources.” Games like Be Washington and Tecumseh Lies Here are the key to bridging students to history because it allows them to make history a personal learning experience. 

If inquiry-based learning is the key to making history enjoyable for younger audiences, what’s to stop us from applying this same logic to other platforms of history, especially public history? Just like students, visitors to historic sites often complain that the historical material seems impersonal and frankly, non engaging. In Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, the authors encourage these sites to go against the traditional structure of herding a mass of quiet and unengaged visitors from room to room listening to a script. The most successful sites offer ways for visitors to chart their own visit, going from room to room and examining things of their own interest. Augmented reality apps like Niagara 1812 and Queenston 1812 serve as a similar gateway to making history personal. I can say from experience that these programs really do enhance a visit. During my visit to Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, I was given a small set of headphones and a tablet. After I decided which room engaged me most, the tablet offered historical explanations on certain artifacts, or even allowed me to “erase” the modern enhancements of the room so I could see what it would have looked like when Queen Victoria resided there.  Of course, these programs, experiences, and games take an incredible amount of time and funding. The creators of Tecumseh Lies Here even changed their program into an “untextbook” because they recognized the amount of work required was not applicable for public school teachers. However, history can easily blend to inquiry-based learning with the help of technology. Many history teachers are creating digital escape rooms for their students to complete. Other sites are creating small scale versions of Niagara 1812 and Queenston 1812. The connection? All of these professionals know that the way to reach people in the field of history is to make it accessible and engaging – characteristics easily achieved with digital tools.

2 replies on “Choose Your Avatar”

Hi Shannon! I really enjoyed your post, and I agree completely. I have always found that any history (or literature) activity where you can engage students as part of the story (have them make decisions like past figures or fictional characters, immerse them in the environment characters or historical figures were in) makes it real to them and more memorable. In order to make this engagement accessible to all students, both extroverted and introverted, teachers for all levels from preschool to college, can use digital tools and augmented reality tools. This makes it possible for direct engagement as a historical character or fictional character possible for students without making them act out skits or role play characters, which can be really anxiety inducing for many students, causing them to learn less about the historical event or person, and more about what their classmates think of them and their acting skills. I just remember the collective groaning and complaining any time a teacher forced us to create a skit in history or literature class.

Making history relevant and personal to students seems to be one of the only ways for them to truly learn it. Sometimes I think that is why historical fiction is such a popular genre for reading, because people can completely immerse themselves into a time period and an event, and even into a historical figure’s head, or at least someone living in the period. They get to imagine what the people, places, and things in the book look like for themselves, based on nothing but descriptions from authors and some possible prior knowledge of the time period. People want to lose themselves in worlds different from their own, and students want to connect, making digital tools that allow them access to a historical figure’s head space or the surroundings in which a person would have lived invaluable for their learning.

The same can be said for public history sites, as you mentioned. I think it is a necessary tool to have digital ways to immerse visitors in historical sites and events. Just as with students, these activities (like historical fiction) connect people to the time and place, and to the historical characters, making it directly personal. It also requires imagination from them, and engagement. They have to think deeply about the topic or person in order to enjoy the experience, so they learn more in the end.

It makes sense to me that, with people reading so much historical fiction, it might boost attendance at museums and other sites of they included engaging activities like the games in the readings or the augmented reality apps for their site. It could offset costs by bringing in more revenue, at least for museum sites. Teachers and schools are a different story, and funding would have to be found more readily for them. Even public sites would financially suffer trying to implement some of these expensive digital tools, but less so than schools I think.

I enjoyed what you wrote about virtual reality. A huge part of my attraction to history is just how much people change, and how they stay the same. History things like this are great for entertainment, a fun way to pass the time, and learn as well. Haveung them be more of a learning aspect, like TLH, should be explored more, with adjustments made for grade schools and time length. This would be much more fun and getting children engaged with history than having to memorize dates, names and places for a test.

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