The Video Revolution is Coming to History Instruction

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As parents, we are all adjusting to our new roles facilitating the emergency virtual school in which our children are now trying to participate. So as my eighth-grade son reported to middle school (our TV room) last week, I was glad to see that his social studies teacher offered a number of video resources to help tell the tale of the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Franks.

This has the opportunity to be an exciting learning experience, I thought, particularly for a 14-year old like mine. I had visions of these classroom videos vaulting him into a new level of interest in this historical time period, perhaps providing the opportunity to turn family movie night that week into a double feature of Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, two of my favorite movies.

Oh, how wrong I was. My son clicked on the video links and the monotonous sound started. These long videos with voiceover provided by junior varsity BBC actors and visual re-enactments that resembled brutally boring museum films, my son started to fall asleep at the computer. As we shifted from one video to another, I thought we would find content that would capture his interest and his imagination. I finally gave up when we clicked on one that offered a dull, slow narrator and a visual simply providing the dull, slow words the narrator was reading. It was essentially the third circle of PowerPoint hell.

I was ready to write off the shortcomings of the some of this video content available to teachers, recognizing that we are in unanticipated times, forced to plug teaching needs with any and all resources we can find. The more recent NAEP scores testing history content knowledge, though, paint a much more dire picture, a picture that demands our attention.

For those not in the know, the U.S. government, through the National Assessment Governing Board, tests the U.S. history knowledge of students every four years. These tests — the NAEP — are commonly called “the nation’s report card,” giving us a sense of how our students, collectively, are doing. These are trend assessments, and aren’t used to evaluate individual students.

And what did these tests tell us about our collective history knowledge? According to NAGB, “the average score for students on the 2018 U.S. history assessment dropped 4 points since 2014,” the last time the test was offered. The reaction from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was directly on point. The history results were “inexcusable.”

And these were tests today’s ninth graders took last year, when in eighth grade, well before we even heard the word coronavirus.

It doesn’t need to be this way. And it shouldn’t be this way. Even before COVID-19 and sheltering at home were ruling the day, the average young person was watching, on average, two hours of YouTube videos a day. In those two hours, she was watching more than 60 unique segments a day. Simply put, today’s learners are living on platforms like YouTube and consuming videos by the fistful.

Clearly, using the medium of video in our classrooms isn’t the issue. Today, we have schools and educators and parents hungry for video content (or any content, for that matter) that can be accessed through our virtual learning environments to better engage our kids. Yes, transforming the way we teach and learn is no simple task. But the new reality of our COVID-19 world is forcing us to transform, easy or not.

It is insufficient to think we can simply take a Ken Burns video or a documentary from the History Channel, chop it up, and then use the pieces as meaningful content to connect with today’s learners. To ensure that young people embrace American history, we need to commit to create and distribute online content that focuses on: 1) what is relevant and interesting to the student; 2) what is attractive to learners who will vary widely in both interest in history and knowledge of history; and 3) what is adaptable based on changes in learner preferences.

This means approaching the issue from several angles, exploring different concerns to inject real solutions. As tens of millions of students across the country shift to virtual learning — and as their teachers look for new, engaging learning materials to hold their students’ interests — now is the time to transform the teaching and learning of American history.

To begin this work, we need an integrated set of efforts designed to get at the three legs of the history instruction stool:

Support instruction for current K-12 American history teachers, designed to both improve their own understanding of American history and to empower them to better connect with their students and make history an exciting and worthwhile pursuit of study;

Curriculum design for both traditional classrooms and outside-of-schooltime environments, changing the very way American history is taught in communities across the nation; and

Direct-to-learner engagement, providing interesting and dynamic learning opportunities to students (and by extension their families) through a digital platform.

Whether our public schools “go back to normal” this fall or whether periods of virtual education become the new normal for k-12 in the United States, we need videos that capture the attentions and interests of today’s students, offering content that often isn’t found in dusty history textbooks. We need content that teachers can successfully use in a virtual environment and that students will want to access in their free time, using a changing learning environment to provide fun, engaging, and proactive content intended to improve both the teaching and learning of American history.

It is clear we need to dramatically change how American history is taught and learned. The time is now for a driving force that transforms American history instruction.

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