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Teaching & Learning History

When a plan comes together

In regard to my project I am pleased to report that this week has been very productive. First, I have moved closer to developing a lesson plan that leverages available primary sources and the learning objectives they will support. Second, I had an excellent online meeting with a classmate to discuss our projects and their progress. Third, the week’s module assignment was to explore interviews with former students and educational digital history projects. This provided some very useful reference material. Finally, while doing research on Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning I came across a very interesting concept called “unsupervised learning.”

The concept refers to an algorithm that permits a machine to learn patterns from untagged data. The hope is that, through mimicry, the machine is forced to build a compact internal representation of its world and then generate imaginative content.┬áIn essence, trying to teach the machine to “think.” While watching some of the interviews from former students, and reviewing several of the educational digital history websites, I could not help but see some similarities between the need to teach machines to think and the objective of our final project to help students to think.

The classic teaching model, is based on a “supervised learning” process. Students are assigned specific reading material, and then provided with questions that need to be answered. But “supervised” learning does not always encourage critical thinking. Our assignment this week demonstrates how learning models are adapting to technology.

Several of the educational websites that were listed, like Children & Youth in History, exemplify a “hybrid” model using document based questions. In this case the site provides “unsupervised” access to particular primary documents and then recommends suitable questions for the students to respond to. The Disability History Museum site encourages the use of reading primary sources, but this time it includes both class discussion (supervised) and also group discussion (unsupervised). Finally, the World History Commons presents a model of using primary sources to teach students about different historical perspectives. It accomplishes this goal by allowing the students (unsupervised) to compare and contrast sources. The process challenges students to explore “what was the actual truth” and what did the primary sources reveal.

The review of these educational sites confirms that to be successful students need some contextual historic background (supervised) before evaluating primary sources (unsupervised). In addition, in order to “think historically” there needs to be consideration to encourage students to study both individual primary source documents, as well as conduct comparisons. For introducing students to use primary sources, it may be beneficial to first start with “visual literacy” exercises. For example, studying historic photographs and learning how to focus on unique details.

The student project examples were also very useful. In particular, Kathy Carroll’s, Uncovering History had an exceptional teacher’s guide template. I found that it presented an excellent framework to assist both teachers and students with key learning concepts, essential questions, and the necessary primary sources. Another great student project was Katie Willard’s The First Wave at Omaha Beach. Her concept of having the student “choose their own adventure” is brilliant and a wonderful way to teach history. By providing “options” to select, students get to experience the very decisions faced by soldiers over 77 years ago. Requiring students to think through the consequences of their decisions “unsupervised” is by far one of the better examples of how next generation educational websites are evolving.

For my next steps I plan on incorporating some of the excellent ideas provided by the templates and models presented. I hope to create a working draft of my lesson plan during the next week. I am now convinced that a “hybrid” model of both “supervised” and “unsupervised” teaching methods will work best for my project. Not only will this provide the necessary historical context the students need but it will also encourage students to think independently and present their own interpretations.

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