For me, understanding the past is a lot like solving a mystery. It’s an exhilarating, organic process of testing different theories and approaches to satisfy an intellectual curiosity on a particular historical subject in order to unlock the secrets of why things happened as they did. As a teacher my aim is to inspire the same level of intellectual curiosity in my students and to make them just as eager to solve a historical mystery.
The key to this philosophy is motivating the students to develop a healthy interest in the subject.
I have found over the last two years as a tutor on the course ‘The Contemporary World’ at the University of Nottingham, that active learning is integral to cultivating this interest. While I am very comfortable lecturing in front of a large audience, such as my teaching on the course ‘British Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Two World Wars’, and believe that formal lectures have their benefits, I have found that teaching smaller groups create an intellectually stimulating environment. Such an environment is more conducive to employing active learning techniques such as discussion groups, presentations, and role playing.
I found that this worked especially well in teaching mundane material such the historiography surrounding certain subjects. For example, when confronted with teaching historiography surrounding British decolonization, I encouraged my students to organize a role playing session in which they were specific historians arguing from different schools of thought.
Additionally, this approach benefits both the students and me. While it allows me to spend more time with the students and have a greater impact on their learning process it also gives me a chance to know who my learners are, what kinds of knowledge and experience they bring to the course, and where their intellectual interests lie. Moreover, the skills they utilize in an active learning environment such as project and presentation management, cooperative problem solving, and critical reasoning are transferable skills which will reinforce the students’ ability to perpetuate and advance human knowledge regardless of their field of study or expertise.
In the pursuit of sparking students’ interest and inspiring them to become historical detectives, I have employed abstract teaching techniques. For example, Dr. Peter Yeandle (one of my colleagues on ‘Contemporary World)’ and I staged an intellectual argument, in front of a full lecture theater, on the merits of Gar Alperovitz’s revisionist approach to Atomic Diplomacy at the close of the Second World War. This technique was especially successful in that the majority of student’s term papers were on Atomic Diplomacy that semester and previously the topic had been relatively ignored by the students. Additionally, undertaking such methods gave me opportunities to collaborate with colleagues who are enthusiastic about scholarship and whose teaching and expertise are complementary to my own.
I have refined this approach over the last few years by reflecting on the teacher evaluation forms and have sought to improve my philosophy by finding the balance between formal lecturing and active learning. It is my hope that I can draw upon the expertise, diversity, and experience of my new colleagues to help me on this quest.
I want my classroom to provide an environment which nurtures intellectual innovation and academic understanding. An environment which presents historical mysteries, encourages a passion for learning, and the opportunity to use critical and creative thinking to solve those mysteries. After all, as Julia Cameron said in The Artist’s Way, ‘Mystery is at the heart of creativity.’
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