HistoricLee Relevant

An Education in History Education

All I Ever Really Need to Know I Learned from Starcraft II

[x-posted at Videogames, Learning, & School Design]

With the end of the semester comes reflection and reflection papers, and I’d like to share this little nugget from my final reflection paper for Dr. Fishman‘s Videogames, Learning, & School Design class:

I’m sure Robert Fulghum would not be pleased with my misappropriation of his famous text, but…Dr. Fishman…encouraged me to repurpose others’ work in order to express my ideas in a manner that both denotes learning and enjoyment. Here goes.

Most of what I really need to know about how to manage, and what to time, and how to be tenacious, I learned from Starcraft II. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain [how apropos], but there in the sand dunes of Mar Sara.

These are the things I learned: Harvest everything. Play quick. Don’t inadvertently hit your units. Redirect SCVs back where you found them. Clean up the Dominion’s mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours…unless you have superior firepower. Say you’re sorry when you hurt your teammate in multiplayer. Wash your hands of Zerg guts before you eat their lunch. Flush traitors out the airlock. Warm cannons and cold steel are good for you. Produce a balanced army. Learn some new battle techniques and think about how you spend your resources and draw conclusions based on that thinking and paint the screen purple with Zerg blood and sing and dance on the graves of hydralisks and play Starcraft II and work at playing Starcraft II every day.

Let Tychus take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into interstellar space, watch for alien traffic, hold your fleet, and fire together. Be aware of warp prisms. Remember the little SCV in the metal exoskeleton. The wheels go round and drill goes down and nobody really knows how or why these guys do it, but we are all like that.

Ghosts and Helions and siege tanks and even the little SCV in the metal exoskeleton – they all die. So do we.

And then remember the book about the Terrans and Kerrigan and the first word you learned, the biggest word of all: ZERG. Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. An eye for an eye and interspecies love and basic genetics, bioethics and corrupt politics and insane living.

Think of what a better world it would be if we all – the whole galaxy – had cannons and steel 24 hours every day and then got up with our mechanized warriors for a brawl. Or if we had a basic policy in our little rebellion to always put things back in order by overthrowing the Terran Dominion and cleaning up Arcturus Mengsk’s messes. And it is still true, no matter how grizzled you are, when you go out into interstellar space, it is best to hold your fleet and fire together.

My first semester in University of Michigan’s Teaching and Teacher Education PhD program was great, and I’m looking forward to more of the same in the coming semesters!


Gamification and a Better You

[x-posted at Videogames, Learning, & School Design]

Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I have been unable to hit the gym this semester. It’s on the way home, it’s free, and I know I’d have more energy if I went. I know all of these things, and yet, I still can’t muster up the motivation to go.

Ah, there’s the key word: motivation.

Enter gamification.

Gamification centers on the idea that one can apply game design principles to any problem. Need to motivate students to learn. GAMIFY IT! Need to quit smoking? GAMIFY IT! Need to hit the gym more frequently? GAMIFY IT! (If you’ve seen Dexter, Season 5, then this refrain will sound familiar.)

Brian Wang and Dick Talens have not only gamified the gym experience with Fitocracy, but they have done so with enormous amounts of personal success, going from fraught with flab to muscles of many, from sitting all day to fitting in your clothes. They argue that the characteristics of high-intensity gamers are almost identical to those of body builders:

They’ve been trained to focus for weeks at a time on a single goal. They know how to clearly identify obstacles and form step-by-step plans to overcome them. They’re obsessed with improving specific skills but judge success only by overall progress made in the world they’ve decided to conquer — as realistic or fantastical as it may be.

Gamification has its detractors and critics, notably Iam Bogost, with his post, “Gamification is Bullshit.” But, Bogost’s ire seems not to be directed at serious thinkers and pedagogical theoreticians but rather at a corporate edutainment industry hellbent on making profits, not learners. Shawn Graham’s “Gamification, Bullshit, and Teaching History,” at Play the Past, is taking up Bogost’s challenge, and we would do well to remain similarly skeptical of techno-educational fads but also take account of the potential benefits of innovative pedagogy.

Maybe an system of external rewards and online badges will get me into the gym at least once this semester, but it’s this notion of externality that also kinda makes me hate going to the gym: the super-amped, jacked guy that gazes longingly at his deltoids in the mirror. If I go to the gym, ultimately, it’s because I want a better quality of life and not necessarily a better looking body…but I guess that wouldn’t hurt either.

Behaviorism and Existential Crisis

[x-posted at Videogames, Learning, & School Design]

Skinner’s behaviorism has generated intense debate for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the role of free will.

In videogames, the game world has been constructed by game designers with a set of game rules, a world within which you (meaning your character) operate.  Some games provide a greater amount of latitude with regard to possible actions within the game, others more.  For example, there are a very limited number of actions to be performed, levels to be explored, and coins to gather in Super Mario Brothers.  By contrast, World of Warcraft offers many more options with regard to the same; more actions, more levels, more coins.  Nevertheless, your actions are constrained.  Your choices are limited.  This is what might be called behavioralism light.  Hardcore behavioralists would argue that the game world, scaffolded by game rules, actually compels a certain set of reactions.  There are no choices, no other options; there is only the game.  There are only stimuli and response.  The real world operates this way as well.  The world, scaffolded by rules of biology, physics, chemistry, etc., compels a certain set of reactions from us.  These actions are not the result of free will or choice but, instead, they spring from reactions to stimuli.

Behaviorists fail to appropriately explain the real world’s “game designers.”  In point of fact, though, they have very little interest in such matters.  For them, it doesn’t matter if the Big Bang created these conditions or if Vishnu sat on top of giant turtle while Jesus prattled on about talents and wine and such and then the universe coalesced into being as a result of their divine conversation (which, I imagine, would be something like the best Seinfeld episode ever).

“[Free will] is a fiction…By discovering the causes of behavior, we can dispose of the imagined internal cause…Once you have found those causes there is less need to attribute to an internal act of will and, eventually, I think, the need to attribute nothing to it.”

So, for Skinner, there is no free will, and our participation in videogames seems to confirm this suspcion.  But, this may be the point at which the utility of videogames as an analogy for life stops because, in the end, I can put down the controller.

Black Power in AP US History Classrooms

At every AP reading (see here for a general description of the event and here for the 2011 reading specifically), history professors and APUSH teachers collectively bemoan the sad state of students’ knowledge of the past, and this year is no different.  Our groaning as teachers does not stem from a failed attempt to recapture a “golden age” long past wherein students mastered all relevant historical minutia.  Instead, it comes from our failure to teach and their failure to learn.

Nevertheless, the minutia matters because it serves as the building blocks of historical memory.  While some students’ mistakes on the AP US History essays are trivial and even understandable (confusing John Quincy Adams with his father, for example), others are more alarming.  These mistakes are less about the factoids themselves and more about interpretation and analysis thereof.  Worse still, these misguided interpretations and analyses often lead to injustices of memory.

Question #5 at the 2011 AP US History reading proved to be a prime example of an injustice of historical memory, specifically with regard to the black power movement.  The following essay question (which I was assigned to grade for four and a half days) generated a litany of incorrect historical facts, inaccurate interpretations and analyses, and injustices of historical memory:

“African American leaders have responded to racial discrimination in the United States in a variety of ways.  Compare and contrast the goals and strategies of African American leaders in the 1890s-1920s with the goals and strategies of African American leaders in the 1950s-1960s.”

The following is a small sample of quotes that I gathered from student essays highlighting the injustices to memory perpetrated in this year’s APUSH classrooms:

“Malcolm X urged his followers to use violence and weapons when necessary.”
“Malcolm X…advocated violent protest of making the white people pay for their discrimination.”
“Malcolm originally sought to use violence against whites…”
“Malcolm X felt that violence was the answer…”
“Malcolm X used violence to try and earn his freedom.”
“Malcolm X…believed in Black Power and violence.”
“Malcolm X inspired violence towards the cause.”
“…Malcolm X emphasized the use of terrorist tactics…”
“Malcolm X, an educated man, who saw violence…as the best means to achieve reform.”
“Malcolm X used violent protests…to try to fight the discrimination that African Americans were facing.”
“One leader who still had the goals of violent reform was Malcolm X.”
“Malcolm X…believed the answer to desegregation and equal rights was through violence and force.”
“It was people like Malcolm X who didn’t see the change he wanted and began protesting in violent ways…”
“Leaders such as Malcolm X led riots and promoted violence as a means to earn their rights.”
“Malcolm X was a strong believer in these means [violence] of gaining equality…”
“Malcolm X…advocated black supremacy and even violence.”

“The Black Panther Party formed as a black terrorist group to enforce equality.”
“The [the Black Panthers] openly took part in violence to gain attention.”
“There was also the…black panthers which also called for violence against whites…”
“The Black Panters…decided that the only way to get that point across was violence, they killed hundreds of people and got into race riots…”
“Their tactics ranged from organized violence (like that of the Black Panthers)…”
“The Panthers infamously started the Watts and LA riots…”
“…the Black Panthers, openly willing to use violence to protect their rights.”
“…the Black Panthers…committed violent acts to try and convince legislation to give African American people their rights.”
“…the Black Panther Party a violent organization.”

“Malcolm X and the Black Panthers even took up violence as being the only way for their freedom.”
“…the Black Panthers who violently protested and burned many buildings to get his (Malcolm X’s) point across…”
“Malcolm X led a violent protest group, the Black Panthers.”
“[Malcolm X’s] teachings helped spark the emergence of the Black Panthers, who utilized violence…to gain equality.”
“Malcolm X…establish[ed] the group, Black Panthers, as they would lynch white men.”
“Others like Malcolm X and…the Black Panthers, saw violence as the only way to reach these goals for the African American community.”

“Malcolm X and the Nation on Islam called for blacks to violently rally against whites.”
“As King was doing that [following Ghandi’s example], other Blacks were pretty much starting gangs, and killing people to ge their message out.”
“The Black Muslims were a violent group…”
“Violent responses [to racist segregation] were led by Carmichael and the Black Panthers.”
“Black Power leaders were responsible for a number of riots including the Los Angeles riots.”

These quotes come from one of five places: the teacher, the textbook, the students’ pre-class knowledge, the students’ unique interpretation of the previous three, or some combination thereof.  If we are to correct this injustice to historical memory, all five of these areas must be evaluated in relation to their contribution to students’ responses.

Please feel free to comment.  I have more to say about this issue, but I feel it would be best to do so in dialogue with others.

Ed Tech Errata

I’ve been meaning to comb through the wealth of educational technology articles that have zipped through my inbox and add them as parts of my previous posts or include them in some future post, but today I decided to simply post some them here with a short summary or commentary.

– “Learners who are familiar with using computers actually access different neural networks when reading information from a computer than when reading information from a book.”  What are the consequences for learning and pedagogy?  (Ernie Rambo’s review of Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age in Teacher Voices blog)

– ‘Low tech’ tools have the potential to improve student performance and learning.  The newest and best technology is not required to generate learning gains.  (“Classroom-Tested Tech Tools Used to Boost Literacy” by Katie Ash in Education Week)

– Blended learning environments will be the main avenue of growth for online learning.  Since this report is largely descriptive in terms of cognition, the efficacy of each of the six types of blended learning should be studied and also compared with 100% online and 100% bricks-and-mortar learning environments.  (“The Rise of K-12 Blended Learning” by Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker from Innosight Institute)


Heading to Ann Arbor!

Valentine’s Day 2011 proved to one of the best in recent memory for yours truly.   Not only did I bask in the glow of a lovely weekend with my fiancee, not only did I find out that the new Radiohead album is coming out in less than a week, but I also received word on Monday that I have been accepted into the University of Michigan‘s PhD program for Teaching/Teacher Education!

I’m very excited to begin working with the faculty at UM, especially Bob Bain, whose article, “Into the Breach,” helped reinvigorate my teaching practice a few years ago and inspired me to apply to Michigan.

Now, I just need to learn what the phrase “ice storm” means…

Reading Digitally, History That Is…

Last night, I spoke to an APUSH student over the phone during one of our scheduled discussion-based assessments, and she told me that she had abandoned the online, digital, PDF textbook in favor of an analog version that I gave to her a few weeks ago.  “It’s just hard to read online,” she quipped.  A recent Scholastic/Harrison Group report presents an ambiguous and murky picture concerning the role of digital texts in the lives of students and suggests that the push for digital textbooks in K-12 classrooms may be premature, at best.  (The report fails to address the efficacy of digital texts versus analog texts in the transmission and retention of knowledge.)  As Florida (a MAJOR textbook market) gets ready to move toward universal digital textbooks, I have begun thinking about literacy as it relates to digital texts and, more specifically, how that translates into historical thinking and the reading of history.

David M. Berry argues that “we should be thinking about what reading and writing actually should mean in a computational age.” He suggests that the burgeoning third wave of digital humanities should address the epistemic issues associated with the digitization of knowledge, and I think my student’s complaint about her required digital textbook is where the theoretical rubber meets the real-world road.

I argued previously (at length) that full online delivery of content at the high school level may not be the best way to move forward, and digital textbooks are part of the reason why I believe we need to be more critical about distance education.  [The following will be edited with links and references once I am able to locate the links and references in question…please help in the comments if you know what I’m talking about.]  Many studies have shown decreased performance amongst students who read content online versus those who read analog versions of the same.  I’m excited about the possibilities in store for historical knowledge and historical literacy in the digital age, but we have to navigate these waters with an eye toward our charges and their best interests, not in technology for the sake of technology.

More importantly, we have to begin looking toward the future (and I think this is what Berry is getting at in the above post).  How does an increased reliance on digital archives, digital textbooks, digital activities, etc. affect how students learn, know, and understand history?  Are new narratives being constructed?  How is the brain adapting to these changes?  What happens to the critical disposition of learners in a digital environment?  How does digital sociability affect the telling of stories and students’ perceptions of evidentiary reliability?  And, at the most basic level, how does reading a digital history text differ from an analog version of the same?  How does the brain change or adapt (if at all) to this new input?

I think I may have found a research topic, friends.

My Small Contribution to Digital Humanities

I just finished reading Stephen Ramsey‘s post “On Building,” and I began to think about how I plan to “build” in the field of history education.

First, blogging strikes me as a positive first step in building for the digital humanities.  If done regularly and well, it requires a rudimentary knowledge of backend administration (or at least the willingness to putz around to figure it out), and it teaches a person how code tags work.

Blogging: check.

Second, in the last four years, I have become increasingly fascinated with the statistical correlations between AP exam scores and other data.  A major study in Texas suggested that even a “failing” grade of a 2 on one AP exam correlates with a significant increase in college graduation rates.  I have used this study to highlight over and over again, to both students and parents (and even to other teachers and administrators), the work ethic that AP tends to foster in students.  After hearing the results of this study for the first time (and because of National Board’s emphasis on student data collection and analysis), I began collecting data on all my AP students.  After three years, I began to notice statistically significant correlations between midterm multiple choice score and AP exam scores, and this allowed me to zero in on students in the “danger zone,” helping them with their shore up their knowledge of a certain historical period or practice a specific skill necessary to pass the AP exam.  I would like to continue this work (somehow) in my PhD program, and Ramsey’s post further confirms my notion that this should not be an outlier behavior amongst history educators.

Data mining: check.

Now, I just need to learn how to code…

Learning History Online?

I’ve completed my first full semester of teaching high school social studies in a fully online environment (insert snarky comment about working in pajamas and waking up late), and I’ve been wrestling with more than a few issues about the efficacy of this approach.  I do not believe that I would lump myself with the likes of ed tech curmudgeon (and recently deceased) David Noble, but I do believe that uncritical acceptance of secondary level distance learning as it currently exists may not foster the habits and skills needed by 21st century global citizens.

Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is “the largest state-led virtual school program in the US.” I currently work for a franchise of FLVS, a district-level organization (not technically a “school” on paper even though we insist on labeling ourselves as such) that provides classes to local students using FLVS’s course content.  Essentially, our organization buys the curriculum from FLVS in much the same way bricks-and-mortar schools (B&Ms) buys textbooks.  I teach the Advanced Placement social studies classes, notably AP US History and AP US Government.  My first encounter with FLVS students taking AP classes occurred when two online students joined my 28 in-class students for the administration of the APUSH exam at the end of the 2009-10 school year.  One of the two online students said that she did not get past World War I in the curriculum, and her score (along with that of the other online student) reflected this lack of coverage.  Both online students scored a 1, while 53.6% of my 28 in-class students passed the exam (scored a 3, 4, or 5) that year.  (It should be noted that both of the aforementioned online students were otherwise academically successful.)

As I hinted at above, I taught APUSH in a B&M for three years with a reasonable amount of success: annual pass rates at or above the national average after my first year of teaching the class and an overall (three-year) pass rate well above the national average.  As I began perusing the FLVS curriculum for APUSH at the beginning of this school year, a number of questions concerning the effectiveness of the curriculum swirled through my head:

1) Why was the textbook so difficult to download? After calling three reps and an equal number of tech support personnel, I finally landed in the right spot.  (The FLVS site initially directed me to the incorrect page for the online textbook.)  I had to go through more than a reasonable amount of steps to even find the correct textbook, and once I did locate the text, the default setting wanted me to view the book within the website itself (thus eliminating the possibility that I may want to view these documents offline).  Once I finally figured out how to download the text (in PDF), I realized that doing so was a huge chore because each chapter had to be downloaded separately.  After attempting to guide one student through this process, I decided that I would rather e-mail each of my students all the PDFed chapters than to risk any one of them falling back on a technical excuse for not having a textbook (an excuse to which I would have been sympathetic).  The APUSH text is, for most students, the first time they are challenged by a college-level set of readings, and it’s import within the class is (almost) without question.  But for my online students their initial access to it was convoluted, at best.

2) Why were unit/chapter identification terms not required assignments? For better or for worse, one of the staples of APUSH learning has been the incessant memorization of terms, people, and events.  Based on my observations, most successful APUSH teachers use some form of the “notecard assignment” to prod students into remembering these terms.  Even though College Board is revamping the curriculum away from this burdensome errata, this information is still necessary to pass the exam this year (and probably the next).  Also, once the switch to a broad-based, thematic approach is finalized, I imagine students will still need to be able to marshal an impressive amount of evidence to succeed on the AP exam.  I was absolutely shocked to find that FLVS did not require students to submit some type of assessment resembling the “notecard assignment.”  When I asked the FLVS administrator for the Advanced Placement program why this was the case, he responded by saying that this was not an example of “authentic learning” and therefore did not merit a place within the curriculum.  While I certainly understand and sympathize with this argument (students can just look up the “Who? What? Where? When? Why? & How?” on Wikipedia), this ignores the fact that students need to encounter the building blocks of historical investigation in multiple forums and in ways that allow them to review this information later.  The “notecard assignment” accomplishes these tasks and may also be modified by online instructors to address the concerns of inauthenticity.

3) What is the pass rate for FLVS’s AP US History classes? In mid-semester, I attended the annual FLVS conference, and many of my suspicions concerning the ineffectiveness of the FLVS APUSH curriculum were confirmed.  As I tweeted on September 17, 2010, “APUSH pass %: national – 53.2%; Florida – 40.5%; #flvs – 32.5%. Numbers speak for themselves & #flvs knows it. Doing what to fix? #flvsconf” There are only three possible inputs responsible for these appalling results (and this is true of any AP class): the teacher, the students, and the curriculum.  First, I can assure you that FLVS’s APUSH teachers (and I would wager most all of their AP teachers) are highly motivated and well trained.  Because online teaching positions are highly coveted, FLVS tends not to hire inexperienced AP teachers.  FLVS financially rewards high performing/effective teachers, thus ensuring that even middling teachers are, at minimum, emulating the best practices of better teachers.  Second, because the pass rate numbers for both FLVS and the state cover a geographically broad expanse of students, the difference in group composition may be negligible.  I’m willing to accept, for example, that International Baccalaureate (IB) students may be less prone to take APUSH online (due to their extremely tight scheduling during all four years of high school), but I do not think that, at the state level, that this or any other conjured difference in student composition would account for an eight percentage point differential between the two groups.  The curriculum is the common denominator in FLVS’s failure to achieve a respectable pass rate for its APUSH students.

The above critique of secondary level distance learning focuses solely on FLVS’s AP US History curriculum, and this approach certainly has its limits.  The availability of an online, free, public education benefits a wide variety of student constituencies (homebound students and homeschooled students, just to name a few), and this type of accessibility should be encouraged.  Nevertheless, the opportunity costs associated with distance education should identified and analyzed, not be overlooked.  One study, contrary to a recent U.S. Department of Education analysis, suggests that a lack of face-to-face contact may negatively impact student performance.

Is it possible that some types of learning are better facilitated in a face-to-face environment?  This is a matter of pedagogical research, and the answer(s) to this question may prove increibly useful in creating powerful and effective curriculua for a variety of disciplines.  But, more to the point, can history be taught/learned effectively in an exclusively online environment? Surely, the factoids, dates, and personages of the historical record can be conveyed through the ones and zeros of digital representation as easily as the chalk and blackboards of yesteryear.  But, is the online ecosystem enough to foster the highest levels of engagement, self-reflection, and criticism that historical thinking tends to spawn?  Or is the discussion of analog versus digital simply missing the point all together?  Is there another, better way to create historical understanding amongst our charges?

I would like to suggest that an immersive online educational environment does not provide the full measure of sustenance required for historical teaching, learning, and thinking at the secondary level.  It is highly likely that I am idealizing historical knowledge production to such an extent that no digital curriculum would meet my standards.  Even so, holding the rising tide of online learning to high levels of accountability may be worth the trouble in the long run…and it may help us to better understand the nature of our beliefs about history and education.

Boldly going where no one has gone before…

In light of Matt Might‘s Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D., I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to push that circle out just a little bit farther in history education. Right now, lots of wonderful people are doing work in my areas of interest, like:

History Education
1. How to teach history
2. How to learn history
3. How the brain understands/constructs historical knowledge, thinks historically
4. History education as an object (of critique, of praise, etc.)
5. Lesson plans

History Education Technology
1. Creating new tools
2. Using existing tools
3. Creating new resources
4. Using existing resources

(Of course, this list is incomplete, but you get the idea.)

How do I either 1) push the boundary of the circle in one of the above areas or 2) explore an area not even listed above or conceived by those much more well-versed in this area than I? Most research (in any area) falls under the category of “expands upon or elaborates on existing knowledge/theory.” Chances are, that’s what I’ll be doing in grad school.  Nevertheless, what areas lie just outside of our reach in history education and history education technology? And, more importantly, how do we get to the place that will allow us to explore those unknown lands?  I don’t know yet, but I’ll keep pushing.

Thanks, Matt.

Writers are made, not born

So sayeth my Master’s committee chair, David K. Johnson. He always assigned his favorite book about writing for first-year graduate students, Revising Prose by Richard Lanham, and I was not exempt from this ritual. Dr. Johnson emphasized the need to write, revise, revise, and revise some more. Even though I was not fresh out of an undergraduate program (I had a few years of real world experience under my belt by then), I didn’t imbibe Lanham’s lessons as well as I should have.

So, here I am, co-authoring a book about the pedagogical use of music in social studies classes, and I’m finding my own writing stale and dry, lacking in flavor, not crisp. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spot a book that may help: Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace. OK, OK, Revising Prose was there, sitting on my bookshelf next to Style, but maybe I just need to learn these lessons without Dr. Johnson staring over my shoulder.

The big lesson I took away from Lanham during Dr. Johnson’s classes?  Avoid the “to be” verb at all costs.  Williams explicates the rationale for that rule: characters need to take action. “To be” only points out that something exists or is something else. Also, Williams suggests turning abstract nouns (nominalizations) into verbs and adjectives (though I think that verbs are preferable).

Characters and action, not abstractions and nominalizations.

So, here I am, learning, yet again, to be a writer.

Nothing to see here…

In preparation for a PhD program in history education, I’m doing some reading.  I’m also in the process of co-authoring a book.  Point is, I’d like to keep a running tab of the what, when, who, why, and how of all this.  Also, having recently bemoaned the relative difficulty of joining the conversation amongst the digital humanities crowd, it’s time for me to start playing in the sandbox.  Lastly, I’ve seen very little in the way of blogs about history education.  Lots of history blogs, lots of education blogs, nary a whisper about history education.  Hopefully, I’m wrong, but if not, here’s an attempt to make something happen.

I’ve applied to exactly one PhD program, and I hope to receive some type of positive e-mail in February.  Until, then journey has already begun.