National Council for the Social Studies

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A recent History News Network blog post ponders a future of "history without reading" (where visual literacy has replaced the literacy of traditional reading) and argues that history teachers "can't simply march further into the 21st century believing they can go on doing what they've always done." He points out that students increasingly consume information in online formats that include instant messaging, websites, blogs, or social networks and that traditional, print-based, reading is in serious decline (think newspapers).

Can you imagine a future of history without (traditional) reading? If so, are you preparing your students for this future? Or, is the role of a history teacher limited to teaching with conventional sources?

Tags: digital, literacy, reading, sources

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Well that's just it! My 11th graders are reading below 8th grade. I doubt many of them read better than 5th graders. A lot of these kids are not college bound. They don't understand so much content that I try to find any way I can, short of singing and dancing around like an idiot to make them comprehend. I don't know where the education for them dropped off, but they are just so behind! I am trying everything I can think of.
Teddy, I feel for you. Urban/suburban school? Economic need?

Many of us feel that reading as a skill stops improving at like second grade. After that it's mostly content absorption (unless you're practicing speed reading).

What we'd like to do with technology is break out of the paragraphs, and allow students to learn away from the buzz of the class, but in a way that lets them be more active physically, and with their ears, than a book allows.

So, for example, my game demands that students are always moving at least the mouse. But they have to be engaged.in the learning of names and events, or their time will be atrocious and they'll miss the later questions (well, once the game is more complete).

What I keep working at is getting money for more game components--to give students more sound and activity than Wikipedia provides. Right now, players go to Wikipedia with a specific question, but... like you say, they still have to be able to read.

Alas, money for these type interactives is impossible to come by. People graduate from ed school or start learning history as adults, and expect K-12 students to bring the same adult experiences into reading history!! So the funders and grant reviewers have no use for exercises that appear somewhat rote, but are essential to mastering content.

Nor do they respect the value of a great story--such as Spirit of the Border. Though this easy-to-read story took place but a few miles from where I grew up, I've never read it till now!!

I think some good news may be coming. Meanwhile, best of luck.
Thanks Ed! I really appreciate your comments!
As a publisher of student materials (Teachers' Curriculum Institute) this is a fascinating blog to read. TCI has long believed the traditional textbook is obsolete and has been working hard to provide teachers with student-centered, engaging activities that really bring learning alive. Now the challenge is to do the same for the digital age. While I agree with the comments that students need to READ, gone is the day that we can expect students to read a textbook chapter, answer end-of-the-chapter questions, and take a quiz on Friday. And just putting the text online is not a viable alternative. The true challenge is giving students a purpose for reading. With the web's ability for immediate feedback, rich resources, visual design, and multimedia presentations, we can truly give students a rich experience. The key is to make it dependent on their ability to understand the written word. That's a challenge we are now tackling at TCI and that we'll be showcasing in Denver next month.
History really is storytelling...so can you get the story without reading? I understand the need to prepare for the future and that includes using current technologies; but I would hate to see traditional reading disappear completely. I don't think there is a day that goes by that I don't quote or refer to something that I read in a book, a newspaper, a magazine...I think part of my job is to share with my students the joy that I get from reading and help them find that for themselves. Personally, I couldn't imagine my life without books, browsing through libraries and bookstores, reading the paper each morning, and sharing a connection with someone over a book we've read. Textbooks aren't going to inspire kids, but a great book will. I will always remember my first year teaching when I taught pioneers and westward expansion using a Little House on the Prairie book and a boy brought me money and asked me to buy him the next book in the series. What a great testament to the power of historical fiction! Hopefully we can find a balance between using technology and keeping reading in our curriculum.

I read "history without reading" in its entirety and found it to be very interesting. I am currently a student at the University of Florida and am working towards a MA in social studies education. One of my courses is all about incorporating technology into the social studies classrooms. Many of the questions you raised above are questions that my class has discussed in quite some length.

Most everyone in my class is technologically savvy, and believes that technology should be used in the classroom in order to engage students and keep their interest. Why not incorporate blogging into the classroom? However, I cannot imagine a future of history without traditional reading. I think it is important for students to be able to locate, read and use primary sources. In my opinion, seeing the document in its real form is more appealing than seeing it on the internet. I think history teachers should use the web to teach history but should not forget about traditional types of reading. The internet offers many fun activities that can engage students in the subject of history, while keeping it meaningful and fun!

Many universities and libraries are putting forth a great amount of effort in order to digitize collections of texts and primary sources. I see this as a great way to engage our students with material that would normally be unavailable to them. Yes, to see and feel a primary source in its original form is nothing like viewing a PDF of it online, but for students hundreds of miles from the nearest archive or research institution, this is the closest thing they have. I believe that there can be no history without reading of some kind, but it does not have to come straight from a text. In fact, most texts are not good for much more than a brief outline of events. It is up to the teacher to actually engage and teach the students the history. In my opinion, at the secondary level, most students learn not through reading, but through interaction. Students want to be involved in the history not just listen to it. We have to make the lessons relevant to the students, get them active in learning, and hold their interests. I do find it important to stress to them where the information comes from and explain to them that reading is the only way to gain this information, but not force them to be the ones to read it. We as teachers need to gain their interest enough to where they want to read the material, not force them to read it. I believe history is fun and can be fun for all students. It is the teachers job to keep their interest and make the material relevant to the students.

I've heard about how as we come closer and closer to contemporary times that there is less that will be written down or preserved in the same ways that they have been for the vast majority of recorded history. More information is now being transmitted or saved in the digital space and not on a piece of paper. Historians can only use the sources available to them so in this sense when students begin to study the 21st century it's inevitable that they will have to move away from the written letters, tomes or journals of past centuries and somehow have to decode a live journal, read important emails or a even decipher a twitter feed to find information.

Our use of technology has changed the way we communicate, and i'm not just speaking in the present sense, but these new forms of communication will affect how those in the future get to see the past. The way that our generation studies and learns history, whether that means finding primary sources in a library or in a digital archive, won't change drastically in my opinion when it comes to things like the river valley civilizations all the way to the 20th century because the sources we have now can only change in how we receive or look at them. Make the best interactive power point in the world about Ancient Greece if that will get students interested, but all of that information comes from stuff that was written down on a slab of rock or in a book somewhere. A historian 50 years ago may have studied a printed copy of the Gettysburg Address while I can now read it from a digital archive, but the source is still a formally written document and I would say it gets studied in a similar fashion. The fundamental shift will be when information is in forms that can only exist in a strictly digital sense like a forum or even a comment post such as this one. Maybe people don't consider reading a forum post "reading", but it still requires the same comprehension skills and if that is how newer history needs to be taught then reading will go away in the old sense of blocks of text on a paper. It'll become an interactive adventure through thoughts and words that were exchanged in comparatively real-time compared to the days of snail mail and messengers on foot. I'm sure lots of fun will be had trying to read these things with the terrible way people write on the internet though.

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