Teaching History

About a week back I finished reading Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. It is a mish-mash of history/anthropology/biology/linguistics and basically tries to explain why different civilizations have developed differently, and stuff like why the Europeans were able to capture most of America and Africa, etc. It doesn’t delve much into modern or medieval history, but basically uses the period in history when human beings started getting “civilized” to explain the possible causes.

My first brush with history was with little charts back when I was young. These charts used to have pictures of different people or things or animals with a one/two word description below. And one such chart had pictures of faces of “historical leaders”. I still remember the first three pics on that were that of Lenin, Hitler and Stalin. I used to show the chart to my grandfather and ask him to tell me about these people. I remember him telling me the story of the world wars, revolutions in Europe, etc. I also remember getting “Ivanhoe” as a prize for winning a poetry competition in school. My grandfather had then explained to me about the history of Britain, and the Norman conquests and all such.

So I arrived in school on the first day of standard six, when History, Geography and Civics had been separated into three different subjects, with fairly high expectations. My classmates were more realistic. “Seniors have told us that history is boring”, they said. The wisdom of crowds was the winner. My friends were right.

The same Mallu lady ‘taught’ us history for the next three years. She would arrive in class and start dictating. From minute one to minute forty, we’d pain our hands writing “notes”. And she’d dictate. Once every ten minutes she’d stop and spend a minute explaining what she dictated for the last ten minutes. And start again (she used to read out from her own notes, i must tell you). Day in and day out. For three years. By the time we started ninth, I don’t think anyone in our class wanted to pursue higher studies in history.

The problem with high school history, rather with all high school subjects, is that teaching is driven by examinations. History, though is a special case. For subjects like maths or physics, which are based on concepts and problem-solving, the way of teaching doesn’t differ considerably based on whether you’re teaching for the heck of it, or for exams. In other words, the examination systems for these subjects are evolved to be in line with the way it is to be naturally taught. The same is not the case with history.

Some bits of my “learning” in school remained as I read Diamond’s book. In certain places he would mention “there are three reasons why agriculture didn’t develop in New Guinea”. And I would instinctively think “ok there is scope for a three mark question based on this”. It seems like I’ve been completely consumed by the way I “learnt” in school.

So the question remains as to how we can make high school history more enjoyable and informative. Abolishing exams, of course, is one step. If students could be evaluated based on presentations and projects rather than exams (the way it happens in universities), learning would definitely be greater, and it would give teachers more flexibility. This system would definitely work really well in the top schools. Unfortunately, most schools in the country don’t fall under this category.

The main issue with the current system of examination is that it tests memory rather than understanding. It is reasonable to test the student based on his understanding. Unfortunately, it’s a grey area between testing of understanding and testing of memory. “Explain why the first world war started” sounds like an extremely valid and good question. Unfortunately it gets drilled into your head that “ok this is going to come as a 6 mark question, so you should know six reasons.” Voila! It becomes a muggoo question! We have a tough job at hand.

Coming back to the original question. How can the high school history curriculum and examination be changed in order to make it more interesting and palatable? Curriculum, I think, isn’t too much of an issue. History, as it is, is fairly interesting. The only issue might be the ideology of the textbook writers. Unfortunately, everyone has an ideology and it is imperative that it creeps in into the textbook. Re-writing the textbook is no solution. It should be the job of the history teacher to filter out the writer’s ideology and try present an unbiased view to the students.

So what should be done to the examination? Taking it objective is again no solution – it makes it even more memory based. It needs to remain essay-type. I wonder if relaxing evaluation helps. Right now, I understand, the mandate for the evaluators goes like “six points for a six mark question”. Would relaxing on this help? Suppose this results in inflation of everyone’s marks by say 20%. Would that have any negative effects?

I can’t think of any better solution for this. If you do, please let me know.

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