The perks of a proper ‘Doom scroll’ for Historiana- Jens Lenders

When having the privilege of being able to travel to work by train, I often find myself doom scrolling. It’s a term that has been coined in mental health research the last few years. It is defined by Seydi Ahmet Satici et al as “An urge to get all the facts in order to protect ourselves from danger, by scrolling through our phones in search information and news on social media that are primarily negative.” In times of the COVID pandemic this was a habit that a lot of people incorporated in their lives to get a grip on uncertain times, and I was no exception. Scrolling the news in search for new information about how the pandemic came about and if there were any solutions, I could use to
protect people around me. When the pandemic came to an end a logical conclusion would have been to stop scrolling. I didn’t, however. It seems to me that I found a new ‘doomsday scenario’ in the situation of Dutch education and the problem we are encountering in for example worsening reading skills among our children and adolescents. Often, I found myself scrolling through LinkedIn for almost an hour a day. And although this isn’t really a healthy habit, I know that it helped me get extra insights in how to guide and teach our students. In this blog I would like to discuss two concepts about education and history education specifically that really helped me develop proper lessons for my students on Historiana. Although the cognitive psychological theories these concepts are based on aren’t new, the concepts helped me to practically implement some changes in my classroom activities.

History is a foreign language

With all the news about reading skills dropping significantly for the last decade, a discussion on LinkedIn about foreign language didactics in history education caught my attention. In this discussion colleagues referred to a Dutch publication about language-oriented education in the humanities from 2012.

The publication was already 9 years old, but I hadn’t read it before. Even though I knew historical concepts were difficult for students I hadn’t really come to the conclusion yet that the writers had made in the publication. They described that different subjects in the humanities, like history and geography, use concepts that aren’t part of the daily use of the Dutch language. So far nothing new, but they added the advice that we, as teachers of the humanities, should therefore treat learning as if we would teach our students a new foreign language. This struck me as so obvious and yet I overlooked it so easily. Most of the concepts we use, like Renaissance, collaboration or even a seemingly easy concept as expansion aren’t being used in everyday life of students. I immediately went on to think about how this would impact my lessons.

First of all, I think it helps to remember that expanding your historical vocabulary as a student is essential and that in order to understand the language grammar, which for me is partly comparable to historical reasoning, you need to have enough vocabulary. Secondly it helps me remember what is called the curse of knowledge. In short, the more you learn, the less you remember how difficult it was when you first encountered the concepts or first learned a skill. It also helps to remember that we sometimes define some knowledge as common knowledge, even though it might not be as common as we think. Lastly it helps me develop or search for other didactical approaches that are being used in language development. So how does this help you develop lessons on Historiana? When you start developing a lesson it’s important to think about what vocabulary you want to use or discuss with your students. The next question you could ask yourself is how difficult some words are for your students. Is it a tangible word, like table, or an abstract word, like parliament? Is it unique, like the French Revolution, or generic, like revolution? The more abstract the word gets, the more difficult it is for students to understand what it means. When a word has different interpretations in different times, it can be harder for students to understand what definition needs to be used in a certain context. When you want to work with what is called colligatory concepts, concepts that are being used to describe certain developments or phenomena like renaissance or World War Two, you need to know what other words students need to understand to fully grasp the colligatory concept. That’s why I use the term Container Concept in my classroom, because a Container concept contains several other concepts students need to understand.

Build them a scaffold

When studying to become a history teacher I had to read a chapter of a book from Sam Wineburg about historical thinking, I read that historical thinking is an unnatural activity for people to undertake. For example, when people think about causality, they tend to give a monocausal explanation. When I was doomscrolling a couple of years back I noticed the word ‘scaffolding’ was increasingly being used in discussing taking formative actions. It was also used in cognitive psychological books like in the book Wijze lessen from Surma et al, which can be loosely translated into Well-designed lessons. The essence of scaffolding is making sure that implicit actions that students need to learn need to be explained and made explicit for them to be able to practice with it. A good scaffold contains three elements:

  • Make sure the difficulty of assignments and instructions is adjusted to the cognitive level of
    your group.
  • When learning something new, start with intensive instruction and guidance, but make sure
    to fade out the guidance for students to eventually do it on their own.
  • Transfer the responsibility for the learning process from the teacher to the student.

What does this have to do with historical reasoning? Teaching students how to reason historically, means that they need to be guided step by step how to do certain activities. If contextualizing the behaviour of a historical actor isn’t something students know how to do yet, you first need to explain the relevance, then teach them how to contextualize with for example a step-by-step plan (Example below), after which you practice with intensive guidance. If you are confident enough that the students know how to do it themselves, let them practice without guidance or extra instructions. Students should be able to use the acquired skill in a different assignment now. So how does this help you develop lessons in Historiana? When developing a lesson, always think
about what student find difficult about the component of historical reasoning. Think about what you need to teach them to help them acquire the skill and develop or use and existing step-by-step plan for students to practise with. These plans could be added to the Historiana lesson you created and could be used by colleagues to use in other Historiana lessons.