The Interplay of Materials and Pedagogy

I have, as noted before, never been happy with my History of England textbook. So I did some searching at Amazon and the British university presses, and came upon this: The Penguin Illustrated History of Britain and Ireland. I ordered it (those of you who know me know that it’s serious when I actually pay money).

It’s gorgeous. The scholarship is marvelously up-to-date. The illustrations are stunning.

But it is not a typical textbook. It is really more like an atlas with lots of cool text. It’s arranged in two-page spreads rather than chapters.

History is a complex subject. It can be learned and taught from many different perspectives: economic (my field, with technology), political, social, cultural, etc. It is possible to teach an entire class from one perspective and make it deeply analytical, or from several perspectives and make it broad.

My first decent textbook for this class was Asa Brigg’s A Social History of England, which focused on social history (demographics, lives of ordinary people, etc.). It went out of print a number of years ago (then, apparently, back in and out again – the “current” one seems to be 1999). I had it photocopied (officially, with copyright clearance) for a year or two before I gave up. My most recent text has been Roy Strong’s The Story of Britain. Its focus is cultural (he’s into art). It’s also hard to find. The bookstore loves me.

When I switched to Strong I couldn’t commit to the book mentally, but I loved the images and felt they would be useful, plus it was very well-written. The problem was that the content distribution didn’t match my class organization. This meant that sometimes students would read three short chapters a week, other times twelve (he was really into the 18th century, for example). This annoyed the students. Since I couldn’t commit, I didn’t right many test questions related to the text. Rather I considered it background.

I’ve had to examine what I want the textbook for. I kept thinking “background”. So I looked at things that could substitute. But when this book arrived, it clearly couldn’t be used as just background. It’s a work that demands commitment and engagement.

So I’m changing my pedagogy to work better with worthwhile material. The focus of this Penguin book is clearly geography, which I really only focus on periodically in the class (initial settlements, trade expansion, industrialization). The book also has two types of spreads: chronological narrative pages with white background, and thematic features with colored background. I plan to write test questions for the white pages and work the thematic feature pages into discussion by having them be a foundation for primary source collection. I have already designed a page to help students with it, called “How to use the textbook“.

This is a strange shift for me. I have always been quite reticent to let a textbook of any kind shape my pedagogy. I know what I want to do and I go out and look for materials to support that vision (textbook reps like me almost as much as the bookstore). But I think that here, as in my work on the web, it’s good to let a better idea cause change, seed a transformation. This may be bizarre thinking to those who have always taught out of the textbook, or taught to the textbook — of course the text shapes what you do. But it never has for me, and the idea of allowing material to guide pedagogy is a bit scary.

Is it the same sort of thing I hope for with web applications for learning, that maybe some cool web stuff will cause people to rethink their pedagogy? does this deny my emphasis on Pedagogy First, which, though not a rule, is a mantra for me?

It is, in the end, a matter of interplay, mutual influence, rather than determinism. This book does not determine my pedagogy, rather it allows me to play with it in a new way. I can use it to create a different focus for my course, and I know that new focus is just as appropriate as the old one. Diigo or Blackboard or WordPress does not determine what you do with them, but they guide in a particular direction that needs to be determined suitable or not by the instructor or the learner. Perhaps it is a matter of experience, enough experience to create a conversation beween content and method to create something new. We’ll see how it goes.

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