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Learning History in Classrooms Using Electronic Media

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By ROLI S

“ Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” I have used these words of Winston Churchill many times in the social studies classrooms, but as an educator it has always been very difficult to focus on the importance of history in a society dominated by the natural sciences and technology. The natural sciences have remained the “source of income”, the “bread and butter” subjects which will make it possible for the learners to gain financially from the world of work. Against this background, questions, such as the following, and focusing on a subject like history in our schools, arise. Often questions are asked – Is there still a place for the social sciences in our classrooms? If yes, then what is the possible value of History in a society driven by financial forces and technological developments? Can technology be utilised to convey the importance of History? In my opinion, even though contemporary society is dominated by the demand for science and technology, the role and place of social sciences must not be underplayed, as they have an important role in shaping and moulding people and the societies in which they live. The question remains, however, to what extent History is still a relevant and important subject at school level and how technology, which is a way of life for the present generation can make history more important and relevant in today’s world. First, talking about history as a subject, I acknowledge that it helps to build the capacity to make informed choices in order to contribute constructively to society and to advance democracy. It enhances personal empowerment, it promotes an understanding of human agency; it develops knowledge that, as humans, we have choices to change the world for the better. Through the rigorous process of historical enquiry, we are taught to think critically about society and to support democracy as a vehicle for human rights. Subsequently, the fact is highlighted that, because of the media-dominated culture in which we live, many educators recognise that many of our students’ ideas about the past are constructed not through the written words of textbooks but through the historically themed film and television programmes that they watch. Many Indians are learning more of their past and their history through the media. Recent films like Tanhaji, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, and numerous world class war documentaries made by film makers all over the world are testimony to it. It is not just the written word that contributes to understanding the past and the trends of bygone eras, but films and television could also contribute to this process of learning history in our classrooms. Many living-room discussions are stimulated by the media and people have started talking about their history and heritage as never before. The history teacher has to take cognizance of this phenomenon and accommodate films and documentaries effectively in his/ her curriculum and demonstrate less dependence on the textbooks to achieve more respect and approval of the history subject. The use of films should not be regarded as a simple matter, as history also demands some awareness of theory and a recognition of the need to understand a film or television programme as one part of a much larger, complex and ever-changing culture. Today’s classroom is less than ever isolated from the cultural environment and one cannot ignore the pervasiveness and intrusion of electronic media. Educators have to acknowledge film and television as the great history educators of our time. Films and documentaries are fun, and it can involve learners in history and increase their enjoyment of the subject. Film is unmatched in its capacity to provide emphatic reconstruction to convey how historical people witnessed, understood and lived their lives. Use of mass media and technology has become common in many classrooms today to teach history. The importance of using films correctly as it can contribute to developing learners’ creativity and their imagination cannot be ignored. How history helps learners to get an insight and understanding of the revolutions and movements of history, the stories of people, of their successes and accomplishments, how it helps learners to understand the movements and rebellions in time, and how the popularity of film can contribute to a greater interest in history are some of the significant and pertinent issues that educators should be equipped to deal with. Students in the history classrooms should not simply watch a film, but ‘read’ it as a text”. The challenge for the teachers will be to guide learners so that they understand that the visuals shown in the films are not misrepresented or twisted but positively formed and shaped. One should develop visual literacy, as media is also literature – the only difference is that the filmmaker writes with his camera as a writer writes with his pen. The goal of history teaching must go beyond simply informing people, chronicling events or passing on the traditions of a culture to new generations, to giving people the wherewithal to think out important issues. It should be, therefore, a given that we teach our students to use audiovisual sources as stimuli to think. Moving images that students see must not be uncritically accepted, but they should be examined and assessed within a particular context and all history classes should be lessons in critical thinking based on a visual stimulus. Films and Television have a large role to play in this regard. From the line of reasoning it is perhaps clear that the use of media and technology pose complex and interesting challenges to achieve the goals of History learning in school classrooms. The creative and responsible use of media and technology can contribute towards the development of values and goals like making informed decisions based on a study of the past, helping learners to study the past so that they have a better understanding of the present and where they come from, having a clearer self-understanding of their existence and their co-existence with others in specific contexts, and helping learners to develop a historical consciousness through the development of visual literacy. A society dominated by science and technology does not necessarily have to result in negative implications for the role and place of the teaching of History. In fact, Media and Technology can be utilised to contribute to a more compelling and purposeful understanding of the past so that today’s learners in our classrooms can make a positive contribution to their own destiny and the future of society.

(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author and School Reviewer based in Mumbai.)