How do you teach history in a communist country? (China, April 2016)

When we first started engaging Wang, a history teacher in Wen Hua Secondary School in Yunan (posted there as a Teaching Fellow from Teach for China) to do some Maker experiments (however you call it, actually), it was very open-ended. Deliberately so, because we think it’s important to be patient enough to let ideas grow out of people’s minds rather than prescribe Key Performance Indicators from the outset.

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In between, it came as a shock that lessons are taught by reading from textbooks, and that the most critical tasks expected of students are underlining and highlighting — yet one cannot begin to fault the people who participate in the grind, because the status quo is the inevitable result of standardised exams taken to their logical extremes.

The obstacles are many:

创客实验对于教育来说,应该是一种,以学生为中心,关注学生需求,基于学生的所学,所想,所听,所说,所看来设计教学活动的思维方法。我想,很多老师在课堂上,用视频也好,比赛也好,设计形形色色的课堂活动也好,与创客都有异曲同工之妙。其区别是,传统课堂可能还是难以改变“老师讲,学生听”的模式,并且是以知识优先,而不是学生优先。作为一名教师,以知识为基准讲课是十分容易的。而以学生为基准讲课则需要耗费更多的精力,倾注更多的心血,这是很多老师,尤其是教学多年已经产生疲倦感的老师不愿意去做的。即使是新来的学生,在他们的眼里也与旧学生无二。更何况,在有了一个非常完整的教学体系之后,人们是不愿意去做创新做突破的,而更喜欢循规蹈矩、按部就班。我想,这是创客难以在所有课堂推广的原因之一。

难点之二,是学科知识如何与科技相互结合。最开始让我做创客,我也是有些迷惑的。对我来说,历史是古人记录下的一连串故事,是书本上的“死气沉沉”人物,是重大的影响深远的意义作用,是要记要背的一个个知识点。如何结合科技?我不确定。设计一个历史故事宝库?做一款猜词游戏?这也只是我的空想而已。

难点之三,是同理心地图。听到,看到,似乎不难,难在他们的内心。和他们相处的时间越久,我越会明显地感受到与学生之间的差距,年龄上的,知识上的,眼界上的,家庭上的,我了解十三四岁的我自己,可是我有点难理解十三四岁的他们。

我也非常困惑,创客实验会给在短时间内学生带来多大的影响与改变,尤其是半年后我即将离开,这样的影响是否还能在学生之间传递下去。

我想,创客带给我的,更多是思考方式,而不是一个单纯的模板或套路。只有真正的学会换位思考,真正的去接触到学生的内心才能完成这一工作。

To translate (very loosely) from the above,

  1. It is most easy to read from the text and lecture for a teacher. To make a student the basis and the centre of the lesson requires far more attention and energy, and this is something that a lot of teachers (especially the jaded ones) are unwilling to invest in.
  2. The second difficulty is in making concrete domain knowledge and technology. How do you make history smart? To me, ancient history is a series of stories recorded by dead men, it is but “dead” characters in books; these are events of far-reaching significance and individual knowledge points, how can technology be integrated into this subject?
  3. Real gaps in terms of age, knowledge, perspective, background persists between myself and the students. I know who I was as a 13, 14 year old but I find it hard to understand these 13, 14 year olds.

Then Ernie sent Wang a link and posed the following questions:

… 反思一下中国教导历史的方法有哪些优劣点。以知识为基础讲课的目的是什么(对谁而言的目的)?有效地完成了这项目的吗?这些我们信手拈来的知识凭什么就是知识,为何不是其他的一些东西?历史课上保留或者对之沉默的东西告诉了我们什么?

What are some of the pros and cons of the way that history is taught in China? What are the aims (and for whom) of delivering lessons with such knowledge points as basis? Has it been effective? Why are these “knowledge” considered “knowledge”, and not something else? What does the retention or silence of history lessons on certain matters tell us?

To which Wang responded eloquently,

that it is perhaps the inevitable result of a system that selects talent on the basis of standardised exams, that this is the history that the powers that be want us to know of.

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Slightly more than a month later, Wang did a little activity to have students guess historical events. 1 would try to guess the keywords involved, while the rest use their vocabulary of historical knowledge and language to prompt. Of the 56 student groups in 7 classes, the best result was 9 right guesses obtained in 3 minutes and the worst was 1 group abstained.

Technology and making in our conventional understanding of such terms are not yet “fully” utilised, but don’t you just love how there is always a Chinese twist on things? We can’t wait to see what happens next.