Can young children benefit from independent study in history?

Yesterday I had the privilege of guest teaching a course entitled “Historians, Communities and the Past” which is taught by my good friend Tim Compeau, PhD at Huron University College here in London.

Over the course of 90 minutes we engaged in a Socratic discussion about the question: “Is it responsible to allow grade school children the option of self-directed learning in the field of history?”

The conversation was very engaging in no small part because we reflected on whether one of the chief problems in educating children and young adults is that educators, policymakers, teachers and parents become focused upon names and disciplinary boundaries at the expense of allowing for interdisciplinary discovery, exploration and problem-driven learning. Or, to put it another way: at the expense of creativity.

Here is a scenario:

Imagine an 8 year old student who has become fascinated by schools; she is interested in the schools built by pioneers and how people in earlier times were educated -especially in rural and remote communities- in one room school houses. She decides that she wants to learn everything that she can about one room school houses. After talking with her teacher and her parents, she decides that she wants to undertake a project (independent study) to learn everything that she can about how one room school houses came to be; where they were pioneered; why they have persisted; how they work. She visits museum exhibits, watches movies, reads books and even talks with people who have knowledge of, or personal experience with, being educated in one room school house environments. She is then allowed to undertake her project.

To my mind, a series of questions arises from this hypothetical:

1.) If this project were a school project, what discipline would this child be studying? Do we simply call it social studies, or can we say it is history, sociology, education and economics?

2) Can this project be accommodated as a primary/elementary school classroom project?

3.) Is a teacher/student relationship required here?

4.) If we do not allow the child to undertake this study are we hindering her education?

5.) Is it inconceivable that an 8 year old child could do this or have a desire to do this?

6.) Is this student actually developing an interest in sociology, education and economics (as well as history) by her choice of this project? Does subject (academic discipline) in the conventional sense even matter in this case?

As you might imagine, this type of scenario prompted much discussion. I leave it to you to decide how you might answer these questions or think about this matter.



Oral history and a belief in a dialogical future

I had a very helpful and productive conversation with a good friend of mine the other night. He suggested that I expand DEMOI into the field of oral history/public history. I think his idea is outstanding.

For those of you who have been reading and following my page, you know that I have a podcast called ‘Talking to Canadians’ which features quite lengthy interviews (more are scheduled, by the way). As the podcast has evolved it has become less of a podcast and more of an oral history project. I am thoroughly enjoying the work and I have been wanting to expand the interviewing that I do.

In London there are many opportunities to explore the history and heritage of the city’s many neighbourhoods. Right now there are several proposed “Heritage Districts” which will require that researchers go out into the communities and interview residents about the history of their homes, neighbourhood stores and organizations and to talk with them about their life in their neighbourhoods. As you might imagine, I want to be a part of this and will be looking to join in the effort.

I am starting to think of DEMOI not only as a place of Socratic teaching, learning and discussion, but also as an inchoate institution (if I am allowed to use that word without sounding pretentious). My dream is to build an educational project that is capable of pushing back against the top-down, hierarchical methods that are used to steer people toward professional, vocational and occupation futures -not to mention, maintain class futures- which limit the scope of human potential. Better yet, I have a dream of combatting the alienation of labour, the tyranny of work which impacts so many of us.

I have long held to the belief that alienated labour or workplace tyranny is not inevitable. I see DEMOI as an attempt to work with people of all ages to find alternatives to a world of work-for-profit, work-for-competition and work-for-complacency. I see oral history as part of a broader dialogical process which has the potential to reexamine and potentially redefine human relationships. I believe, following in the footsteps of radical educators like Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux, that dialogue is a powerful device for personal and social liberation and that it engenders broader empathy. Already I am attempting to use oral history in my work as an independent educator. Here’s to believing that this endeavour can be part of a broader effort toward a better, more democratic future.

‘Talking to Canadians’ episode #5 (Elisha Stam & Alan Judson)

I sit down for a very enjoyable conversation with Elisha Stam & Alan Judson, two artists who (like us all) hold down day jobs. They also are householders and have two wonderful children.

We discuss writing, music, creativity, and leading the creative life in Canada. Have a listen:

Why literature is fun

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching literature is that I am actually afforded the time to really dig into it with my students. We get to discover the buried treasure in many different novels, plays and poetry. Just the other day I had the pleasure of reading a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise aloud with my students and we had a big laugh over it.

I love what I do.

Creativity as a Quest towards Career and Meaning

Creativity as a Quest towards Career and Meaning

The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan once wrote something which I believe perfectly encapsulates my own educational experience and which helps explain my approach to teaching:

“Any subject taken in depth relates to other subjects.”

Today there is a great deal of controversy surrounding what role higher education should play in the lives of young adults and whether or not it is a wise decision to seek a Bachelor’s Degree in any field other than in the bio-medical, technological and applied sciences. Unfortunately, I think that this is a fair question because many humanities related fields don’t appear to have an obvious practical application the way medicine or engineering do. When I began my path toward higher education and told people that I was pursuing a BA in the humanities I was immediately asked two questions: 1.) “Are you going to become a teacher?” 2.) “Are you planning on going to graduate school? Because you’ll need to/ Because you should.”

Considering how expensive a BA has become we are all well to wonder if the degree is still worth the price of admission if it cannot promise a lucrative profession without further expensive education and training (if it even offers the promise of a profession at all anymore).

My own response to that conundrum is this: a Liberal Arts education remains worthwhile and worth the investment but not because it offers any obvious answer to the question: “What shall I do with my life?” A Liberal education actually offers entire sets of answers to this question and I think that that is in fact the point.

The question of what each one of us should do with our lives is becoming more difficult to answer in an age in which long-term employment is becoming increasingly rare. I no longer know many people who stay in any one place of employment for more than 5-7 years (often less). In response to this culture-wide development a range of writers across a variety of professional fields from cultural studies to management (from Richard Florida to Barbara Ehrenreich to Henry Giroux, etc.), either criticize or extol the contemporary unpredictability of the global economy. Depending on your socio-economic and political views you might think that Globalization, a “flexible workforce” and the greater fluidity of workers, markets and capital is either a new utopia or dystopia. Yet regardless of how each of us may feel it is now conventional wisdom that successful people are those who remain flexible, creative and entrepreneurial in the face of change. In fact, “entrepreneur” might just be the new buzz word of our time. But what does it mean to be an entrepreneur? I believe it means situating yourself out on the vanguard; anticipating trends in the market and in cultural/consumer demand; and embracing creativity, unpredictability and yes, flexibility.

When I read all of these different books and articles or listen to these many writers, thinkers and observers talk about the current economy I keep returning to McLuhan’s statement and its appropriateness for our time. I think of my own educational and work experiences: I am a writer, a former graduate student and a former public and charter school teacher. I have seen job opportunities come and go in the university and public school fields and have on numerous occasions asked myself the often painful question: “Where do I fit?” What I do know is that I love learning: I love to write analytically, critically and creatively; that I have an insatiable appetite for new knowledge and for exploring problems and topics which fit under the rather wide umbrella of “social theory.” So, what type of career options did this offer me?

My answer is that I have become a teacher who seeks out his students rather than wait for them to come to me. I am “entrepreneurial” about finding where my classroom is located since I believe it can be anywhere. Fortunately, I have discovered that by seeking out my students I have happened upon the very bread and butter not only of my teaching, but also of my writing. The most vital window I now possess into the contemporary culture, its trends and apparent u-turns comes from my work with young people. They show me where the action is and the audiences are but they also prove that my question: “How do I lead a creative, sustainable and fulfilling life?” is their question too. We face the very same challenges and we are often brought together by our shared interest in exploring subjects which excite us.

We live in a time when we are told that we must re-invent ourselves. I don’t actually believe that it is reinvention that we are doing: We are actually rediscovering the excitement and spirit of adventure we first felt when a subject “turned us on.” We are faced with realizing that what McLuhan said is actually correct: one subject is all subjects. Our intellect and our imagination are hybrid abilities whose power is drawn from the human desire to achieve insight. That is what I believe the educational and career quest is about: achieving insight.

I now believe that the single most important skill set a student can possess is the ability to turn their personal quest for meaning and fulfilment into a creative project of self-discovery and into a search for community. Work is located in community. And this quest, like any great one, will take them into fields they never could have imagined. When they enter those fields they should feel confident and prepared that they already possess the pluck, imagination and grit to meet the frontiers they will face. This is where I believe that I come in as a teacher: I am prepared to help them see that their interests and instincts are the very basis of their intelligence and adaptability. They already possess the very kernel of their success in their desire to inquire and explore.

My job, my responsibility and my mission is to help students see that their search for insight and meaning is their greatest strength and it is born out of a fierce intelligence, an obvious aptitude and a thirst for challenge. They can and should feel confident that they already posses abilities and insight seeking tools that are ready to be applied to whatever field(s) of inquiry they wish to explore. If they learn this early and learn it well they will be ready for the challenge of making a career and meaningful life for themselves. But the key is giving them the opportunity to follow (and test) their instincts and interests and learn that by following their passions they will embrace the skills, the discipline and the training that their passions demand of them. After all, that is what a quest is and what it entails.

I am absolutely certain of this.

Jeremy Nathan Marks