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Intergenerational Dialogues. Why Teach History? Part 2

Susanna (teacher) believes one way to captivate young minds is by ‘teleporting’ them through time. “For example, when we talk about the adoption of Christianity or the invention of the Armenian script, I often ask, ‘If you had an opportunity to meet Mashtots, what gift would you give him.’ The students reply, ‘An iPhone, a computer.’ Then I explain that those things didn’t exist back then, and they start figuring out what there was, what there wasn’t, and what they could actually give,” says Susanna. While this seems like it develops historical consciousness and serves as a strategy to avoid anachronisms, what does the exercise itself do? What educational aim does the question of what present a child would give to a historical figure follow? Does it help develop ethical judgments about that character? Does it help construct the reality they were living in better? Does it encourage the child to develop alternative histories? The question does not seem to serve a concrete educational aim outside of creating interest in a fun scenario. 

Another space often mentioned by teachers where interest should be more developed is textbooks. “Students should be interested in working with the textbook. Recently, Armenian Studies have been pushed to the sidelines, and we need textbooks that would spark love [for the subject],” says Susanna (teacher), noting that merely reading the text doesn’t stir much interest. According to her, the challenge lies in transforming history from a reading exercise into an engaging experience. “I recently suggested that, for example, there could be an animation after finishing the lesson on the Vardanants war. Kids can scan the code and see how it happened so that they can understand and analyze it,” Susanna adds. 

The younger generation agrees when it comes to textbooks. “The biggest problem is that textbooks aren’t written for students to study history, but to make test guides based on them, and then take an exam,” says Tigran. He believes history textbooks in Armenia are written dully, contributing to low student interest in the field. “There is no emotion in the text. There are no maps. Here’s an example from the 10th-grade textbook: ‘The Armenian-Georgian troops liberated Amberd, and then Ani, etc.’ But there’s no map for you to be able to visualize it,” Tigran elaborates.

However, similar to the previous case, while adding a multimedia element to a textbook or having more visuals like maps might lead to a momentary spike in interest, what additional thinking do these things foster? Do they help children think more deeply about the topic? Do they help children think about cause and consequence or change and continuity? If yes, what sort of teaching do we assume when we say having a map in the textbook will be helpful? While possibly valuable, this kind of superficial change does not hit at the core reasons and ways history teaching can be changed: do we even need textbooks in the first place? Through what didactics should children learn history in the classrooms? What activities help students engage with whatever material is presented to them? These questions are important because textbooks are a tool, a technology for teaching, and we believe technology is not the answer; it's a question. Integrating additional things into textbooks that lack criticality and multiperspective won't solve existing issues.

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This article is based on dialogue between history teachers and students within the scope of the “Intergenerational Dialogue” project led by Paradigma Educational Foundation in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. The real names of dialogue participants have been changed to protect their privacy.

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