“There are schools that are cages and there are schools that are wings” – this is how Brazilian psychoanalyst and educator, Rubem Alves, distinguished the main models of school. It's not that hard to see why most young people don't like school or classes. After all, who likes to be trapped in a cage?
It is probably more comfortable for us teachers to keep students caged, so they become more predictable and we can take them exactly where we would like. But is this what we really want? Is this efficient? And does this, perhaps comfortable, tack make any sense these days?
In a subject like history, the current challenges are enormous. Nowadays, students have very quick access to information – it’s just a click away. Teachers are no longer the guardians or gatekeepers of knowledge. In addition, students do not seem to show much interest in studying the past. That territory seems a strange place to them, without any relevance to their daily life or future.
Therefore, teachers, and particularly history teachers, need to address two essential points: How can we motivate students to study our subject? And how can we help them master our subject in a truly meaningful way?
During my experience as a teacher, I realized that all students are different – they have different interests, different talents, different weaknesses, and different predispositions. So long as we teach them in only one way, they will not all learn to the same extent. Just because they are in the same cage does not mean that they are the same birds! And if we teach them all in a “traditional” and unidimensional way, we will lose most of them along the way. Furthermore, they will not express their unique talents or display their creativity as they might - as Rubem Alves pointed out, “caged birds are no longer birds, since the essence of birds is flight.” It seems clear to me that the most significant way to achieve educational success is by promoting a well-sustained pedagogical differentiation. And that’s what I’ve tried to do.
Since students have multiple talents and their intellectual potential is multidimensional, it seemed appropriate to base my pedagogical differentiation approach on Howard Gardner’s MI Theory. On the one hand, as educators, we must know each of our students in depth, in order to promote their academic and personal growth and development. Goethe advised us to treat others as if they were what they should be, so that we could help them to become what they could be. On the other hand, history offers a number of ways of mobilizing the skills of all students.
As suggested by MI Theory:
History entails the linguistic challenge of constructing and/or deconstructing historical narratives.
Logical-mathematical intelligence is drawn upon in the interpretation of statistical data, as well as efforts, through the analysis of historical facts, to reach conclusions about the present or predictions about the future.
Songs that address/mirror historical events, such as the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture, delight any “musical” student.
The analysis of Roman stadiums and aqueducts, or of Picasso's paintings, can be sources of inspiration for students who reveal spatial skills.
A scholar with kinesthetic strengths can assume various historical roles and recreate historical scenes.
“Naturalistic” pupils benefit from field trips to important sites.
Students can use their intrapersonal skills to put themselves in the shoes of historical agents.
Any historical event that involves interactions among personages may engage students with interpersonal predispositions.
I believe that students learn more meaningfully if they, themselves, are the main builders of their knowledge. Accordingly, I believe that teachers should work more backstage, providing young scholars with the resources, materials, and support they need. And those resources should be as plural and diverse as possible, in order to reach all the young ones. In a phrase: we must pluralize our teaching.
Moreover, in order to harness the potential of all students, and to gain both in motivation and understanding, it is necessary to individualize the teaching-learning process.
These two educational implications – pluralization and individualization – form the basis of my intervention as a teacher. And both have led to significant success, in terms of both motivation and understanding.
An example: when we were examining the artistic movements of the late nineteenth century, some students focused on literature, others on painting, others on music, others on the social context, others on the logical sequence of changes, others on a more interpretative dimension, others on the categorization of the specific characteristics of each current, and others on the artists themselves. These groups were organized according to pupils’ intellectual predispositions. In the end, the groups came together; we discussed the multiple products, and we connected them all into a single frame, achieving a more comprehensive and substantial grasp of this period. Along the way, all students were important in this construction, they all took their part, and they all were motivated – they had the opportunity to show their strengths. Even the most marginalized students became interested, integrated and presented good and creative work. For example, a scholar who, in a more “traditional” way, had poor results and was about to fail, became one of the best students in the class, making particular use of his spatial and intrapersonal abilities. To return to my earlier image, in this way each student has the opportunity to get out of his cage and show how well he can fly.
Overall, throughout this intervention, my students were able to paint, to dramatize, to play musical instruments, to edit videos, to play the role of historical figures, to manipulate images, to build timelines, and to develop narratives, etc. This multi-pronged approach demonstrates that there are various ways to learn, and multiple paths to exhibit historical (disciplinary) knowledge and intellectual skills.
Additionally, it was shown that pedagogical differentiation, sustained by MI theory, is not synonymous with simplification. On the contrary, many “non-traditional” efforts were incredibly creative and revealed a high level of cognitive complexity. For example, a drawing about the French Revolution, filled with a lot of subliminal messages, managed to say, with apparent simplicity, more than a 500 word text. Having started from a “non-traditional” approach to historical knowledge, students could more easily achieve “formal” knowledge, while in the process, learning history in a broader and more substantive way.
And further, with this methodology, students can begin to better understand the various strands of historical studies, and to realize the importance of the subject in their daily lives. History teachers should always try to make the connection between the past and the present. For instance, when teaching about abolition, we can compare the slave practices after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, with the slave practices of today, after the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
When this approach is well implemented, students become more interested in the subject, more motivated; they may even become better students and more informed citizens. Furthermore, they can display their talents, develop their intelligences, and exceed their own expectations. As a result, applying my central image, school is no longer an information cage but rather a window of knowledge and opportunity.
I believe teachers mainly intend to encourage birds to fly, and our greatest fulfillment is to see our students flying beyond us. Let's give everyone a chance to do it.
Duarte Nuno Duarte is a Portuguese history teacher and educational researcher. His research topics include pedagogical innovation and differentiation, as well as history’s didactics.