Over the past few months, I have been asked by a handful of fellow educators how I go about teaching Canadian history. As I am moving away from classroom teaching into an administrative role, I am somewhat saddened that I will not be directly designing learning experiences for learners, but grateful that these educators have prompted me to reflect on the past eight years of learning design.
When designing learning experiences related to the history of Canada, I tend not to start where I am at. I try not to inject my interests or experience into the design. As such, I angle away from the idea of beginning at a certain point — say Confederation — or from a thematic perspective. These two ideas seem to resonate as the central pillars in instructional design, but not necessarily in learning design.
Where I try to begin, and I should say that I fail often, is with two key ideas. The first is the experience of the learner and the second is with the very idea of history itself. In terms of the experience of the learner, I believe that it is critical that we come to know our students deeply before we begin to design learning experiences that are meaningful and educative in nature. This might well mean that our exploration of Canadian history might not delve into areas where we deem ourselves as experts. In fact on many occasions, I have been forced to leap out of my comfort zone and engage in discussions about areas of history that quite frankly I was ignorant. These are always the most fruitful explorations!
Learning about the experience of our learners also allows us to design with place in mind. Understanding what our learners understand about their territory, their city, the local ecosystems, and the biosphere itself, can help us plan future experiences. I often begin each year with an exploration as to what my learners know about Red River. Our exploration of Canadian history generally stems from a discussion about the rivers, the land, and their experience with the geography. From there, I often introduce Joseph Boyden’s Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont as a means of exploring the geography in an historical way. This also means that we need to get out of the classroom, explore the Forks, Fort Garry, and Union Station to begin to see how the landscape changed over the past three hundred years. (This is also a good time to introduce the historical thinking skills.)
Joel Westhiemer, in What Kind of Citizen?, suggests that understanding the roots of our learners is critical to learning design within the humanities. He suggests that what is important is “Root instruction in local contexts, working within your own specific surroundings and circumstances because it is not possible to teach democratic forms of thinking without providing an environment to think about.” (p. 80). For many of our young people, place is a central experience and something that they are attached to.
This emphasis on place has taken past learning communities I have been associated with on explorations of the HBC, feminist perspectives, and the Winnipeg General Strike. All of these bring in the notions of theme and chronology, but most importantly, become driven by the learner’s passion and experience.
Second, I have relied heavily on the contemplation of what history is to drive our learning and learning design. The Manitoba curriculum places emphasis on answering “What is history?” and this is a theme I try to introduce in each meeting. This is a fantastic question to really assess where learners are coming from, and when they reach the point of disequilibrium and frustration, I generally nudge them in the direction of Desmond Morton, who in his book A Short History of Canada, offers this as a definition:
“Whatever our future, we should understand how Canada has travelled through its most recent centuries to the present. If we follow that voyage, our history will give us confidence to change and compromise and in some enduring truths about communities and families and human beings. It should also tell us that no ideas, however deeply held, last forever.” (p.ix).
As such, Morton suggests that history is about a collective and very human experience. It is not simply a study of the past, but it is a quest to understand why it is we exist on this planet. What greater voyage could we embark on with our learners? Pulling this idea into every meeting grounds learning communities into a quest that reaches far beyond tests, quizzes, and the regurgitation of someone else’s story. History becomes a quest of sense making and a search for meaning.
So for those incredible educators who have been toying with how to design their learning experiences this year within the context of Canadian history, I leave you with these tiny nuggets from my past experience. Listen to your learners and challenge them to make meaning out of our collective and short experience on Earth.