Buzz groups enter history

February 28, 1997

TEN years ago a Leverhulme Trust-funded study concluded that "history remains one of the subjects least susceptible to external manipulation".

The picture was of a discipline "only responsive to change in ways which left its traditional assumptions largely unassailed". History was worthy of study for its own sake and historians largely rejected the idea of teaching employment-related skills.

How the world changes. The emergence of mass higher education coupled with shrinking resources and the university market have forced a rethink.

Paul Hyland of Bath College of Higher Education has devised with Nottingham University the project History 2000, named after the 2,000 full and part-time teachers of history in England's universities and colleges. It aims to encourage innovation and critical reflection in the discipline. The project has won Pounds 228,000 from the Funding Teaching and Learning Initiative over 30 months.

"There is a growing body in history which seriously believes we need to find better ways of teaching," Dr Hyland says. "Changes may be small, a fine-tuning of the traditional approach, or they may be radical."

The difficulty stems from the fact that history is an old discipline, he says. "Newer subjects like accountancy or computing probably have less rigid approaches to teaching but in history teaching still tends to be one directional."

Lectures can be brilliant or awful. But research shows that this traditional form of talking to students is not particularly effective. "Lectures really ought to be under investigation," he says. "Teaching is very costly. There ought to be a way of promoting really high outcomes of learning."

The idea of historians churning out reams of events in date order is of superficial value both in a university context and the real world, he says. "This kind of surface approach doesn't allow students to conceptualise their knowledge."

But change is under way. The development of transferrable skills, a trend begun in new universities, has become an important aspect of history teaching.

Many institutions now produce study skills booklets on the basics of essay writing, taking notes, organising time, working in seminars, writing dissertations, revision and exams.

More active approaches to learning are also making headway. Debates, oral presentations, buzz groups and brainstorming exercises designed to improve student participation and engagement in the subject are being used more and more. Tutors or lecturers are becoming expert guides or facilitators rather than the authoritative voice of history.

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