Replace teachers? I’ve heard that one before

Last week, Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson riled a lot of teachers by suggesting that students learn more from Ken Burns documentaries than they do in history class. (See this article.)

More videos, fewer teachers! Never heard that one before. Except perhaps when Thomas Edison said: It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.” In 1913.

Teachers reacted to Johnson’s inflammatory statement with predictable outrage.

AFT President Randi Weingarten weighed in: “What Ron Johnson doesn’t get is that education happens when teachers can listen to students and engage them to think for themselves ― and that can include using Ken Burns’ masterful work.”

Weingarten is right, but what about when that doesn’t happen? What about when teachers just read aloud from the textbook or expect students to copy down notes from the board while they talk in monotone? What about when students are just drilled on dates and facts every day, without context? We know that still happens.

Johnson’s overall point (which, by the way, was directed more at university professors than high school teachers) was that students learn more from a good documentary than from a typical history teacher. Is he right? That’s the real question.

The answer: I don’t know.

Student probably do learn more from a good documentary than they do from a teacher who stands in front and lectures all hour. But students don’t learn nearly as much — even from the best documentary — as they could learn from a master history teacher, a teacher who is passionate and knowledgeable, and who sees history as not just a good story but a chance to engage students’ minds in thinking about critical historical questions.

Should the North have let the South secede?

Would we have recovered more quickly from the Depression without the New Deal?

Why didn’t Johnson end the Vietnam War before he left office?

Effective history teachers also know that getting students to ask and answer their own historical questions, using primary sources, is a far better way to learn “history” than memorizing a series of events, told from a supposedly neutral perspective.

Johnson is right that Ken Burns tells good stories, and good storytelling is an essential component of teaching history — or economics, physics, or math. But storytelling is not sufficient for quality history instruction.

No one can truly learn history by sitting passively listening to lectures or by sitting passively watching documentaries. Learning requires active engagement and thought.

If we want to fight back against the forces that would replace us with videos, let’s make sure we’re teaching using active-learning strategies — strategies video could never replicate — in every classroom. Then there will be no question that our classrooms are better than the best Ken Burns can offer.