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Learning to Tweet: One professor’s digital education

Education scholars must embrace digital media rather than focus on publishing papers in academic journals, to truly influence teaching practices, says Sam Wineburg in a recent lecture. Here’s a summary and video of the talk.

Sam Wineburg
Sam Wineburg

The crowd of scholars who turned up expecting Sam Wineburg to lecture about the left-wing American historian Howard Zinn was in for a surprise. “I have changed the title of my lecture,” said Wineburg, a professor at Stanford University School of Education. “I am going to speak today about being untrained to Tweet.”

Umeå University in Sweden last year awarded Wineburg an honorary doctorate, and he was there Oct. 20 to give a talk see video below to acknowledge the honor.  What he chose to discuss reached beyond his research as a scholar in historical pedagogy — how we teach history — to a very different subject: How can faculty in schools of education actually influence the way history is taught.

And for Wineburg, it involves taking a critical step. He no longer focuses solely on producing articles for academic journals. He has embraced using the Internet to deliver his lessons directly to school districts, teachers and students.

About 19 months ago, Wineburg’s Stanford History Education Group's posted a free curriculum on its website, and since then it has received more than 600,000 downloads. In his talk at Umeå, he projected that the total number of downloads could hit 1 million in the next few months.

The lecture see video below underscored what Wineburg sees as a fundamental problem in measuring success for an academic navigating how to impart knowledge in the digital age. Wineburg described a fundamental disconnect. The criteria universities use to define success don't adequately consider the type of digital work that can most directly benefit practitioners outside of academia.

Wineburg likened the situation to being "responsible to two different masters." He noted that the academic world holds journal articles to be the key measure of a researcher's contributions to a field. Yet in an applied discipline such as education, there is also a duty to serve a much broader audience. Considering his responsibilities to teachers and students, he said, "What does it mean to change that field?"

Wineburg’s scholarship certainly has had an impact. In selecting him for the honorary doctorate, officials at Umeå wrote that he has “contributed more than any other individual researcher to changing the understanding of the teaching and learning of history.” They called his prize-winning book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts a modern classic within its field.

But in his lecture [see video below] Wineburg traced his effort to take his work to a broader audience — and how it was not an easy road. In 1999, with colleagues in the School of Education and others at George Mason University, he built a Web resource, "Historical Thinking Matters." The ambitious effort to deliver high-quality material to underserved students had an unexpected outcome.

"We'd created a resource that was so difficult to use that only the best-trained history teachers used it," Wineburg said. In attempting to close an educational gap, he noted, the project may have inadvertently widened it. "This was my first lesson in ... creating materials and dispensing them on the Internet, my first lesson in learning how to tweet, even though this was done before Twitter came into being."

Wineburg regrouped. He wanted to put original source material on the Web so that students of varying academic abilities could interpret them and learn to think like historians. Working with graduate students Abby Reisman and Bradley Fogo, Wineburg worked to make the material more accessible. And four years ago, his Stanford History Education Group teamed with the San Francisco Unified School District to implement the team's "Reading Like a Historian" curriculum in the city's secondary schools.

There were concerns that the program, which emphasizes original source documents as an alternative to textbooks, would be stiff work for the students, many of whom were English-language learners from low-income families.  Yet a dissertation completed by Reisman showed that the students who engaged with the primary source documents improved their overall reading ability, increased their retention of historical knowledge, and displayed a greater appreciation for history.

Reisman published the findings of her dissertation in two leading academic journals. Their combined circulation? About 30,000 readers. Wineburg marveled at how many more people had learned about the curriculum through his group’s website. And he expressed concern that academics may not be fully grasping the extent of the change.

“Our worry is that as we continue to produce ... journal articles we are not [missing] the profound changes in how information is disseminated in modern society,” he said. “The university — particularly professional schools that are supposed to be producing knowledge for practitioners — is being left behind. We are becoming less and less relevant to the people who most need our knowledge."

Wineburg has established a robust website. Next on his agenda: Figuring out how to best leverage Twitter.

For the full lecture, please click on the video below: