Learning History Creatively

This paper was presented in a programme of Training of teachers in Department of History, Patna University organised by Academic Staff College, Patna in 2005.

It is often said that we learn Historians and not History. We learn their observations, their findings and their conclusion. It reflects author’s perceptions, ideology and his/her method of analysis. It is highly subjective. That is why different historians present the same facts in divergent ways. Their conclusions are generally different and at times contradictory. All this has been a major cause of serious controversies in the academic world. Thus there is an urgent need to look into the methodologies of teaching and learning history. The real question is how can we develop the science of learning history free from biases and prejudices. In this paper we shall analyse how we can make the teaching and learning of history more scientific keeping in view the requirement of changing times.

Education in new socio-economic order

21st century has brought with it a new socio-economic order in the world. Explosion of information technology has reduced the world into a global village. Distances have become immaterial. The demolition of WTC tower at New York, USA was shown throughout the world almost instantaneously. Today the needs of one part of the world can be met by the people of the other part. So the development in one part immediately affects the other part of the globe. Last century saw Quality and Management as important factors for the growth of any community or group. Today situation is changing very fast. Every three months we have something new in a computer. A new computer design can immediately reach to all corners of the world. So unless we are able to make new designs at a very fast rate, we shall be out of market. In the emerging socio-economic scenario it is creativity that will empower a society to take lead in the growth pattern.

Hence, education must respond to this important need of the changing times. The globalisation has led to globalisation of skills. It also demands generation of skills of high order. The situation is gradually becoming so alarming that either we develop creativity or be prepared to perish. It requires rethinking in the whole strategy of teaching and learning. This is not only true of IT sector it is true of all sectors- be it science, engineering or humanities.

There is another angle to the whole issue also. There is a change in the global market. Revolution in Information Technology has made it possible to have information available at the door step. Thus, all over the world there is a change in the nature of skills for employment. It is no longer required to mug up facts and reproduce them at an appropriate time. The days of employment on the basis of knowledge in a particular subject are over. Generally today employers do not look for knowledge in a particular subject rather they look for certain skills. A learner of humanities may be engaged in IT sector if s/he has developed skills of analysis, thinking, etc. If we analyse the pattern of interview/tests for recruitment in major employment sectors such as IT, media sector, social sector, etc. we find that they do not go for knowledge in a subject rather they look for skills of various kinds. This necessitates the urgency to look for changes in the strategy of teaching learning process.

Core Creative Competencies

Now the question arises as to which type of skills we should develop. On the basis of scientific analysis of the flow of information in brain it has been found at APCL** that the following Core Creative Competencies(C3) are the basic competencies which one is required to develop in the course of any learning programme. In fact, it is these competencies which are tested by the recruitment agencies these days.

  • Concentration
  • Memory
  • Thinking
  • Power of observation
  • Imagination
  • Emotional Management
  • Power of Expression

A learning programme should be so designed that it develops these core creative competencies. Facts should be so placed and used that they are helpful in the development of skills. That is why subject based learning are becoming irrelevant and multidisciplinary approach is becoming the order of the day.

Adopt skill based approach to learning

Any subject basically comprises of a set of information and skills. Our teaching process emphasizes more on getting the information rather than acquisition of those skills. In history we are more concerned about learning facts. But we are not so much concerned about developing the skills such as collection of facts, appreciation of evolution/ change of an activity over a period of time, their analysis, deducing inference, etc., which history teaching is expected to impart. There is so much emphasis on facts that development of skills related to processing of information are neglected. In changing times there is a strong case for changing subject based approach to skill based approach.

The real question is how to do it. It is suggested that present information based approach must give way to constructivist approach. It implies that learners must be given opportunity to learn by construction. This has been traditionally known as learning by doing. In the present context history teaching should not limit itself to books written by eminent historians, but it should empower a learner to have an independent evaluation of the facts and come to their own conclusion. Today learners must become apt in making their own hypothesis, they should know how to test them and to come to final conclusion.

Here history of science teaching can be of great help to us. The growth of science made rapid strides when laboratory approach was adopted. Laboratory approach is complementary and supplementary to classroom teaching. Facts can be taught in the class and skills should be developed in laboratories. Here power of observation can be developed by collection of information, hypothesis can be made, tested and independent decisions can be taken.

Lab activities are helpful in better understanding. They help in putting abstract ideas to practice. They also help in taking learning closer to life and thus help in bringing contextual relevance to education. They lead to development of scientific temper and attitude, which is the base of democratic orientation. Classrooms cater mainly to verbal and logical intelligence. Laboratories can be designed to cover activities of all intelligence. This way they help in ensuring success to all in the learning process. Laboratories provide opportunity for experimentation and thus help in development of creativity.

It is said:

We learn

  • 10% of what we read
  • 20% of what we hear
  • 30% of what we see
  • 50% of what we both see and hear
  • 70% of what we discuss with others
  • 80% of what we experience personally (emotional)
  • 95% of what we teach others

Classroom teaching is static whereas labs provide dynamism to learning. Lab provides an opportunity for holistic learning. One is able to test one’s ideas and come to independent conclusion. Hence, lab approach of learning leads to development of skills of independent thinking and judgement. In a subject like history where one is required to assess facts and come to judgement, lab approach can be the better way of learning.

It is to be noted that this laboratory may not be a store house of equipments as science laboratory. In fact, they are just a place to facilitate performance of activity.

Multiple Intelligence and History

Another problem is to identify the nature of activity in the labs. Before we do so, let us see an important change in the psychological sector. Earlier we used to think that people are either intelligent or dull. Howard Gardener, a professor at Harvard University has suggested that we have not one but multiple intelligence. This way it is now accepted that people may one or more of following intelligence.

Multiple Intelligence
Learn with


Numbers, lines

Pictures, colours

Body movements

Songs, music

Learning in group

Learning about self

Learning in nature

This means that a person may be intelligent in one intelligence area and not so intelligent in other areas. This also suggests that different people have different way of knowing different facts and expressing one’s thoughts. A person like Lata Mangeshkar would excel, if she is taught history with the help of songs and music or a person like M. F. Hussain is given opportunity to express his views in the form of paintings. One may ask as to how they can do it.

Will it not be nice if the historical events are expressed in terms of paintings, songs or drama. Our understanding would be enriched, if we allow all intelligence methods to be used in the teaching learning process. This way historical facts would reach to larger audience. In this method we require not only write ups on Ashoka but also their songs, drama or audio video production. One feature of Discovery or History Channel may be more educative than a big book and can reach to larger audience. The analysis of these programmes may also indicate new dimensions of teaching and learning history. One would also be amazed to see how science is being used in the process of analysing historical facts. Can we incorporate them in our teaching learning process?

Break the barriers of subjects

One of the major requirements of the modern teaching is that it breaks the barriers of subjects. Today a historian should know the basics of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. In fact, history is related to all walks of life and thus there is a need to introduce analytical tools of science and mathematics to make history learning more objective. For this purpose experts from Science and Mathematics may be associated with teaching of history. One may even think of a basic course of Science and Mathematics for the students of history. Similarly, we should have a basic computer course for all learners. As a first step we should start a laboratory for research purposes and later it should be incorporated in our teaching process.

Similarly, there is also a need to study history of different subjects. A learner of mathematics should know the history of mathematics or a learner of science should know the history of science.

Applying knowledge to daily life

A learner is often amazed as to why he learns history. Is it only to learn the chronology of events that happened in past? Is it collection of certain facts that happened in the past? Where will he apply the knowledge? It is said ‘History is a bridge between past and present projecting towards future.’ But where do we provide opportunity to them to apply the historical sense to predict future course of events. One of the major concerns is to prepare our children in the science of applying knowledge of history to find the solutions of daily life.

Nature of Equipments and Materials in History Lab

It is difficult to list out the nature of materials and equipments in a history lab, as it would depend on the status of technology in the area. A very good lab may even have facility of chemical analysis or even carbon dating. It may also have scanning facility. However, some of the simple items may be listed as follows

  • Audio Visual cassettes
  • Cassette Recorder
  • Computers
  • Facility for the editing of multimedia presentation
  • Multimedia CDs
  • Cards
  • Materials from archives
  • Materials from archaeological excavations
  • Microscope
  • Scale
  • Slide Callipers
  • Screw gauge
  • Weighing Machine
  • Survey Equipments
  • Camera
  • Interview sheets
  • Facility for modelling
  • Facility for Chemical analysis
  • Old papers and magazines

Nature of activities

In the laboratory following types of activities may be performed.

  • Projects
  • Games
  • Interview
  • Survey
  • Observation activities
  • Visit to Museum and historical places
  • Experiments, etc.

Themes for activities in the lab

Another question is to how to select theme for activities in the lab. One principle of selecting themes in creative learning process is to move from known to unknown. Thus themes should be so selected that initially we should start learning process from individual him/herself. Then one should take up themes related to family matters. Thereafter, one should expand to neighbourhood. Neighbourhood consists of friends, institutions, village, town, natural objects, local heroes, etc. The area of neighbourhood should gradually go on increasing.

In the context of history one should start with the history of family, village and towns and gradually go to state, country and other areas of world. This is contrary to the existing practice where local history is completely ignored. Hence, one is not able to apply one’s knowledge to practice. Understanding about local history may be useful in developing self-confidence and social awareness which is a primary requirement for any creative learning process. We should also choose themes to take care of local eco-cultural needs.

Examples of activities in a History Lab

Dense reading

Skills: Drawing probable meaning, the art of historical interpretation, imagination, etc.

Procedure: Normally when we read any sentence or word, we look for its simple meaning. This is based on past experiences or prejudices. If on any stone engraving we find it we start looking for probable meaning of a sentence, we shall get all possible meanings. This would help in finding correct meaning of any set of word groups. In learning history these probable meanings are of important use. Generally we adduce simple meaning in the context of our present experiences. In historical interpretations the meaning has to be found in the context of the situation at that particular point of time. Here the technique of finding probable meanings is of great value.

Suppose we learn from an ancient scripture that Ahalya became a stone after misbehaviour from Rishi Gautam. Whenever I have asked people the meaning of this sentence I found that most of the people believed that she actually became stone after the event. This kind of understanding leads to dogmatic view of life. If they go for all probable meanings of the sentence, then they can find the most probable meaning of the sentence in the given context.

Learners can take different engravings on the stones and then perform this exercise in groups so that they find actual meaning of the engraving. It should be noted that whenever we go for this exercise all possible meanings should be explored and written. One should not restrict oneself to any particular type of meaning. Later the context should be analysed to find the most appropriate meaning. This meaning then becomes the interpretation of the sentence in the historical perspective.

Dense observation

Skills: Power of observation, appreciation of evidence in historical perspective

Procedure: A historian should have a keen power of observation. He may get many objects from archaeological excavation. He has to observe them and use them for understanding history of the particular period of time. Suppose he gets a broken piece of pitcher having beautiful coloured painting on it. How should he observe it?

Observation involves five senses.:

  • Visual- shape, size, colour, material, etc.
  • Auditory- sound
  • Olfactory- smell
  • Tactile- smooth or rough, sharp or blunt, etc.
  • Taste- generally tasting of any historical objects should be avoided.

They can use a magnifying glass or microscope for closer observation. In fact, they can go for a detailed observation such as primary, secondary and tertiary level evaluation. Then, they can go for a brainstorming session for probable meaning or relationship of those observations. For example, if they see the pitcher closely and find that they have geometrical shape, they can conclude that at that time people had the knowledge of geometry. Then they must have the knowledge of the technology of manufacturing pitcher. As the pitcher is coloured, it implies that people knew about colours. It also implies that people knew sketching and using colours in them. The very fact that they had pitchers that means there must be a need for storage of food grains or water. If they stored food grains, it means that they had some surplus from day-to-day use. And so on. In fact, learners may look for probable implication in all dimensions of life- social, economic, cultural, political and spiritual.

When one connects these probable meanings with those of other objects, one gets the complete situation of the social life at that point of time.

Learn Family history

Skills: Developing a sense of history, thinking, analysis, emotional management, etc.

Procedure: Family is the smallest sociological unit. Learning about family history may be used as an initiation point for learning the science of history teaching. Learners can be asked to make Vansh-Vriksha or genealogical table. This Vansh Vriksha should not only include the names of parents, grandparents etc, it should also include their date of birth and death, reasons of death, their source of livelihood, major diseases, etc. They can find out the genealogical roots. They should also find out major events in the family such as acquisition and disposal of land, radio, car, etc. They can be asked to find major contribution of the family towards society. A learner from a labour family should know that a particular road or building was built by his father or his grandmother was the first lady to bring the art of painting in the village. This is important as this gives pride in themselves and their own family. This helps in developing self-confidence, which is basic for any development programme. Family history can be further strengthened by deeper into one’s roots. One can understand the nature of migration of population and their problems.

Once this activity was performed at School of Creative Learning. All learners displayed their genealogical tables on the display board of the school. Learners were surprised to find that none of the genealogical table had mention of the names of women. One of the learners asked why should’t we have names of our mothers and grandmothers in the genealogical table and made a poster, “ Shouldn’t we have names of women in our genealogical table even in 21st century?” Then they went home, found out the names of mothers, grandmothers and wrote it on the Vansh Vriksh. They had a lesson for life for gender equity.

Learning about family history can be used to adduce major trends in the historical development of the family. It may also be indicative of many historical trends in contemporary society.

Learning the history of village/town

Skills: Learning local history, Collection of information, art of taking interview, analysis of data, creative thinking, social awareness, etc.

Procedure: Learners should be asked to find out the history of the village/town. They should look for the time of the start of the village/town, story behind the naming of the village/town, how different landmarks such as ponds, temples, schools, post offices, etc. were created, They should look for how particular traditions such as festivals, etc. or social functions such as marriages were started. Who were the first to start multiple cropping, who was the first matriculate or graduate of the village/town etc. When was a road constructed? Let them find out the impact of those events. They should study how the administrative and political structure of the village has changed over a period of time.

Learn history to predict future

Skill: Projection into future, thinking, imagination, etc.

Procedure: Learners are asked to study how a particular activity in life has been performed in the past, how it is being done today and how it would be done tomorrow. For example, how people cleaned their teeth in ancient times, how it has changed over a period of time, how it is being done today and how it would be done tomorrow, if the present trend continues? They should find how the shape of brushes have changed, how their brushes have changed and so on.

Change agents

Skills: Art of interviewing, finding the nature and impact of change agents in the context of time

Procedure: Learners are asked to interview their parents, relatives and other elders to find out the changes that have taken place in their life time. They are also asked to assess the impact of such change on different aspects of life. For example, a school might have been built, a cycle repair or kirana shop might have been established, a road might have been built, etc. An industry might have been set up in the area. There might have been established a girl’s school in the town.

They may be asked to find out the events and ideas that changed their course of life.

They may be asked to interview and find out the impact of the activity. They should find out how it has affected their life. How the relationship among families/ various communities have changed? How has it effected their thinking process? And so on.

This exercise is helpful in realising that small items in daily life have caused changes in our thinking process and our individual behaviour leading to social, economic, cultural and spiritual life patters. On a time scale this then becomes the cause of major changes in history.

Later, this exercise should be done in a brain-storming session to find out the change agents in the historical processes.

Perspective vision

Skills: Appreciating different views, creative thinking, etc.

Procedure: One of the major problems of history teaching is that it is highly subjective. People have very divergent views at same set of facts. Learners are often confused. One of the major tasks is to empower learners to appreciate different views of life. One of the simple methods to do so is to ask learners to pick up any contentious issue such as Iraq war. Now they are asked to collect cuttings from different newspaper or magazines. Then they should try to analyse and see how same set of facts are interpreted differently by different people. This appreciation helps in development of independent thinking skills.

Jigsaw method

Skills: Appreciating different perspectives, creative thinking, etc.

Procedure: Every problem would look different, if we see from different perspectives. Objectivity of history teaching can be enhanced if learners are encouraged to appreciate any problem from different perspectives. Suppose we want to analyse any set of facts from three perspectives- gender, religious, and political. GRP

Ideational analysis

Skills: Appreciating different views, creative thinking, developing models of ideology and learn the art of analysis from different viewpoints, etc.

Procedure: Ideology plays an important role in the analysis of historical facts. One of the reasons of subjectivity in History teaching is that it is seen by different people through different ideology. An independent learner has to learn the art of analysis in his/her own framework. This can be done if the learner is given the task of analysing facts from different ideological framework. For example, some people see evolution of human society as a result of conflicts- conflict among people, conflict among groups, conflict of ideas, conflict to gain power, etc. They put more emphasis on battles and wars and believe that conflicts are major change agents in history. Learners may be given task of analysing a set of facts in terms of conflicts.

Similarly, learners may be given task of analysing facts in terms of cooperation as a means of evolution of society. In that case role of groups, family, village, town, nation, institutions, society, etc. may be examined in the evolutionary process.

Variation: Similarly, learners may be asked to analyse historical facts in terms of

  • Creativity and innovation
  • Discrimination
  • Sacrifice
  • Human independence, etc.

Learning the art of presentation

Skills: Art of presentation/communication

These days geometrical designs are widely used in the presentation. It should be necessary for all learners to learn use of geometrical designs. Various activities should be designed for this purpose.

Look into folk items

Skills: Power of observation, analysis, etc.

Procedure: Folk items such as folk songs, folk stories, folk plays, folk heroes, etc. carry the imprints of historical footmarks on them. It would be interesting to watch these evidences and learn about historical events. They can be taught the art of analysing these folk items.

Follow a news

Skills: Developing sense of history

Procedure: Learners of history must develop a habit of following the news regarding an incident over a period of time so that they may develop a sense of appreciation of an event on a time scale. This habit can be inculcated by asking learners to cut news from a news paper following a news for several days/months. They may even look for news from the past newspapers. Then they should connect those news to make a story.

What if it would have/would not have happened?

Skills: Interpretation of historical trends

Procedure: One of the important tasks for a historian is to pick up the trends of development of events. One exercise is to predict events as to what would have happened if a particular event would have happened or would not have happened. For example, what would have happened if India would not have got freedom. Similarly what happened in a village after bicycle came. This exercise should be done in a brainstorming session.

Gender issues in daily life

Skills: Appreciation of gender issues

Procedure: Learners can learn the art of looking at discrimination on the grounds of gender, caste or creed by first looking for such discrimination in daily life and then look for them in scriptures or other historical evidences. They may even look for such discrimination in folk songs, stories, etc.

Survey activities

Skills: Measurement of the site of excavation

Procedure: Learners have to make a measurement of the site of excavation. They should learn the art of reading survey maps and make measurements to develop maps of an area.

Measurement activities

Skills: Measurement of shape and size of artefacts

Procedure: Often learners have to make measurement of the shape and size of artefacts. They should learn the use of scale, screw gauze and slide callipers in taking measurement regarding shape and size of any artefact.

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