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Process of Learning | History Class

The process of learning is multifaceted, and this statement is especially true for learning disciplines like History. Traditionally, the whole diversity of life, personalities and events which took place in the past is classified in the textbook and structured to “ease” the life of the learners. However, this form of learning history does not match all students, and a great percentage of them later recall history as one of the worst subjects at school because of too many dates, too much to memorize and large volumes of boring printed texts to read.

However, it has been proved that students who use photographs and illustrations during History classes (and during other classes, too), engage better in the discussions and respond better to the whole subject in general. When students face certain historical phenomena, they commonly tend to value appropriate photographs and illustrations as more important than textual description. For example, in the process of studying different social groups or the expansion of railroads, it can be appropriate to show the picture of Chinese railworkers by Joseph Becker called “Across the Continent: The snow sheds on the Central Pacific Railroad, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains” (available from http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/flipomatic/cic/images@ViewImage?img=chs00000430_116a). This picture wonderfully reflects the spirit of expansion, and shows the conditions and environment where people worked and lived. For many students, looking at several pictures like this one would be worth reading many pages of plain text. Photographs and other illustrations allow to reconstruct the atmosphere and get a feeling of the events of the past which cannot be replaced by reading activities.

Traditionally, educational system relies upon the auditory learning style. However, surveys have shown that only 34% of students have auditory learning style as their main style, while about 29% have a visual preference, and 37% are kinesthetic learners. Generally speaking, it would be best to expose students to all types of learning, through providing them exhibits of historical items, maps, and other elements which could be “sensed” beside texts and illustrations. However, it is not always possible, and for different periods it is different. At the same time, using photographs and illustrations can be available for most periods, and various reconstructions and photographs of historical findings can replace vivid illustrations for older periods. Providing such material will get learners engaged into the subject more compared to reading texts and discussing. Moreover, photographs can be used to address such problems as discrimination, prejudices and other social issues among students. For example, the brochure “Among the Chinese” by Colegrove C.P. shows different aspects of life of the Chinese in California in 1930s. This book has many illustrations showing Chinese children in different setting, describes the community and reveals dreams and aspirations of Chinese children. Again, the photographs make this book “live” and will help the students to realize that representatives of different social groups are equal US citizens and they all have contributed to the progress of the society. In the process of studying customs and traditions of the Chinese, it can be useful to show photographs like the image named “Chinese New Year: dragon dance, children and adults watching” (available from http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/cic/images/chs00000301_116a_j.jpg). This photograph can be explained by hundreds of words in written text, but still it would not be possible to transfer the mood and features of this snapshot like the illustration does. Another characteristic photograph of Chinese mining camp and gambling house (called “Celestial empire in California: Miners/Gamblers” is contained in the Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material by Robert Honeyman (available from http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/cic/images/HN000255aB.jpg). The perception of the Chinese as social group can be greatly changed through such photographs showing their historical role, and the development of culture and traditions. This is why using such materials during learning History is enriching the students’ experience and improves their knowledge and perception of the subject. There might be certain disadvantages of using photographs for learning historical events, and the major disadvantage is that validity of every illustration and photograph can depend on the type of the picture itself, and on the creativity invested by the artist into the illustration. For certain periods, it might be difficult to select appropriate illustrations, and relying on photographs only will not make learning successful.

In order to make the process of teaching history effective, it is important to remember that, according to latest research, people tend to remember about 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, and 30% of what they see. Moreover, if students see and hear, they are likely to memorize 50% of this material, and if they act and speak, they remember 90% of these activities. It means that photographs should be combined with explanation of the situation (time, event etc.) and it is most effective to engage students into discussions and other activities where they have to do something on their own (or state something on their own). This might require much deeper preparation for the lessons, and greater involvement compared to traditional learning. On one hand, this is a disadvantage of using illustrations for teaching; on the other hand, this is a totally different approach which can potentially yield great results, and it is quite expectable that it needs more teacher’s effort.

Similarly, in the process of studying social and historical phenomena, photographs can be used for initiating discussion and illustrating the hardships and challenges of wars, immigrations etc. For example, during studying the history of Chinese waves of immigrations illustrations like “Chinese immigrants coming to San Francisco, California” (contained in the Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material by Robert Honeyman; available from http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/cic/images/HN001260aB.jpg) can have a profound effect. The streams of immigrants and lines of ships going to the horizon reconstruct the situation, and show the students what the immigration might be like. Evidently, showing several such pictures is more effective than talking about hardships of immigration and related events; and the combination of texts, discussions and illustrations is likely to create the best mix for making students fond of the subject.


The Chinese in California. Theme Index. Available from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award99/cubhtml/themes.html