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A learning partnership in the history classroom

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Andrew Savage, as HOD History at Wellington College, discusses ways that he encourages his students to be partners in their learning. Andrew fosters an environment of questioning and inquiry, and provides examples about exploring the Treaty of Waitangi to help students connect with and have deeper understandings of the issues around this topic.


In the history department, one of the things I'm incredibly passionate about is helping students to understand how they're learning about history, as opposed to just what they're learning about history. The way I do that is by teaching a lesson - probably half a lesson before I stop then spend a lot of time getting students to discuss how I communicated ideas to them, and what were the strengths and weaknesses of those ideas and what stuck and what didn't and why. The reason I do this is because it helps me to understand how different students are learning different things from the way I teach. And in turn helps the students to see how each other perceive different things as important. Then we can have a discussion about the learning process and why the nature of learning history is dangerous as well, so it kind of plays into the discipline. 

The other thing I talk a lot about is the use of language. The words I choose, I ask students to stop me often, or question my choice of language. In the discipline that's an important discussion for me to have because it helps me to articulate how history is taught ,and my part as a teacher in doing that, by choosing certain words which have different meanings or emphasis.

An example of this perhaps would be best seen when teaching something like the Treaty of Waitangi. There's so many powerful words that I can use in that classroom environment which can change people's attitudes or perceptions about how I see the treaty and therefore what the treaty means or what they should think it means. So in that context I would teach the same story maybe three or four times just changing a word. Then ask students to identify how change in language or shift in words that I chose to use changed the learning. I think the spin off of that is that they start engaging that language around the school as well. How all different types of language that they've been exposed to is changing meaning. 

I also would really encourage students to seek me out with advice about how I can best help them to learn about history. So by doing a lot of one on one conferencing, spending a lot of time getting students to build those relationships with students in the classroom so that we can have those learning discussions in an easygoing way is really important. 

Another way that I try to incorporate students into that is by trying to know what they know about things first which is obviously a core part of our profession. Using the skills they have and the expertise they have to take the class in different directions, and open up new learning pathways. So for instance, in my level three history class recently, I have a fluent te reo speaker and seeing an opportunity (staying with the Treaty of Waitangi example) to help Pakeha students understand the complexities of translation. I asked the class to write their own treaties - what they would offer to Māori as a treaty today if they were to do that. Then I got the fluent speaker to go round and interpret the treaties - which led to numerous discussions about problems of translation. For instance I think we were talking about the word for enlightenment, or knowledge. Our speaker talked about mārama the word being used there for knowledge, which some boys recognised as meaning the moon. Then we started talking about poetic language, how poetic language has meaning in different environments and therefore it became a really authentic way of learning about translation issues around something like a treaty discussion for all different communities here. Our te reo speaker was able to also see the intention of the Pakeha students writing the treaty. He could see what they were trying to do because he spoke both languages, but he was able to show them why it wasn't working. It was really helpful.   

Published on: 07 Feb 2013