Using educational blogs to teach U.S. history

Manfra, M.M., Gray, G.E., & Lee, J.K.

I recently wrapped up two rounds of a research study and a series of articles in collaboration with John Lee that focused on the integration of an educational blog as the primary instructional tool in a high school U.S. history classroom.  It was apparent to me that the teachers I worked with in professional development workshops or met at professional conferences often reserved creative and engaging uses of technology for their brightest students.  Lower level students would have few opportunities to use technology for anything more than skill acquisition or basic Internet research.  This digital divide seemed wrong-headed from both a social justice and pedagogical perspective.

Educational research has demonstrated that the status quo in the classroom generally does not work for low achieving/at risk kids. Rather, they need opportunities to engage with the material in active and meaningful ways.  Many at risk students are tactile rather than visual or auditory learners – again, suggesting the need for more innovative strategies. Added to this, research on culturally relevant instruction (e.g. Ladson-Billings, 1995, 2001) suggests that it is imperative for teachers of students of color to make efforts to connect content and teaching strategies to students’ cultural experiences if these students are to be successful.  Finally, research on authentic intellectual work has demonstrated that in classroom where teachers focus on depth of content, disciplined inquiry, and relevancy to the world beyond school, students learn more (Newmann, King, & Carmichael, 2007).

Despite the educational research-base the teaching practice that continues to dominate in most U.S. history classrooms is teacher lecture. There are myriad reasons for this trend.  Chief among these is a tenacious cultural tradition in history education that the teacher must serve as an expert – engaging in expository didacticism about the detailed historical facts that make up the past. There is also the persistence of a national narrative in our country that influences the manner in which we teach students (e.g. VanSledright, 2011).  Also influential is the manner in which history is tested.  In North Carolina students (until recently) took a 100 question multiple choice test that focused on discrete factual knowledge of American history from Washington’s presidency through Obama’s.

It was within this context that I engaged a U.S. history teacher at a local high school in a research study to determine if there was merit to an alternative approach to U.S. history instruction. I was hoping that by leveraging the unique affordances of Web 2.0 tools, especially blogs, we could create a distributed learning environment in which students engaged in historical thinking.

According to Dede (2008) Web 2.0 technologies represent a “seismic shift” in pedagogy, especially towards “constructivist and situated teaching approaches” and assessment “based on sophisticated performances showing students’ participation in peer review” (p. 81).  Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogs, include flexible Internet-based resources that allow the user to construct and publish something new, including text, audio, and video within a social medium or network (Solomon & Schrum, 2007).    Blogs support a unique form of writing—immediate, transitory, and interactive—that resembles discussion (Richardson, 2006). For the purposes of history education, blogs can provide students with streamlined access to digital historical resources and a mediated discussion space.

In round 1  of our study (see Manfra, Gray, & Lee, 2010; Manfra & Lee, 2010) we explored the experiences of low- achieving students responding to an educational blog.  Our intention was to leverage the unique affordances of blogs to teach United States history concepts primarily by providing access to digital primary sources and facilitating on-line participation.  Overall, our findings pointed to the positive potential of blogs to enhance instruction with low-achieving students.  We found the integration of the educational blog provided an effective instructional format to differentiate content instruction and deliver “equity pedagogy.”  In this study student participation increased, students engaged in historical work (although tentative), and the resources activated their prior knowledge.

Based on the findings from the first round, we engaged in a second round of study in the same classroom the following year (see Manfra & Lee, in press).  This study investigated whether a whole-class educational blog could facilitate culturally relevant instruction and authentic intellectual work in U.S. history.  Qualitative data collected and analyzed included student comments posted to an educational blog, classroom observations, and follow-up interviews.  Based on our analysis we determined four major findings: 1.Students were able to engage in historical analysis while working in the blog environment when it was focused on a single source and included a hard scaffold; 2.When students situated the activities in relevant cultural experiences, they were able to better use their prior knowledge; 3. A variety of affordances related to blogging encouraged and supported students as they completed their work; and 4. The blogging activities were constrained by the limits of students’ literacy and historical skills, and the limits of the social networks created in these classes.

These studies provided important understandings about student experiences when a whole class blog was integrated into U.S. history instruction as the primary pedagogical tool.  We found many affordances for using a blog and some limitations. The biggest challenges were associated with shifting from a coverage mode of instruction to a more active, historical thinking mode in the classroom.    Far from replacing the teacher, Web 2.0 technologies demand new roles for teachers. In order to support student learning, the teacher must facilitate and support student use of the technology and address misconceptions and other roadblocks as they appear. In many ways this is a more demanding role for teachers than the traditional frontal mode of instruction.  However, rather than withholding Web 2.0 technologies from low-achieving students we encourage teachers to use them to meet the unique learning needs of all of their students.  With thoughtful scaffolding, it appears teachers might be able to leverage the unique features of blog-based activities to improve student experiences.

Manfra, M.M., Gray, G.E., & Lee, J.K. (2010). Blogging to learn: Educational blogs and U.S. history. Social Education, 74(2), pp. 111-113, 116.

Manfra, M.M., & Lee, J. K. (2011). Leveraging the affordances of educational blogs to teach low achieving students United States history. Social Studies Research and Practice 6(2), 95-105.

Manfra, M.M., & Lee, J.K. (in press).  “You have to know the past to [blog] the present”: Using an educational blog to engage students in U.S. history.  Computers in the Schools.