Sunday, July 12, 2009

Teaching History versus Re-Enacting it

Our company is called 'Multisensory Education' for a reason... we believe in education, not show and tell.

There is a great distinction between, on the one hand: a well thought out teaching program which demands the students feedback, and assesses their understanding as part of each session – which is not just interactive, but participative; and on the other hand, a show and tell activity which talks a lot and touches a lot - but which is not really interactive, or even really assessable.

I have spent the last three weeks on one of my regular 'on year' trips to check the latest Interactive and Multisensory displays and exhibits - this time in the UK. (On the 'off years' I tour, and sometimes present at, teaching venues and seminars.)

Naturally when I am looking at the latest ideas for Australian history classrooms, I concentrate on Medieval, Ancient, Renaissance, or Early Modern sites - particularly in Europe and Japan. Equally importantly though, I am always seeking the best new Interactive teaching displays, and the best re-enactment displays.

So as well as the normal round of castles and abbeys and cathedrals and guild halls, checking out audio tours and touch screens and children's try-on or try-out activities; I also go wherever (and whenever) I can see the latest concepts developed by others.

This trip included the Imperial War Museum's air museum at Duxford interactions; Kentwell Hall's Tudor Manor re-enactments; Caerphilly Castle's reconstructions and seige equipment; Sutton Hoo's Saxon re-constructions and re-enactments; the Wheald and Downland's children's centre activities; and Llangollen's nineteenth century 'two ladies of Llangollen' 'participative're-enactments'.

Generally the displays fell into the two types mentioned above. 'Show and Tell' or 'Interact'. The bias is now moving towards proper 'interact’, but there is now an exciting application of ‘participative’ discussion with the audience.

About time.

At Multisensory Education we decided ten years ago that show and tell was not adequate for modern education. This was partly caused by my background teaching interactive techniques in Education Faculties; and partly by a careful examination of the effectiveness of our own programs at hundreds of schools over the years. Thousands of feedback forms from teachers and students showed that the line between 'touching and listening' and proper 'multisensory interaction' was even more profound than I had believed. We have spent the last several years trying to make our sessions as ‘participative’ as possible.

Training your staff NOT to stand and lecture, with a few props passed around; or NOT to run students through activity after activity without discussion of meaning or purpose: is difficult and time consuming. In the end we had to sack several presenters who - no matter how many times we tried to teach them new techniques - were incapable of running a session that was not the worst style of lecture delivered from on high: bad university lecturer technique applied to 8 to 13 year olds! (Some of those we sacked run their own activity days now... hope they remember some of what we drilled them in so many times.)

Which is what makes it so satisfying to me to see the re-enactments in the UK moving towards what we think of as ‘our style’ of presentation.

There are still plenty of displays on the basis of ‘try on these things’, or ‘feel the weight of these things’, and I believe they have a purpose… but only as part of a well structured display. There are still plenty of ‘set spiel’ performers, who just reel of their lines regardless of the reactions of their audience… I hate that. There are still plenty of multiple-choice displays, which in ‘the old days’ (you know, five or ten years ago.) would have been considered interactive. But now, there are real multisensory, and interactive, and even participative, displays.

Possibly the best displays I came across were Kentwell and Llangothlen. Kentwell because the family who own the estate are the sort of enthusiastic nutters who have their portraits in period costume in the great hall, and have spent thirty years developing the sort of comprehensive environment that gets hundreds of enthusiastic re-enactors to come to their weekends for the public; and Llangothlan because they pay professionals to do the same thing.

The performers at Llangothlan had some basic scripts to set scenes. But the rest of it was done using effective interaction and participation with the visitors. They were willing to drop character for a serious discussion of sources or references when needed (a skill beyond most of the amateurs who simply have to keep character to maintain consistency); but they mainly interacted as period performers talking to visitors about whatever interested the visitors about their environment and lives. And they did it well. They were particularly good at asking what the visitors thought about X, and drawing them into a discussion. Participative discussion!

The amateur re-enactors at Kentwell attempted to keep character, and usually did fairly well. (They at least avoided the ‘Foorsooth young masters my trews are quaking’ rubbish that I have heard from Australian re-enactors. Words from several centuries combined with fanciful made up ‘Olde-English’ in a manner best described as embarrassing.) There were inevitable slips of phrase and context, but the key element was that they interacted with the visitors – not just lectured them as they might have done a decade ago. In fact they allowed interaction, at least on a question and answer basis, though not actual participation.

Partly this works because of the almost perfect environment these performances are held in. I will not let my presenters use Olde-English in Australian, because A) they are generally not knowledgeable enough to do it very well, and B) without the context, the result is embarrassing. Frankly, unless you are working a Sovereign Hill like environment, the concept of attempting Olde-English in the standard classroom detracts from what is being taught. Slips in the right environments can be passable. Slips in the wrong environment are just silly and distracting. ((I have written articles for the HTAV and others in the past about how students remember only two or three things from any session, so you better not make those things unintended funny mistakes, or, you would be better not to have done a session at all.)

This brings up the whole issue of accuracy. Presenters MUST be extremely cautious how they phrase things. Once again, I will not let my presenters say, “this is what they did, and this is why they did it”. Instead I want them to say, “this is what we think they did… now why do you think they might have done it that way?” (Again, I have had to sack those who insist on preaching. Challenging the students’ assumptions is fine and good, but telling them how you personally believe people in a different culture thought is neither fine nor good.)

Complete accuracy is just not a realistic possibility intellectually. Repeatedly I have heard so called professionals pass on, as the Word of God, some out of date concept which even the most basic of modern children’s books will reveal to be disproven by modern research. (If ‘My First Book of Knights and Castles” can get it right, why should your school or my company be paying incompetent presenters to get it wrong?) The correct phrasing is “some research believes they did this… can you think why?”

Even worse is the concept of completely accurate props. Many re-enactors strut around in props copied from what they think is accurate interpretations of historical equipment. Most are working – often inaccurately - on the most basic theories. (The French Military Museum has FOUR pieces of armour pre 1300, and any suits pre 1400 are composites. Complete suits still in existence are almost exclusively high nobles parade armour, not equipment of common knights and soldiers.)

If one more re-enactor comes out of their COTTON tent to proudly shows me their STAINLESS STEEL version of what we think was THEORETICALLY worn by A FEW of the wealthiest people of their time, and tells me that ALL medieval knights wore this, I will scream. (It is almost certain that there were less 'medieval' people who could have afforded high quality parade ‘white plate’ armour, than modern people who can afford a private helicopter!)

Tents are a particular bugbear of mine. Most re-enactors will defend as accurate, often to the death, cotton tents made by reference to pictures drawn before perspective was invented. (You know, the sort of medieval paintings where people are taller than the town walls.) The problem is that these pretty pictures seem to show proportions not reflected by the remaining documents. (I would recommend the ‘Royal Rolls of the Tentmaster’ to Henry VIII a the field of Cloth of Gold for instance, except that I cannot find it online, and my photocopy is via an obscure academic journal from the 1980’s.) Those re-enactors who insist tents would have two thirds of their height in the roof and one third in the walls again appear to be going on a couple of surviving royal display tents clearly not designed for common living. The rolls clearly describe tents with roofs between one quarter and one half of the total height, and there is a probability that roof pitch reflected rank (which would suggest that all those re-enactors are pretending to be royalty).

Then there are the descriptions of weight. Medieval people did not have fine, water-proof, machine produced cotton, to reduce weight. I sometimes marvel about what the tent designs that re-enactors often put together would weigh if made of leather or wool. (Again silk tents become possible late in period… but guess who can afford them?) The same rolls describe the problems of transporting – by river boat only – the 13” across the base 60’ long poles that were the centre pieces for the large display tents that Henry VIII used as impressive feasting pavilions at the Field of Cloth of Gold (tents which do have the incredible 2/3 rooflines, but which were the size and considerably heavier than many modern circus tents!)

I have indulged in a bit of experimental archaeology myself. I once made three -collapsible into a chest size box - travel beds, to a mediaeval concertina design. On in the mediaeval world, chests such as this are carried between two donkeys. I of course, made my experimental models from cuts of modern 12 mm milled pine planks, with modern lightweight brass stampings. But they of course, used hand sawn 18 mm oak with caste iron fittings. My experimental models, could be easily lifted by two people: but that is not the description we get of the period ones.

Possibly the funniest example of this sort of thinking that I have come across was the now apocrophal and legendary story of a re-enactor who raised her own sheep; sheered them; spun the wool; wove the materiel; hand sowed the costume to what she thought was the best researched pattern available; and proudly presented it as ‘perfect’ example of period costume. “They didn’t have Merino sheep”, was the immediate sniffed comment from one periodicity fanatic.

The point is ridiculously nit-picking, but nonetheless valid. I think I have seen perhaps two re-creations – of the many thousands I have been shown – that actually used the correct materials from the correct place with the correct methods. Otherwise we are talking compromises here. The best we can do in Australia is ‘this a modern attempt at a period design using modern materials which do not have quite the same properties’. Again, good presenters will not pretend that this is exact, or that it was the standard. (As an example, if we are doing three Medieval Arms and Armour presentations at one school, each kit will have slightly different bits… there was NO standardization in period. Likewise our costumes and armour are not pretty and shiny, as we kick them around a sandpit to get the proper ‘hard used’ effect. Most medieval ‘plate’ armour was probably laminated black for functionality, instead of the pretty shiny display stuff we have now.)

But I digress…

The key element of my research is NOT to find the ideal presentation to copy. Instead I am constantly searching for the best TECHNIQUES that can be applied, given the limitations of the environments and equipment we have available for teaching in Australia.

My conclusions have been consistent for many years. Re-enactment is rarely good teaching. In fact it is usually counter-productive in the Australian classroom. (There have been a few Australians I have met who can make it work are usually only doing Australian history which is much easier to contextualise. Unfortunately most Australians attempting re-enactment for other periods are entertainers only, and definitely shouldn’t pretend they are undertaking useful teaching.)

Re-enactment can be effective teaching, but only if done exceptionally well by a good actor with lots of research, and a great willingness to be flexible beyond their script to make it properly interactive. If you meet anyone who can do that, send them to me!

Unfortunately re-enactment usually doesn’t work out of context, and often not even in context unless the person is very good (which far to many are not). This is certainly the case for the vast majority of people I have seen attempt it in Europe and Australia. (Japan is a more interesting question, as I do not have the knowledge or language skills to pick the mistakes easily… but lets not talk about America.)

As far as good education goes, I am fairly confident that re-enactment is not the way. The correct approach is to present representative samples, and then to engage the students by inviting discussion and feedback. Not just show and tell, but interaction and participation. We have been attempting to do this for years. I am delighted to see that the best presenters in Europe are now using the same techniques.

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