I cannot say I absolutely knew I would find what I was looking for on YouTube, but I was fairly certain. I typed in ‘plowing with oxen’. The first result was perfect: roughly six or seven seconds from when the student had asked the question, there were the oxen plodding along the seven foot wide projector screen at the front of the classroom hooked up to my Mac, demonstrating the slow, physically grueling methods of pre-industrial agriculture.
I use this method every day; it is my content base, as I do not use textbooks. Sometimes, it is handy as questions come up, as students inevitably will not all know what a Maersk liner is or the intricacies of the reloading mechanism on a Brown Bess (in response to this a middle school student said “Oh! They stood in lines because it took so long to reload!”, which made both my day and, I think, a point about visual learners). Other times, it’s handy because I’m presenting a specific stimulus, like the image below by Eric Fischer:
This image is a visualization of US Census data, with racial self-identification color coded: blue is African American, red is Caucasian, orange Hispanic and green Asian/Pacific Islander. There are like maps for 40 American cities – my economics class explored a number of them in coordination with the the census visualizer from the NYTimes to witness contrasting patterns of racial and socioeconomic dispersion in urban areas.
Content like this is integrative. It is political, social, economic and historic simultaneously. It does not abide by any arbitrary academic boundary placed on knowledge, and one is compelled to use the full battery of conceptual ammunition of the social sciences to investigate it.
I don’t expect that the few contents of the following toolbox will surprise anyone – but I encourage everyone to take a second look, to contemplate what it represents: a functionally limitless access to free content of extraordinary pedagogic value. The common feature of these tools is that they are aggregators that allow the user to move quickly and easily from the general to the specific and back again, and, in terms of human comprehension, they are so loud as to be silent. They are the world’s music, images, movies and text.
- Spotify – nearly all the world’s recorded music, instantly searchable and streamable, free
- Google Images – a high resolution image of any object and every famous piece of artwork, billions (no kidding) of historical photos, free
- YouTube – expert explanations of concepts, demonstrations of concepts and phenomena, free
- Wikipedia, Google Books & Amazon – the quick and dirty, the deep scan, the selection of a book and access to it
There is a catch of course, to using all of this extraordinary, engaging content: it’s chaotic. To move nonlinearly, to allow so much content into the classroom, more than can ever be mastered, and to allow students to pursue content they’re passionate about – one reading a book on Surrealism and the other reading a book on intellectual history – other facets of the classroom experience, and the planning process, must change in turn. More on that in Part III.