Back to the Future. A Learning Technologist’s Reflection on a Victorian Lesson on Zoom

What can a Learning Technologist learn from the Victorian Lesson?

Recently, I have been listening to the podcast version of 25 Years of Ed Tech by Martin Weller. It reminded me that perhpas the past is a good place to explore the future.

It is Thursday 11th February 1897. We are practising our handwriting, writing our names and the date.

In February 2021, I attended a Victorian lesson from the Pit Village School at Beamish Museum streamed live on Zoom and delivered by a teacher in authentic Victorian clothes. In this blog post I reflect on the Victorian lesson experience. To what extent have our approaches to pedagogy and technology-enhanced learning (TEL) changed since then?

The Revival of the Sandbox

Live Victorian Lesson on Zoom at The Pit Village School at Beamish Museum

The teacher talked us through the learning objects or ‘technology’ in the Victorian classroom. In addition to the abacus and the blackboard, one of the objects that really stood out was the mini sandboxes for each student. The teacher explained that students would practise making shapes in the sand and when they made a mistake they could start again by shaking the box. This is a powerful approach. This struck me as being familiar in virtue of the fact that in learning technology, we often make use of a sandpit or sandbox approach. For example, when we train staff, we create a copy of the tool and call it the sandbox platform in which staff can be trained and feel free to make mistakes without being concerned about having an impact in a live site. This seems to be a valuable approach that exists in both Victorian and present pedagogical realities. Perhaps there are no mistakes, only learning!

The teacher showed a board with a range of writing frames and sentence builders with an image to reinforce the content for example exploring the use of the definite and indefinite articles “hat, a hat and the hat”. Perhaps this could be an early example of dual coding potentially paving the way for multimodal instruction from the “monomodal world” modes (Kress, Jewitt, Ogborn & Tsatsarelis, 2001: p8). Studies have been carried out to explore the impact of embedding visual content in the pedagogic process (Clark & Lyons, 2004 in Caviglioli, 2019: p13). Multimodal learning can be argued to be teaching with “the multiplicity of modes (Kress, Jewitt, Ogborn & Tsatsarelis, 2001: p8).

Manners maketh…the Pedagogy?

Manners maketh…the Pedagogy?

The teacher identified some of the famous sayings that could be heard in the Victorian classroom such as ‘Children should be seen and not heard’. It seemed that there was an overarching teacher-centered approach. Conversely, nowadays it could be argued that there has been a significant pedagogical shift to embracing student-centeredness. Furthermore, educational institutions have celebrating increasing their opportunities to celebrate student voice. Students are both seen and heard.

Chalk & Talk, Sage on the Stage

Chalk & Talk and Sage on the Stage

The approach to teaching was explicitly ‘chalk and talk’ and ‘sage on the stage’. The teacher explained that the teacher would stay at the front of the class and students would come to the front to show the teacher their work and the teacher would rarely walk around the classroom. The classroom itself seemed to be in a linear and traditional with desks facing the front. The teacher informed the lesson participants that the days at school would be long with not a great deal pedagogical variety. Students also attended Saturday and Sunday schools too. In contrast, modern classrooms are often designed in circles and a dynamic structure.

The teacher discussed how poor children may not have gone to school, how factory work after school would be common, how some students were required to pay the teacher, and how there was not a great deal of homework due to the need for students to work and the lack of daylight.

The teacher brought to our attention the use of slate that students would use to write on using chalk. It was interesting to reflect on how the slate is similar to the tablets we use today. I recall visiting Beamish Museum with English for Academic Purposes (EAP) students and reflecting on how an iPad is similar to the slate tablets. The blackboard was a key feature in the Victorian classroom. The teacher used a stick or pointer to draw the students’ attention to content on the board. Learning by repetition and or by rote was commonplace. We took part in a live poem reding where the teacher recited a poem and we all copied. The teacher tested one student to see if they could remember the whole poem. Copying from the board was expected. Perhaps the blackboard was like a form of collaborative Google document. It was interesting when we participated in a timetables activity that the teacher asked us to keep off the chat function in Zoom. The teacher also led a money task exploring shillings, farthings. The teacher talked us through how students could use ink and that could be an ‘Ink Monitor’ who mixed the ink powder with water and distributed the ink to the individual desks. Modern learning environments appear to be curated in dynamic circles. According to the teacher who led the session, there were 70 students in the Victorian classroom. Nowadays, perhaps there is a trend towards smaller class sizes. However, the lecture format does emulate Victorian pedagogic features such as a large number of students facing forward with a static Lecturer delivering content. If it is not broken, don’t fix it?

The teacher explained that students were instructed to write in a right-handed capacity only and that if a student did not do this then they would have their hand tied behind their back. There seemed to be a need to make every student the same. This reminded me of the famous blue eyes and brown eyes experiment. In 2019, I delivered a TED style talk exploring this experiment where I placed printed out images of blue and brown eyes under the seats of the audience and emulated the experiment live followed by a reflection.

To some extent, perhaps the Victorian classroom was still a “political place” (hooks, 1994: p4). The teacher discussed how the curriculum was constructed of “God, Queen & Country” (Teacher, Victorian Lesson at Beamish, Thursday 11th February 2021). In the Victoria classroom, there was a picture of Queen Victoria on the wall and an image of Grace Darling who rescued survivors from a shipwreck in 1838 (Grace Darling.co.uk, 2020). Perhaps “The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy” (hooks, 1994: p12). The experience was a ‘radical’ experience bringing up issues of equality, pedagogy, and social justice.

Pedagogic Neostalgia

Pedagogic Neostalgia?

A few weeks after the lesson, digital certificates were emailed to lesson participants. This could remind us of open badges. It was possible to download the certificate and personalise the content.

A Certificate of Attendance for the Victorian Lesson

Attending a live Victorian lesson on Zoom was a radical experience bringing up issues of equality, pedagogy, and social justice. It was almost an experience of ‘pedagogic neostalgia’. Neostalgia can be defined as “the combined emotions of nostalgia and newness at the same time. Often feels like rediscovery and has more of a positive connotation than nostalgia” (DangerousMuteLunatic, 2013)Perhaps attending a Victorian lesson and reflecting on the experience was a useful activity in terms of exploring how it has led to the modern experience and to help us speculate in the “Brave New Digital Classroom” of the future (Blake, 2013).

It is possible to book the Victorian lesson experience here.

Bibliography

Beamish Museum (2021) Victorian Lesson at The Pit Village School on Zoom [live performance] Performed by Beamish Museum. (Beamish Museum, Country Durham,  11th February

Beamish Museum (2021) Live Victorian Lesson (Online) Available at: http://www.beamish.org.uk/live-victorian-lesson/ [Accessed: 14 February 2021]

Blake, R J (2013). Brave New Digital Classroom: Technology and Foreign Language Learning. United States: Georgetown University Press.

Caviglioli, O (2019) Dual Coding with Teachers (Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd)

DangerousMuteLunatic, 2013 ‘Neostalgia’, Urban Dictionary (Online) Available at: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Neostalgia [Accessed 5 February 2021]

Grace Darling.co.uk (2020) Grace Darling Website (Online) Available at: http://www.gracedarling.co.uk/ [Accessed: 14 February 2021]

hooks, b (1994) Teaching to Transgress Education as a Practice of Freedom (Abingdon: Routledge)

Kress, G, Jewitt, C, Ogborn, J, Tsatsarelis, C (2001) Multimodal Teaching and Learning The Rhetorics of the Science Classroom (London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic)

Mark Heckroth, 2018. Brown eyes and blue eyes Racism experiment Children Session – Jane Elliott Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGvoXeXCoUY [Accessed 14 February 2021]

McDonald, P, (2019) CollecTED, ‘Education: A Memory of the Future’, TED style event, The Collective, London, June 2019

Weller, M (2000) 25 Years of EdTech (Online) [pdf] Edmonton: AU Press. Available at: https://www.aupress.ca/app/uploads/120290_99Z_Weller_2020-25_Years_of_Ed_Tech.pdf [Accessed: 14 February 2021]

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