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Book Review

 

Teaching for Thinking. The Middle Ages: The building of nations, and The Renaissance: Winds of change (Vancouver, BC., 2004).

 
The Middle Ages: The building of nations and The Renaissance: Winds of change are an interactive software programs. The Middle Ages covers the major events of Europe and Asia from 500 C.E. to 1500 C.E. and is 'narrated' by Confucius, while The Renaissance details the major events of Europe, with some coverage of Asia, from 1500 C.E. to 1750 C.E. and is 'narrated' by Machiavelli. Both are geared for an audience ranging from ages 10 to adult. The content of both programs represents a good mix of social, political, and diplomatic history, with a bit of an emphasis on social history.  The software is divided into a variety of cases, each of which provides an audio story to the theme selected.  This audio is accompanied by maps, still images and bulleted text. 1
     In addition to the content, a teacher's guide is provided as an Adobe Acrobat file that is contained on the CD-Rom.  The guide contains the "big ideas" for each of the cases, along with suggestions for how to employ the software with full groups, small groups, as an independent self-paced study, as an enrichment activity, and for the independent learner. Along with the "big ideas," the teacher's guide also provides a series of discussion questions for each of the cases.  For the "Evaluation and Assessment" suggestions, it focuses upon qualitative assessment and Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. 2
     The review of these programs was completed with the assistance and feedback from students in EDIT2000 Introduction to Technology for Teachers, which is a course for pre-service teachers at the University of Georgia.  These students spent two days playing with the software and looking at it from both a student's and a potential teacher's perspective.  3
     The content itself, as these students put it, is largely "straight lecture [with] no interaction."  The way the material is presented is similar to that of a narrated book or book on tape, and is accompanied by appropriate maps and illustrations.  In some instances, text is presented, although in most instances this is presented in short phrases, usually in list format.  While the method of delivery is effective, in that it has both an audio description and visual aids to assist the students in their understanding of the content, it does not allow the students any chance to interact with the software.  There are no opportunities for the students to have any input while using the software, not even while using the self-evaluation exercises.  That said, in other respects the software seems to be well designed.  It is "easy to navigate, [with a] time bar at the bottom" so students have the ability to rewind or fast forward content while viewing each of the cases. Students can also use the navigation bar to skip ahead or back through various cases.  They are also able to pause the story or go directly back to the table of contents.  Finally, there is a bar across the bottom of the screen that indicates how far along in the individual chapter, as well as where that particular chapter is in the overall DVD. According to the students, the software is "easy to access interface, pretty self-explanatory, straightforward." 4
     Taking an example from The Renaissance program, let us say that the student selects the chapter on "Expansion and Exploration" from the table of contents.  The title page appears, accompanied by some music, followed by a painting of Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella.  'Machiavelli' begins his story about how Queen Isabella financed Columbus' journey, and continues with an overview of the chapter.  Machiavelli moves on to some of the advances in science and navigation that allowed for exploration to occur at this time.  This discussion is accompanied by sketches of sails and air-tight barrels.  Machiavelli then begins to describe what Columbus hoped to find on his voyage to the west and why.  This discussion is accompanied by a painting of Columbus' ships, along with a map of where he sailed on his first voyage.  These maps are followed by a discussion about how Columbus thought he had reached Asia, and how the explorers following Columbus mapped out the Americas, realizing with Magellan that it was in fact not Asia. This discussion, too, is accompanied by a series of period maps. 5
      The discussion then turns to the colonization of the New World by Spain and Portugal, along with the relationship that peoples of both states had with indigenous peoples.  This discussion has a variety of paintings depicting events of the times.  The narration provides a balanced view of this relationship, indicating the way in which the Europeans prospered at the expense of indigenous peoples as well as the disease and famine experienced by indigenous groups. The chapter ends with a mention of the European powers that were still to come to the New World. 6
     As is illustrated by this specific example, the software could be used as an effective way to introduce a particular topic, by playing an individual chapter or series of chapters to a full group before beginning a more detailed lesson on that particular topic.  It could also be used as an effective way to give students an introductory or summary overview of the time period, either to a full class or individually.  However, it would not be advisable to use this as the sole coverage for a particular topic, as the information provided by the software does not go in depth enough for the AP-level classroom. 7
     Students tended to agree that the software would make a good supplement to my normal classroom instruction.  They argued that it would be "good as supplemental" instruction, "good for individual study," or "good for research projects."  More specifically, as was suggested by one of the students, "portions of the program could be useful if utilized in short segments and if the teacher incorporated activities."  These activities are included in the supplemental items for "Further Study," which contains general study questions, a list of suggested readings, follow-up activities listed by medium (i.e., art, drama, computer project, creative writing, journaling, research reports, debates, etc.), and self-evaluation exercises. 8
     In terms of some of the reasons to utilize this software in the classroom, the fact that it does not take a Eurocentric approach to the content is welcome within an AP World History classroom.  In addition, many of the questions contained in the software itself, and in the teacher's guide, are appropriate to be used in the classroom without using the software.  The suggestions for non-computer based activities, particularly many non-traditional activities such as art, music, drama and interviewing, can also be quite useful regardless if the software it utilized or not.  In this respect, even if the software is not utilized for teaching purposes, it can be used as an effective planning tool, particularly for generating ideas for activities in the classroom. 9
     Ultimately, the students who reviewed this software had mixed reviews.  While many felt that the presentation of the content was interesting and could see potential uses for it in the classroom, either in place of or to supplement traditional instruction, there were others who were not as enthusiastic.  A number of students found that lack of student input a real weakness of the software. These students compared the software to a narrated book on CD-Rom, as if "someone was reading a textbook to me." Those who liked it, however, felt that the content was interesting and presented in a creative way, and that it was "very informative and accurate." 10
Michael Barbour
University of Georgia

 
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