What Role Should YouTube Play for a History Teacher?

Avoiding the hivemind
Omar Al-Ghosson, Unsplash

Here at Chalkboard Review, Avi Woolf recently penned a piece titled “With YouTube, are Teachers Necessary?” Avi’s affirmative conclusion to that question is well-argued, and it caused me to reflect on my own experience as an educator.

Six months ago, my classroom welcomed a new arrival. This new arrival was not a student or teaching assistant. It was instead a 75-inch Promethean Board, a 4k touchscreen that is functionally, as far as I can tell, a gigantic plastic tablet. Veteran educators will be unsurprised to learn that the teachers in my division were not consulted on the decision to install these boards, and so the question “how would this improve your classroom?” went unasked. Perhaps it went unasked because the answer was assumed. Among the few apps preloaded onto the obtrusive device, “YouTube” was one of them.

I teach history, mostly to 6th and 7th graders in a private setting. From appearances, YouTube should be a tremendous boon to teaching my subject area. Channels explaining just about everything have popped up in recent years. World War One buffs can follow a week-by-week exploration on the “Great War” channel. Enthusiasts of revolutionary politics can break down the Decembrist Revolt with the high production values of “Epic History TV.” Every violent confrontation in history larger than a pub brawl has seemingly been broken down and animated by channels like “Baz Battles” so you can watch Hannibal’s encirclement at Cannae or Charles Martel’s route at Tours represented by colored, moving boxes on a digital painting. It’s all very entertaining, engrossing, and an embarrassment of riches for me.

But I am a 30-year-old military history nerd. I’m not a 6th grader. Remarkably, the Venn Diagram of interests between those two groups is not perfectly intersecting. I bear bad news for those painstakingly editing videos on those channels and delivering the dramatic narratives: kids mostly find them boring. Those little boxes moving across the screen represent divisions of hoplites in my mind, but to a 12 year old girl, their meaning remains abstract.

It’s not all bad news. YouTube has a place, in short snippets, but it is good to remind ourselves that the physical presence of a teacher cannot be replaced by any hivemind.

Over the last two years, a group of about seventy students have learned World History from me. From the rivers of Mesopotamia to the Fall of the Soviet Union, we’ve walked the journey of the story of man. I am also responsible for assessing them, so it becomes sharply clear what content they retained and what they did not. If there is one commonality I find for every test essay question that the students knock out of the park, it’s that I included a story in the instruction.

My students remember the time I crawled on the ground, imitating Rasputin in his final moments. They remember the time I pretended to be Scipio Africanus, leading a mob of them into a hallway to reject my trial for embezzlement. And to date no student of mine has ever failed to identify an example of “chivalry” after I’ve already sung the Song of Roland, blowing an imaginary and impotent oliphant horn. It should not need mentioning that to be a teacher, one must allow the possibility of appearing ridiculous.

Every stack of tests I’ve ever graded speaks to one unavoidable conclusion: the most important element of a classroom remains the teacher, and will remain so regardless of technical innovation. The methods required to pass down knowledge, whether it be facts from a textbook or wisdom of the ancients, remains stubbornly immutable from the days of campfires to our age of tech. 

Lucerne Bolvin
Lucerne Bolvin (pseudonym) is a Florida history teacher with 7 years of full-time experience from 6th to 11th grade, almost exclusively in private religious education.