Medieval Connections: Active Learning and the Teaching of the Middle Ages

Article excerpt

A teacher who can creatively set up a dialectic of learning activities in which students move back and forth between having rich new experiences and engaging in deep, meaningful dialogue, can maximize the likelihood that the learners will experience significant and meaningful learning.--L. Dee Fink (1)

The truth of it is that students [in the Middle Ages] were undergoing the same formative issues in life that are confronting me directly in the face now, and I am now feeling like there is much to be gained from the appreciation of their stories.--a student in the Medieval Connections course (2)

In the spring of 2004 at Augsburg College, several colleagues and I developed and taught a course in medieval studies entitled "Medieval Connections." (3) The course was born out of two desires: 1) to create an introductory course for a proposed major in medieval studies and 2) to develop an interdisciplinary course for first-year students in keeping with the goals of Augsburg's newly-revised general education curriculum. From the beginning, we hoped Medieval Connections would be a model of active learning. Hence, in developing the course, we set out to create what Dee Fink calls "rich, new experiences"--in this case concerning the Middle Ages--that would become the subject of Fink's active learning dialectic, the fodder for the "deep, meaningful dialogue" we hoped would follow. (4) In this article, I would like to discuss some of the experiences we developed for the Medieval Connections course, to show how those experiences contributed to students' dialogue with the Middle Ages, and to demonstrate how this dialectic between experience and dialogue contributed to students' active learning about medieval life.

The development of the Medieval Connections course was a process that required collaboration and creativity. Our interdisciplinary team for the course consisted of seven faculty members, one each from the departments of history, philosophy, religion, art, music, theatre, and English. We began brainstorming about the course with a moderate constructivist view. (5) Our first task was to discern what our students might know (or think they know) about the Middle Ages. We assumed that the most likely sources of their knowledge about the Middle Ages were popular fiction, television, and movies, and that only a small portion of what they knew about medieval history came from high school courses or other more academic reading they might have done. (6) With this in mind, we gradually established three broad learning outcomes for the course. First, we wanted students to know that the popular conception of the Middle Ages as a "Dark Age" is a cliche, and that the Middle Ages was, like most historical epochs, a diverse and complex period, one that witnessed great brutality and poverty, but also great intellectual and cultural achievement. Second, we wanted them to see the value in studying the past--or for that matter the present--from a range of disciplinary approaches and the advantages of having those disciplines engage in discourse with each other on a common topic. And finally, we wanted our students to develop certain skills that would help them succeed not only in this first-year course, but also throughout their college careers. These skills included developing their memories, learning to read more carefully and critically, and constructing arguments based on the texts they had read.

Our students for this new course would all be in the second semester of their first year, i.e., still at the beginning of discovering their identities as college students. For this reason, we decided to "set" the course in a medieval university classroom. Since the medieval university--with its beginnings in the twelfth century--is the ancestor of our modern institution, setting the course in a medieval classroom would afford our students a good opportunity to ask questions of the past that would have meaning in their own lives. …