Oral history is a very challenging subject for history educators to introduce to their learners, but the process can be very enriching for all involved. The methodology related to oral history education makes it easier and more interesting for learners to become engaged with the subject matter because it involves them "directly in a method of historical inquiry."1 According to one Western Cape educator speaking about the response of his learners to oral history, "for the first time in their lives 'HISTORY' was not another boring subject being taught, but an exciting subject that came 'ALIVE' and kept the adrenalin pumping. In the process they learned some valuable research skills and they were also taught how to compile their own historical knowledge."2 Both critical thinking and communication skills are a desired learning outcome of oral history education. This is recognised as part of the research and assessment criteria of the Department of Education's South African National Board for Further Education and Training (NBFET)
Introducing oral history in the classroom
A hands-on approach is the best way to introduce oral history in the classroom. Class plans should introduce both the concept of oral history and its processes. Although oral history projects promote the initiative and independence of learners, it is important that they are given adequate guidance.
The educator should:
provide examples of oral history interview transcripts, letters to respondents and other existing projects, many of which may be found in the Library of this virtual exhibition.
organise guest speakers from the local community who are willing to speak to learners about their own history.
Organise visits to local libraries and/or archives so that learners are exposed to the process of archival research.
Coming up with original questions will force learners to be creative and think laterally. Learners should be expected to come up with their own questions, and prescribed questions from educators should be avoided. After all, the questions asked, and the way in which they are asked, are central to oral history learning. These have a huge impact on the quality and output of interviews. The questions should be assessed in terms of their level of appropriateness, as well as the extent to which they elicit information relevant to the overall question of the project.
For more on how to compile questions for interviews, see our section on interview tips.
Learners should be assessed on the basis of their selected interviewees. They should be encouraged to interview members of their local community. It is not always appropriate for learners to interview family members, but this should be assessed on an individual basis, particularly in terms of the topic. After all, geneaology (or family history) can be a very fruitful way for learners to engage with the past.3 Remind learners to include the biographical details of the person/s that they are interviewing, as well as some motivation about why the person is appropriate. Learners should always interview at least three respondents. These should ideally reflect different points of view, so that the learner gains a broader sense of the period being investigated.
With the support of their educators, learners should plan their project. Evidence of project planning, especially preparation for the interviews, is important when compiling portfolios for the Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Prize. Ensure that learners appreciate the importance of project planning and management.
All interview transcripts, correspondence, and reference material should be presented in a written portfolio. It is also a good idea to illustrate salient features of the interview by including one or more photographs of the respondent and/or events discussed in the interview.4 Learners should be encouraged to directly quote from, or make reference to, their interviews in their personal reflections. The bulk of their reflections should still be written in their own words.
The presentation of interviews is the most engaging and dynamic part of oral history education. Learners should be assessed on the basis of their delivery, as well as their ability to reflect depth of thought about the process. The self reflection demanded by oral history projects is an ideal way for learners to challenge their own sense of history.
Reflection for educators
The research process should rely on the curiosity, initiative and critical thinking skills of the learners, but the role of the educator is crucial to ensure their success. Oral history thus provides educators with the unique ability of learning with, and from, their learners.
Enrichment through SAHA
SAHA has developed a number of products to assist educators introduce oral history in the classroom
Meeting History Face-to-Face, available both as a booklet and as a documentary, provides guidelines on conducting oral history. It has been developed in consultation with educators and learners involved in the SAHA and Sunday Times School Oral History Project.
Educators may also find it useful to refer to SAHA's series of educational booklets on primary sources entitled SAHA in the Classroom. This series of publications provides access to a range of sources on topics related to South African political history between 1976 and 1994.
4 Baum, W.K. Transcribing and Editing Oral History, American Association for State and Local History, Nashville,1977, p. 9