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NCSS SESSION

Synopsis of Session at 2002 NCSS Conference

1428 9:30-10:30 am Civic Plaza, Flagstaff 4

Map Animation Visualizes History through Geography

Animated Atlas, Santa Monica, CA

Synopsis of presentation:

"The nation's high school seniors are all but clueless when it comes to understanding essential truths about America's past . . . Shown a depiction of the Boston Tea Party, only 35% of fourth-graders knew that it led to the American Revolution . . .Less than half of high school seniors (48%) knew that the Soviet Union was a U.S. ally in World War II."
    --"U.S. History Barely Passed," Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2002
Journalism, which has a parallel mission to that of education in informing people, seeks the most dramatic material to get attention: here it is pointed out that students don't even know the simplest facts. I maintain that this is because the simplest facts are not taught.

Overview. The thrust of my educational work is to express the simplest and most obvious material in the field of history, much of which is not understand by Americans, in school or out. I employ map animation and other forms of conceptual animation to visualize history on a large scale.

Viewing history. My initial impulse and desire was to view history fast, as if in a time machine. As the machine moves faster and faster through time, and the overview of history gets more condensed and larger panoramas of history are covered, the actors of the story have to become larger than human. The actors in this larger scale are geographic elements, political units playing parts in a drama enacted on the stage of physical geography. The experience can be seen as an animated historical atlas.

Audio-visual. This is audio-visual with a function: to make the context of historic events real, and thus make a home for the broad themes that shape history.
    Geography is learned at the same time as history, but automatically. In order to understand the cuts, an ability which students have learned from the crib by watching cartoons on television, the shapes of the geographic elements become memorable. If the student can follow the show at all, the student is learning geography.
    Only history with an important geographic component should be essayed. The historic events portrayed are the most basic ones. They correlate history with geography, and interconnect the two disciplines.

Geographic methodology. Traditional geographic theory is replaced by history as the structuring device. This is similar to mathematics, where algebra and geometry are merged to create analytic geometry.

Historical methodology. This approach is the opposite of traditional historical methodology as I understand it, which is to present the facts and let the student draw his own conclusions. The map animation approach is like a series of approximations in mathematics, or top-down structure in computer programming. A simple visual model is provided, which is then refined and augmented in lecture, discussion and reading.

Redundancy justifies audio-visual. This approach is a supplement not a substitute for the period by period approach. Redundancy is another device of age of information, like top-down thinking. Redundancy means teaching many ways to do the same thing. Seeing something from different angles increases the likelihood of comprehending it. The textbook and classroom lecture can be given another angle through visualization. Presenting the same material in different ways, in different media, using different senses, at different rates, increases the capacity of the student to form a mental image of the essential material and thus remember it.

Computer created. Map animation has become practical in the computer age. The essential innovation, however, is not interactivity, but serial animation. Thus the product can play on video. If it is played on a computer it can also be interactive. In this case the serial presentation can act as a gateway to interactive exploration, like an audio-visual table of contents which itself tells a story.

"Growth of a Nation." The first production I would like to play is "Growth of a Nation," a history of the the United States in ten minutes. This Flash movie is free on the Animated Atlas site. It was made partly to introduce the map animation approach in a dramatic way, by doing something considered impossible.
    The challenge in making this production was to show in the shortest time all the territories and the admission of every state, interleaved with the most important historical events.
    Play interactive Flash movie "Growth of a Nation" on computer.

Simplest facts automatically displayed in a visual medium. Simplest facts automatically displayed in a visual medium. In a visual simulation, the simplest facts are automatically present, in the background, even if not mentioned. This is not possible in text, which has to recreate everything in words. This simple material, like the fact that the US is surrounded by two oceans, or the location of the original colonies on the Atlantic coast only, is the most important material of all for understanding history. (Students and adults will pretend they know this elementary geography in order not to look stupid.) This material is show in illustrations in today's textbooks, but these passive diagrams lack the dynamic continuum of a show and have less chance of registering on the student's mind. By having such a visual organizer in mind, I believe it is easier to remember the dates and facts that can then be tested.

The States. Viewing the formation of individual states from the territories is more complex than simply looking at the current map, but this history gives each state more identity and makes it easier to remember the state. From a historical point of view, it works against the impression many people have that the boundaries of the states have existed from the beginning of time.

Audio-visual gateway. On a computer the history show can be a gateway to interactive exploration. The show can be paused and geographic features like rivers clicked to identify them. Click a state for a closer view. The time line pointer can be moved to different periods, and the show played from that point. Click a decade in the time line to go to an expanded time line. Both geography and history can be explored from the introductory audio-visual overview.

Variety of uses for interactive product. The show can be seen as a whole or in three parts. The show can be played and paused, and a discussion occur; click play to continue. The time line pointer cana be used to select a short section and play it or explore it interactively. By moving the pointer to the end of the time line, the map is as it is today. The states can be rolled over to identify them or clicked for more information, including the state capital and major cities.

Application to historic periods. Three videos have been produced which cover individual periods in American history at a more normal pace. The most powerful use of map animation is in portraying wars. In war the map changes a lot, strategy is based on geographic features, there is dramatic motivation, what happens in war is far more decisive than peace, and war is difficult to follow in a text.

"The Revolutionary War." This war is an icon in the nation's history, along with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but it is very difficult to get a handle on. Events in it, like Valley Forge or Washington crossing the Delaware, are myths in our national heritage, but their role in the war is hardly known. Why did the American army choose to stay the winter of 1977 in such a cold, barren place as Valley Forge? (Answer: they had to stay in contact with, but safe from, the British army wintering in Philadelphia.)
    Play "The Revolutionary War" video on VCR.
    The section from siege of Boston to the Declaration of Independence is played, to demonstrate the importance of context. Most dramatically, July 4th is the date of both the signing of the Declaration in Philadelphia and the landing of the British on Staten Island near New York City, preparatory to the initial battle in Brooklyn, which almost concluded the war.
    The strategies of the two sides-- the British offense and the American defense-- are played, to provide the overall motivation for what follows.
    Then the battles of New York through Trenton are played. Of the many battles in the war, Trenton is pulled out to dramatize the turning point. Crossing the Delaware on the eve of Christmas day was the key effort for the survival of the Revolutionary cause and the formative moment in the public life of George Washington.

"Overview of World War One." Despite attempts to describe the origin of this war as due to nationalism, the real cause was a strategic military plan.
    Play "Overview of World War One" video on VCR.
    Play excerpt from two alliances to the end of the Schlieffen Plan as an example of animating military strategy.
    Then the course of the actual war takes on interest and meaning. Play the German attack on France, in which the Schlieffen Plan didn't quite work.

"The Mexican War." I will end on an historic topic that is more controversial, to illustrate the major drawback of visual education, which is that, unlike text, it does not have a built in structure to allow for criticism and contradiction. In text, merely putting in a "not" reverses meaning and constructs a space for debate. In this sense visual education is too strong and too clear.
    From a civic point of view, perhaps the most important history a student can learn is how wars start. The Constitutional text provides the de jure position, but what needs to be taught as well is the de facto politics. The Mexican war, like the coming Iraqi war, was something the president at the time wanted to do.
    Play "Expansion West and the Mexican War" video on VCR.
    Play the section from Polk to Oregon. Analysis: the key element is the representation of Texas. Did the Texas southern boundary stop at the Nueces River or at the Rio Grande? The moral foundation of the war depends on this geographic ambiguity.

Conclusion. Map animation is a subset of conceptual animation. I propose that conceptual animation be increased in education, despite the ease with which it can make misstatements. Learning by approximation of the whole can augment the more dependable step by step learning. Education seems to be losing the battle for the minds of young people, who respond with great enthusiasm to cartoons and video games. This pre-school foundation provides the beginnings of a visual language for social studies.
    While difficult for the animator to imagine the necessary visual forms, I believe conceptual animation, along with interactivity, provide powerful tools for students to penetrate the increasingly denser profusion of information. These tools have been invented in the information age for just this purpose. We have to provide more ways to see the forest through the trees.


Copyright 2002 by Peter Mays

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