Bill Tally has spent his entire professional life at EDC’s Center for Children and Technology (CCT). He began in 1984, just out of college. “I was driving a delivery truck in San Francisco when I heard about this group in New York City doing cutting edge work with kids and computing,” he recalled recently. He applied for a job soon after and was hired as a research assistant, working on a multimedia math and science curriculum for elementary school students.
In the decades since then, Tally has continued to do “cutting edge work” with children and media. As an education researcher, he has investigated the influence of home and school environments on children’s computer use. As a developer he has produced and tested educational materials on a diversity of topics and ages. As a program director he has led teachers in staff development efforts to invigorate classroom teaching and learning with the effective use of new media. In all of this work, Tally is guided by an interest in how media tools can engage young people in creative self expression and sharpen their thinking about the world around them.
For the past decade, Tally has collaborated with the Library of Congress on a series of national initiatives to improve humanities teaching through the use of online primary sources from the Library’s American Memory collections. He spoke recently about his years at EDC and his work with teachers to integrate new media tools in the curriculum.
Do you remember your first project at CCT?
Yes. In fact I still remember my first day of work. I was hired as a research assistant on Voyage of the Mimi, a multimedia math and science curriculum for elementary school students. It was a lucky career move for me since at that time CCT was a very small operation and I got the opportunity to do a little bit of everything on the project—formative research on the Mimi TV series, software design on the curriculum materials, and writing on the print books.
On that first day we were in an editing suite looking at some material being developed and the director turned to me and said, ‘What do you think, Bill?’ He took me seriously as a rank novice. Over the years I have come to see that as a defining characteristic of the culture of CCT—we view every person involved in a project as a source for creative thinking and valuable input.
You’ve had a varied career at CCT. Tell me about the work you’re most excited about right now.
We’re working on several projects to improve history teaching with the use of online archives form the Library of Congress and other new media. In some ways history education today is where math and science education was 20 years ago. Too many history teachers are still standing at the front of the room delivering lectures and assigning readings from textbooks that kids find boring. Yet the sheer availability of primary source documents is forcing teachers to rethink these practices. We are using these media to refocus the teaching of history around original documents rather than around a series of received narratives.
For example students now can sit at their classroom computer and listen to oral histories recorded during the Great Depression, view photographs taken during the Civil War, read congressional transcripts or personal letters written more than a century ago. This is the nitty-gritty of historical evidence and teachers can use it to teach fundamental concepts like point-of-view, bias, context, and evidence. They can get kids thinking historically, not just memorizing facts.
Are these changes in teaching practice just a matter of better access to primary documents?
The greater access helps, but it’s only the first piece. You also need ongoing education for teachers that gives them the chance to practice history this way themselves. We are working with some New York City districts to help teachers learn to use these media in their classrooms. In our programs teachers learn to engage in historical debate, investigate with primary source documents, and evaluate sources and evidence.
Preservice education hasn’t prepared teachers to work this way. Too often history teachers don’t know how to translate their enthusiasm for the subject into sound pedagogical practice. We need to understand more about how kids come to learn historical content so we can modify our teaching strategies to be more effective. Right now I’m working with the Library of Congress and schools in NYC and around the country to develop an electronic database of teacher and student cases. The idea is that a novice teacher could use the archives to watch how more experienced teachers have approached a specific topic with students. For instance, a history teacher could search the database for examples of how to conduct document-based conversations in high school history classrooms. What are the typical misconceptions students bring? How does the teacher move the conversation forward? What it the teachable moment? In this way technology can make student learning more visible and more subject to reflection, conversation, and learning.
You’ve recently completed your doctorate in sociology. How has EDC supported your evolving career?
EDC has been great. I’ve had a peripatetic graduate school history, but there has always been an understanding here that what you are learning in school is important to your work. For instance, in the 90s I was pursuing a master’s degree in cultural studies. One day Margaret [Honey, Director of CCT] turned to me and said, ‘I got this RFP from the Library of Congress about historical material—it has your name written all over it.’ I had never developed a big proposal before, but I went away and wrote it, with the full support of my colleagues. That proposal has resulted in a line of work that is ten years old and still going.
My colleagues have also been a great support to me. There are a lot of artists at CCT and people who are involved with the arts. I am a jazz pianist and there are also sculptors, painters, dancers, musicians. This creates a work culture that draws on a wide set of ideas. It informs the way we go about our work and the feelings we have about it.