Why I Don’t Use Crash Course World History in My Classroom

I want to share what might be an unpopular opinion:

I don’t like the Crash Course World History videos on YouTube.

I have no idea when I first watched a Crash Course video, but it was likely sometime soon after the series started in January 2012, which was during my junior year of earning a bachelor’s in history. Then, during my senior year of college and especially as I entered the teaching profession, I started getting exposed to the videos much more frequently, as just about anyone who loves history and uses the internet would be.

I never liked the videos. At first, I had pretty vague justifications for my distaste, but lately I’ve grown better able to articulate why I prefer other video channels and why I generally don’t use or promote Crash Course World History in my classroom.

I’ll admit I may have a chip on my shoulder when it comes to the series, and a significant factor must be jealousy. After all, what young history teacher wouldn’t want to create a beloved course of entertaining videos that would reach millions of attentive viewers all around the world? I’m sure there are thousands of people like me who wish they could have taken John Green’s place in hosting the videos—and John Green isn’t even a historian.

However, I don’t think my personal biases prevent me from pointing out real problems with the Crash Course videos that hinder many viewers’ learning experiences. As a teacher, I’ve become more and more acutely aware of those flaws. For a large number of students, the videos are difficult to process, requiring far more time to learn from than the video’s duration suggests. And, even when a student understands a video in its entirety, I believe the knowledge and historical perspectives provided could be better gained through other activities or by watching videos of a different style.

First, let’s start with the most obvious flaw: The Crash Course World History videos are way too fast. John Green talks through his script at lightning speed, and when I have tried to show his videos in class, there have almost always been students who have begged me to reduce the playback speed on YouTube to 0.75 and sometimes even 0.5. Alternatively, a teacher could pause the video frequently for students to process the information bit by bit. However, not only is it extremely impractical to pause a video so frequently in a precise manner between sentences and sections, but even THEN many listeners won’t quite process the syntax and substance of some sentences.

I frequently think of my last six years of teaching as an evolution in how I speak to my students: I wouldn’t call it a “dumbing down” of the high-falutin’ language I used in college, but rather a work in progress toward communicating more clearly, effectively, and thoroughly. Sometimes I even catch myself talking to people outside of school the way I speak to my students—explaining everything twice in different words, using careful emphasis and enunciation. As far as I can tell, there is no sign of any similar pedagogical method to the madness of Crash Course World History’s scripts and John Green’s presentation. Educators should be deliberate and precise in how they communicate, and educational videos should follow suit.

Second, the Crash Course World History videos are filled with confusing fluff. I find this flaw even more infuriating than the first, because when John Green does slow down to say things in a calm, easily-understood manner, what he’s saying is usually unnecessary, if not worthless. The videos are punctuated at frequent intervals with tenuous references and attempted inside jokes, and I would wager that for every 10–12 minute video, at least 2–3 minutes of time are misspent on filler material. (Just imagine how the real content could be slowed down and made more understandable if the fluff was removed.) The visual Easter eggs thrown into the videos also add to the confusion, and may cause viewers to pause the videos even more if they think they’re missing useful information onscreen.

I know many teachers like to create their own running gags and inside jokes in their classrooms. I won’t take issue with those tactics, although personally I prefer to find humor in my teaching more organically. In YouTube videos watched by millions of people, however, it’s inevitable that millions of viewers will fail to understand or appreciate any attempted pop culture references and inside jokes, especially as the videos age. The videos were made in 2012, but even after only seven years, many of the references are completely irrelevant to today’s high school students. Teachers are better able to connect with their students directly in the classroom, sharing stories, experiences, and humor in a common environment. A YouTube video—especially one geared toward general education—can’t connect with its audience in the same way, and it seems like an enormous waste of time to create gags and memes that many people won’t follow. (I also wrote about how teachers should outperform videos here.) I believe educational videos can certainly still be humorous, but the Crash Course approach takes too much time and fails too often.

Last, there are many generalizations as well as some innaccuracies in the Crash Course World History videos. Overall, I think this point is the least concerning. After all, the videos are meant only to be an introduction to all of world history, so there will inevitably be generalizations made and details skipped over, just as there are in any retelling of history there’s ever been. However, what concerns me most is that the Crash Course videos are so popular that they may be spreading new misconceptions that never would have existed otherwise.

Probably the most egregious example I can cite is the running gag in the videos that a given generalization is true “unless you are the Mongols.” Someone actually took the time to compile all the examples of the gag, so you can see for yourself what I’m talking about. Every single use of the “Mongoltage” shown in that video is innaccurate, misleading, unnecessary, or all of the above. The Mongol Empire was not “the exception” to any general rules of history at all, but rather the culmination of many previous examples of nomadic steppe empires in Central Asia. But now because of Crash Course, thousands of people are buying t-shirts spreading this silly idea.

Ultimately, I don’t begrudge any teacher or student who uses the Crash Course World History videos. They are entertaining and informative, and in many instances they do make admirable efforts to correct old misconceptions and unjust narratives. However, all teachers know that our time with students is limited, and I have found that other activities and types of videos are much better for achieving my purposes in the classroom. If you are an aspiring educational YouTube content creator, here’s my advice: Slow down, cut the fluff, and check your facts.

Teacher who writes about history, language, travel, politics, and education. Kichx̱áanx’ yéi x̱at yatee. (I live in Ketchikan, Alaska.) Twitter: @peterstanton

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