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Critical Thinking

Turning Students Into Bold Historical Thinkers

By collapsing the distance between historical eras and the present day, we motivate students to ask hard questions and dig deeper into the past.

May 19, 2023

Thinking deeply about history as a story—and in particular about the values and biases of the people who write those stories—is perhaps the most crucial work of social studies classrooms.

According to literacy guru Tim Shanahan, historians read skeptically by nature: “They assume somebody is trying to shape things in a particular way, and they’re looking for bias,” Shanahan told Edutopia. “It is important to teach kids to approach history in that more negotiated sense—to understand that there are facts but they’re contested, and you have to read multiple texts to understand that.”

One way to equip them with these skills is to collapse the distances between historical eras and their current lives. By allowing students, for example, to inhabit the role of a central political figure, or speak from the perspective of a historical governing body, you can provide them with the experience of tackling complex, real-world issues that foster the sort of critical thinking and inquiry that prepares them for their lives as active citizens, consumers, and even employees. 

Immersing students in history can also be far more engaging and lead to better academic outcomes.

A 2021 study funded by Lucas Education Research looked at project-based activities in AP Environmental Science and AP U.S. Government and Politics courses from five school districts. The study concluded that students in project-based classrooms outperformed students who received more traditional direct instruction on the same material by eight to 10 percentage points on AP exams.  

In the AP U.S. Government and Politics course, one fascinating project asked students to learn about and then act as Supreme Court justices, petitioners, and respondents in landmark cases that have shaped our nation, such as Marbury v. Madison (which established the principle of judicial review) and Brown v. Board of Education (which ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional). By consulting former court cases and evaluating documents such as the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, and then engaging in rigorous mock trials and debates, students gained a deep, ground-level understanding of the effects of Supreme Court decisions, while also drilling down on important constitutional concepts like the separation of powers and checks and balances. 

“Students felt like the work was more authentic,” Anna Saavedra, the lead researcher on the study, told Edutopia, speaking about the success of the projects. “There were more connections to their real lives.” 

How can you bring historical thinking into your own class? Here are four activities to get you started.

Study the Micro-Histories All Around Us 

Ainissa Ramirez, author of The Alchemy of Us and a former engineering professor at Yale University, argues that we can merge historical thinking with science by posing hard questions and provocative counterfactuals about groundbreaking inventions that students use every day.

For example, students can choose an invention and list the changes it has made to the material world, but also “to less tangible ideas and concepts, like human psychology and belief systems,” writes Ramirez. Afterward, students can create a timeline of the invention’s history, along with a second timeline that tracks a new history in which the invention never happened.

To go deeper, gather students into groups and have them examine an invention in greater detail. For example, they may study the internet and its effect on modern life, researching the birth of the World Wide Web and discussing what its initial goals were, before asking probing questions about how it changed the way humans listen to music or the improvements in the speed and breadth of communication it enabled.

“The next step might be to look at the pros and cons of the internet, specifically social media. Does being more connected help or hurt us? Does the internet bring us together or divide us? Does the internet make it easier or harder to find the truth?” Ramirez asks. In other words, did the internet achieve its stated goals? 

The purpose of this activity, Ramirez writes, is to “demystify scientific advancements by revealing their messy historical reality” and examine the cultural subtexts and micro-histories that are present all around us. 

Pretend to Be a Founding Father 

To examine the intent of our founding documents, a four-week project-based learning project developed in conjunction with Lucas Education Research asks students to become delegates to the Constitutional Convention. The project aims to get students thinking deeply about the founders’ intentions in framing our government and to enliven discussion about whether, and to what extent, we should remain faithful to the founders’ initial aspirations. 

As part of the activity, students prepare for and engage in debates on controversial constitutional issues, deciding under what circumstances to approve the U.S. Constitution, for instance. As Federalists and Anti-Federalists, students role-play arguments over key issues such as the division of power between the national government and state governments. In teams, students also deliberate a federalism controversy from the past (such as the argument over the national bank) as well as a contemporary controversy rooted in federal concerns (such as the argument over immigration). 

This activity gives students a chance to learn and then apply—rather than simply read—foundational texts such as the Federalist papers, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Bill of Rights, as evidence with which to form arguments about current and historical issues. Possible assessments can include an editorial or a historical pamphlet, akin to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, for example, that students produce in support of or in opposition to the Constitution. Alternatively, educators can host a mock historical debate over the ratifying of the Constitution.

Analyze Objects Like a Future Historian 

In Fairview, Pennsylvania, high school history teacher Benjamin Barbour asks students to sharpen their analytical skills by choosing a modern-day artifact and imagining what a historian 100 or 200 years from now might infer from the artifact about society today. 

“This activity fits into a variety of curricula, as it gets students to practice evaluating artifacts so that they can make hypotheses about a society from its material culture and weigh how different interpretations of historical objects can shape our understanding of the past,” Barbour writes.  

The first step, he says, is to explain to students what artifacts are and how many objects “fall under the umbrella” of that definition. Everything from musical instruments to kitchen utensils, school supplies, and athletic apparel is fair game, he says. He suggests that teachers point students to artifacts in museums for ideas, including creative museums such as the National Videogame Museum, the Las Vegas Neon Museum, and the International Banana Museum

Part of this setup work also includes discussing and modeling for students how to analyze an artifact by attempting to answer questions like these: Who used this artifact? What was it used for? What does it tell you about the people who made it and used it? What does it tell you about technology at the time it was made? 

With this scaffolding in place, students should choose and research an artifact from their personal life and conduct a detailed analysis of it—as if they were encountering it for the first time. Barbour suggests asking students to answer questions like these: What is its significance? What does it suggest about society in the early 21st century? 

While the exercise might seem simple, Barbour writes that it actually “demands that students make several cognitive leaps” to situate themselves in the future and apply deep, analytical thinking about a seemingly inane object. To “encourage high-level work and accountability” on final products, Barbour suggests creating a rubric with clear objectives.

Look Through the Eyes of Another Culture

To get students thinking deeply about what it means for a historical narrative to be “accurate” and how bias often creeps in, try this exercise developed by John J. DeRose, a U.S. history teacher at Whitefish Bay High School in Wisconsin. DeRose asks students to compare and contrast how an American textbook presents a historical event, versus a textbook from another country. 

For example, DeRose writes, students can look at the language and framing around the Vietnam War in a U.S. textbook and then compare it to the language and framing of the same war in a Vietnamese textbook, newspaper, or other primary document. As part of this activity, students “consider disparate historical perspectives, interpret the biases and limited perspectives present in textbook accounts, and evaluate the quality of historical sources of information.” 

Some questions students can consider: How are the historical accounts similar? How are they different? What possible biases or limited perspectives exist in our textbook’s account of this event? What possible biases or limited perspectives exist in the Vietnamese textbook’s account of this event? 

Students should also be asked, “Explain why you think, or do not think, that one of these textbook accounts is more accurate than the other.” According to DeRose, students can be split up into groups to argue and debate why or why not one textbook is more accurate than another and dig deeper into what the concept of accuracy even means when it comes to history.  

DeRose writes that the exercise is effective at getting students to situate themselves as historians, who are often tasked with examining “as many points of view as possible,” as well as the “limited perspectives” of those viewpoints, in their attempt to understand the historical significance and impact of an event. 

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  • Critical Thinking
  • Student Engagement
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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