The Type of Critical Thinking We Need In History Class

How to teach history

History class should be a boot camp for preparing students to be critical viewers of information and problem solvers of media. 

In a history classroom far far away, in a time long, long ago students were expected to do little more than memorize dates, presidents, and vocabulary terms. Thank gosh we've evolved since then.  For the last decade or so, the focus in my schools has been on developing arguments and using evidence to support their claims, but this needs a reboot as well.

That is true for many ELA classes as well and it is a big step up from rote memorization. However, in today’s world, the focus on evidence is once again outdated. In our current media landscape, finding evidence to support a claim is no longer an issue, its evaluating evidence and the sources that provide it that is of the utmost importance. 

One can find evidence for any claim they wish to hold. There are credible enough looking sites that say vaccines are deadly, the Civil War had little to do with slavery, and theres a show on the History Channel that gets more viewers than their real history programs that claims aliens built the pyramids and influenced the Constitution. 🤦‍♂️ How often does one of your students share such (literally) incredible information in a class discussion or in their work? 

Well, its high time we addressed it! 

Teaching critical thinking in history class is more important than ever- but critical thinking is awfully vague and broad. What might be needed now more than ever is how to teach students how to think critically about information, about evidence, and media.

It's time to take action and equip our students with the critical thinking skills they need to navigate the complex information landscape of the 21st century. It is no longer enough to simply teach students to use evidence to develop original arguments. We must now also teach them how to critically evaluate evidence and sources.

A question we need to normalize in our classrooms is “What makes that evidence trustworthy?” And also, “What's your source?” Those questions should be like broken records so its imprinted in our students and they immediately raise such questions when they come across information, news, and media in their lives outside of the classroom.

But, how do we prepare students to be problem solvers of information?

One great example of how to build such critical thinking skills for students is through the work of Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). SHEG's approach emphasizes the development of critical thinking skills through the use of primary and secondary sources. SHEG lessons emphasize historical thinking skills starting with sourcing, thinking critically about why sources were made, how to gather evidence, and how to corroborate evidence from different sources. 

Sourcing helps students think critically and skeptically about primary and secondary sources which is an essential skill for digital citizens in the world today. 

For history teachers, SHEG, is a treasure trove of resources, lesson plans, and assessments to help us enrich our curriculum with these skill-building activities. These historical thinking skills are not only important for understanding the past, but they also transfer to other areas of life. When students are able to critically evaluate historical sources, they are also better equipped to critically evaluate the media they encounter in their everyday lives, whether it be on social media or the television.

I really like adapting SHEG sources or even past AP DBQs (a great source of conflicting primary sources) to “history lab” activities.

history labs

In history labs, using multiple sources that conflict with one another is a great way to give students the opportunity to compare and contrast different perspectives and evaluate the credibility of each source. For example, if you give one source from Howard Zinn, another from a standard textbook, and then add a primary source or two, students will have to wrestle with different interpretations and have to problem solve with the evidence they are confronted with. Read my blog post on setting up great history labs for more details.

It's important to remember that while students first need to gather evidence, the important work comes when they evaluate that evidence and try to determine the most accurate answer to the question at hand. And that is what we must start emphasizing more and more in our classrooms. 

For middle school teachers or high school teachers with lower level learners, adapting sources to make them more approachable is important. This can be done by providing simpler language versions of primary sources, or breaking down complex sources into smaller chunks. This is easier than ever with ChatGPT Also, providing scaffolding questions or graphic organizers can aid in helping students to analyze and evaluate sources effectively.

So lets boldly move beyond asking for evidence and into asking about the reliability of said evidence.

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