Evaluating Historical “Facts”

A MiddleWeb Blog


history_logoby Jody Passanisi and Shara Peters

“Was the Revolutionary War justified?”

It’s one of our favorite questions to ask students. This question is usually met by some blank stares and quizzical looks. Students often react suspiciously. Are we are trying to trick them into saying something “un-American”?

We rephrase:

“Were the colonists right in their decision to revolt? Talk with your teams and come up with an answer supported by three pieces of evidence. The only wrong answer is one that you can’t support.”

The students tentatively begin to discuss the motives for revolution that we have covered in our Causes of the Revolutionary War unit, going over the cause and effect relationship between the various events they have learned about. They converse with their peers, form evidence-based opinions, and try to reach a consensus. By the end of this activity, each student will be prepared to defend his or her argument (through a five-paragraph thesis driven essay, a summary statement, a debate, or a structured discussion) that the Revolution either was, or wasn’t, justified.

Why we ask evaluative questions

What were the most influential documents to the U.S. Constitution? Was the expansion of the United States fair? Should the Texans have revolted against Mexico? What was the most significant cause of the Civil War?

alamoWe pose all of these questions to students to push them to play a more active role in the processing of their learning. When students evaluate historical events, the actions of historical figures, or the reliability of sources and evidence, they are thinking critically and really combing through and considering the information that they are taking in.

This process of evaluation requires a great deal of analysis and synthesis of information, prior knowledge, self-understanding, ethics, and more. The answer the students come to is not nearly as significant as the quest involved in getting to that answer.

Pros and cons of the evaluative process

Evaluation used to be the highest point on Bloom’s Taxonomy  (Creating is now) and like every Bloom’s component, evaluation has an important place. We are not arguing that assessments or activities involving evaluation should replace a project in which students can demonstrate learning in a new way–where they create and re-imagine something using what they have learned. But evaluation does allows for students to develop skills that will help them be more discerning consumers of information.

While we are proponents (clearly) of having students think critically in this evaluative way, it is not without its drawbacks. At times, the evaluation process can lead to oversimplification of a topic. We have found this to be true especially for debates. When students get heated, they can tend to focus on just what they have decided is the “right” answer–missing the nuance of the activity–which is that there are usually many possible right answers when evaluation is the goal. This tendency toward short-circuiting can be ameliorated in debrief discussions about the process itself and a good meta-cognitive look on how students were affected by the task of evaluating.

Additionally, evaluation can run the risk of chronocentrism (defined by science journalist Tom Standage as ”the egotism that one’s own generation is poised on the very cusp of history”). Students often project their current values and expectations on past figures and events. Again, reflection and transparent discussions about this issue go a long way in mitigating it. Indeed, often this impulse arises in the realm of civil rights and equal rights for African Americans, women, and other minorities. It is not always a negative for students to evaluate history in terms of the present.

Developing a complex perspective

Despite some of the drawbacks, evaluation is one of the most important skills that students should be acquiring. Developmentally, students in the middle grades are beginning to gain the ability to look at events and people in a complex way. Evaluation allows them to stretch this skill and to learn about themselves in the process.

Students entering adolescence often see history as unequivocal fact. What we do when we ask students to evaluate is give them permission to examine history as a complex narrative. And once students have begun to look at history in this way, they can become more discerning and critical individuals.

How do you use the evaluation process with your students?

Jody & Shara

Jody Passanisi is an eighth grade U.S. History teacher in Los Angeles and the author of History Class Revisited. She earned her teaching credential and an M.S. in education from Mount St. Mary’s College and an M.A. in religious studies from the Graduate Theological Union. Shara Peters teaches eighth grade U.S. History in a Los Angeles independent school. She earned her teaching credential from Hebrew Union College and her M.A. in teaching from American Jewish University. Follow them on Twitter @21centuryteachr

4 Responses

  1. Sandra says:

    Thanks for sharing – I love your blog – great stuff to share on our NJAMLE facebook and twitter feed!
    I use a free online tool that does just this. Take a scenario from history, such as Manifest Destiny and have students chat about it from four different perspectives. The scenario, perspectives, and discussion platform are all ready for you to use in the free SCAN tool found at http://tregoed.org/teachers/new-to-scan.html. You can send students to links of informational text to support their arguments. The discussion questions are built in. Students have to list the issues involved, clarify them, discuss and support, assess what is important and determine what course of action should (or could have been) taken. You can even put in your own scenarios – which you obviously have already done – and increase student engagement in the conversation through online discussion.

  2. Shara & Jody says:

    @Sandra–thanks for the resource. Watched the video and it looks very interesting–a great way to do evaluative and perspective work. Really appreciate you reading the blog and –especially–sharing what’s worked for you at NJAMLE. I will send this resource along to teacher friends!

  3. Tom Morton says:

    How nice to discover your site. It is full of practical and thoughtful ideas. Questions such as “Were the colonists right in their decision to revolt?” could, however, be a bit dodgy. They invite students to judge people of the past by present standards. You might want to ask “For whom was it not right? Why would someone oppose or support the revolution? What was most important for these people at this time? What do you think made these people fight/refuse to fight/feel outraged/feel proud, etc?”

  4. Sandra says:

    Tom – those are great questions! As students role play different perspectives, that is exactly what we would like them to discuss!

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