Doing History Through Inquiry: A Manifesto

If students learn nothing else from our Social Studies classes, let them learn this: all information needs to be evaluated critically in terms of its validity based on where and when it comes from, who is producing it, its use of evidence, and its intended audience.

If it is the primary job of English teachers to prepare effective communicators, the job of science teachers to prepare rational investigators, the role of math teachers to prepare numerically literate individuals, it is the primary job of social studies teachers to prepare critical citizens (of course, we should all be doing all these things, but that’s another post).  To be critical citizens, my students need to know that they need to “read” the New York Post differently from the USA Today, the New York Times differently from the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC differently from Fox News.  Moreover, they need to know to critically evaluate what they find through Google or YouTube.  And they don’t know this.  I recently asked my students to define the word “objectivity” in a discussion about journalism; only a small handful could.

I’m sure not many would disagree with me to this point.  The question is how: how do we do this in curriculum that emphasize breadth over depth? How do we do this in a world where a few extra snow days can destroy an AP US teacher’s year? How do we do is when New York teachers feel like they can’t talk about current events because of the Regents?

The answer in by teaching history through inquiry.

Inquiry starts with a question that can be answered based on factual evidence.  We don’t ask “should the US have dropped the Atomic Bomb?” as our entry point, instead we ask “Why did the US drop the Atomic Bomb?” Then, we do not answer this for the students; we ask them why they think the US did it. We then give them documents that confirm their viewpoint and ask them to develop their point of view based on the evidence.  But then, we give them evidence that forces them to question their viewpoint, and ask them to reevaluate.  Lather, rinse, repeat, as often as you can.  In the end, force students to answer the question using all the evidence, not only what confirms their view.  Then, once students are informed, discuss the moral question.

This is how we help students navigate the myths of history as well.  Last week, we looked at the Scientific Revolution in my Global class. In the Western Civilization curriculum I grew up with, the story went that the Scientific Revolution marked the birth of the Age of Reason, bringing the world out of the religious superstition of the Dark Ages.  This of course ignores the scientific knowledge of the rest of the world outside of Europe, and even much of the scholarly learning that was occurring in European universities starting in the twelfth century.  This myth is a lie.  So I gave my students documents from before and during the “Revolution” that show both reason and superstition, and let students write their own essays about how revolutionary the change actually was.  To earn the best scores, they had to use all the evidence, not just the evidence that agreed with their viewpoint.

Some would say this takes too much time, but it can be done in limited time spans, as well. I had enough time to spend one class period on the Crusades this year.  Instead of walking through the whole inquiry process, I gave half the class excerpts from these two documents form the Christian perspective, and these two documents from the Muslim point of view.  I then led a class discussion based on the reading.  It took students about three minutes to figure out that they had different readings.  We then switched documents and students got the other perspective. The whole process took 30 minutes.  For those who would accuse this of moral relativism, please note, I never asked my students who was right in this case, only what happened and why.

My biggest challenge in teaching this way has always been finding the right documents, which frankly, I’ve never had enough time to do more than a couple of times during the year. Thankfully this year, I’ve been pointed towards two free online curriculum that did it for me: one for US History, one for Global History. To see how this works in action, check out Daisy Martin’s* Historical Thinking Matters site for four US examples.

We live in an age of information overload. Students need to form the habit of taking a stance of healthy skepticism towards the information they receive, but more importantly, they need the tools to work themselves out of that cave of skepticism towards the light of humble knowledge.  By teaching history through inquiry, students make this path towards knowledge in the present by walking it in the past.

* I’ve been working with Daisy for a few months now on a project for the city, and the clarity of my thought on these issues is entirely in her debt, along with the rest of our team.  I cannot wait until I am able to write about the work we’ve been doing with teachers around inquiry.

3 thoughts on “Doing History Through Inquiry: A Manifesto

  1. Bravo! Well said! This needs to start early in PK and elementary classrooms – teaching history through inquiry! Nothing is more important than preparing students to be socially responsible critical citizens! I’d love to be a student in your history class!


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