Discussing Like a Historian–Or a Scientist, or a Scholar

Last week I wrote about my hope that helping students see the variety of historical perspectives—and the conflicts that ensued—might allow them to more readily navigate today’s often-gridlocked perspectives on multiple issues. One source for doing so was the Stanford History Education Group’s website, Reading Like a Historian.

In the February 2017 issue of Educational Leadership, history teacher/researcher Abby Reisman reminds us that doing so, even with exemplary materials, is not easy. If you struggle with classroom discussions, you are not alone. Some students are shy; others can dominate every effort. Class time flies by. A jokester’s need for peer attention can drive meaningful discussions off the rails, announcements interrupt the train of thought, and difficult documents take precious minutes to comprehend. Still, the payoff can be great enough to be worth the effort.

Reisman presents four instructional practices that can facilitate discussions in history or other content areas. Think about how these practices might help students practice thinking about multiple perspectives, whatever grade or subject you teach.

  1. Orient students to one other. This group of practices helps students listen to and build on one another’s ideas. I once watched a college professor do this skillfully with a group of 120 students. The students wore large nametags, visible across the lecture hall. After a student comment, the professor would often ask, “Who would like to build on John’s idea?” or “Do you agree or disagree with Tamisha?” The students followed suit, “I agree with John but . . . .” Such interactions can work from primary grades on up. They help students view understanding as a group endeavor—and have the added benefit of making it clear that listening to one another is essential.
  2. Orient students to the text/evidence. In historical discussions, conclusions must be based on the document. In similar ways, literary discussions or descriptions of research results need to continually reference the evidence at hand. This can begin with primary children considering, “If the author didn’t tell us, how could we tell the caterpillar was very hungry?” In discussions, students can be continually prompted to consider, “How do we know that?” Those of us old enough to remember the ancient commercial might think, “Where’s the beef?”
  3. Design a compelling question. Reisman, naturally, focuses on strategies for planning compelling questions around history. She suggests that evaluative questions that stay close to the documents allow students to make value judgments while beginning to understand the constraints under which the players operated. Similar issues can be addressed when studying literature, evaluating characters’ actions within the context of the setting. For me, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve read was the suggestion that the best discussion questions are those to which the discussion leader really wishes he or she had an answer. If the answer is clear cut, what is the point of having a discussion?
  4. Stabilize (make clear ties to) the content. It is important that history teachers not let historical discussions leave the range of historical context. Teachers must help students see where their assumptions might fall short (“Sue, he couldn’t have known that would happen, since it was ten years later. We know it is coming, but he didn’t. What could he have thought about, knowing what he could at the time?) History presents unique challenges in this regard, but every discipline has areas in which students need to be prompted to go back to the evidence. This push for analytical thinking is challenging but can move discussions from anything-goes speculation to evidence-based discourse.

At the end of the article, Reisman discussion as “more than magic,” even when they sometimes feel that way. Good discussions require careful planning and teachers’ best thinking. I appreciate her hints for making the magic happen!

 

Reisman, A. (2017). How to facilitate discussions in history. Educational Leadership, 74(5), 30-34.

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