Working with facts in a history class

Well, after a long hiatus, I’m back to thinking about how to manage the content side of the perpetual tug of war between “coverage” and skills in history classes.

Representation of high precision and low accuracy.

“High precision and low accuracy”

I said in an earlier post that, while I am not a big fan of memorization, I am all in favor of throwing lots of facts at students. The key, I think, is that the facts be a point from which to start work, the medium, rather than the desired output. I wanted to think out loud a little more about that.

You can’t “do” history without facts; they are our evidence. Events and sources are to historians as clay is to a sculptor. They are fundamental to what we do, but one never hears a sculptor say, “Here, let me show you how much clay I have.” Far too often, when I talk about history with students and adults alike, their first inclination is to rattle off a list of facts without doing anything with them. To me as a historian, the date of George Washington’s inauguration, without context, is as uninteresting as a lump of clay. It isn’t history until you do something with it: tell a story, make an argument, explain its significance or compare it to something else. So how do we get from history as a thing you know to history as a thing you do?

Here are my ideas. So far.

World history timeline

1) When you give kids facts, give them lots of them.  I think of this like a balanced diet–if students have a short account pre-packaged in a textbook, their natural inclination is to take this as the last word.  When they are confronted with quantity and variety:  a shelf of textbooks all saying subtly different things, an archive of primary sources that will shed light on different aspects of a situation depending on where they choose to dip their toes, or a range of newspaper reports, the implicit message is that whatever we do today will inevitably describe only a piece of the elephant. That’s what history is really like.

2) Don’t digest the facts for them. Let students grapple with contradictory evidence and discover for themselves the holes in the evidentiary background. It’s honest, and it’s more interesting.

3) Teach skepticism and other meta skills for dealing with facts explicitly. There is great power in asking students, “Do you buy that? Why?” I think sometimes we forget that skepticism and evidence-based judgement are as much learned habits of mind as analysis of change over time or close reading.

4) Look at facts in the context of questions. They should need to know more in order to complete the task at hand, rather than trying to guess how much of the reading will be on the test.

5) Stand for accuracy and precision. Not emphasizing memorization doesn’t mean not emphasizing details. High school students have little practice worrying about intellectual precision–they tend to want to grab the big ideas and run with them. This is, I think, better than the alternative, but it makes it our job to point out sweeping generalizations, insist on concrete evidence to support even the best synthesis, and draw students’ attention to the exceptions to the rule.

That’s an idiosyncratic set of guidelines, but it’s the best I can do for now. I’d love to hear other ideas:  care to share your own philosophy when it comes to the role of historical facts in the classroom?

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About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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