It all begins with evidence

An earlier post spoke about the importance of teaching historical significance to help students combat “kitchen-sinkism.” In it, I also linked my favorite Day 1 activity, Ordeal by Cheque. Although historical significance is an important concept to teach earlier rather than later, it is not the first skill that I directly instruct, nor is it the primary purpose of my opening activity choice. Instead, I want students to know from Day 1 that writing history is an interpretative act, and that what we call “history” comes from working with sources. If students are going to be practicing the skills of historians then they need to be working with and questioning evidence as soon as possible.

In 2019, after two year’s of piloting a standards-based grading system with the historical thinking standards from the National Center for History in Schools, our department was struck with some realizations. These realizations were based in part on the logistical insights we gained from actualy doing SBG, but mainly a result of the depth the NCHS standards had. It took a couple years of working with them to truly see what they offered and how they supported each other. So, we re-prioritized the standards within our courses.

Some standards were foundational and could be rolled into other standards which subsumed them. This helped create some vertical alignment where there was a clear connection between score 2.0 and 3.0 processes within a single, graded standard. Some standards were dropped from the grade book because they were more fitting as processes which were taught and reinforced, but not formally graded. However, the most important thing we did was re-arrange the prioritized standards within courses so that each course and grade-level had internal consistency and a progression of skills and standards that made sense. In the first unit of every course we prioritized standards that involved working with evidence.

A student favorite DBQ meme…

I think the majority of history teachers recognize that working with evidence is important. After all, the Document Based Question (DBQ), which is an integral part of an American history curriculum, requires this. However, this realization does not always filter into a teacher’s practice. I recall as my example the 2019-2020 school year, when COVID disrupted so much. In my AP World history class we had been working on DBQ skills since October, when I introduced the first one. When COVID forced College Board to make the DBQ the entirety of the exam that year, a decision which was announced in the early spring, I felt incredibly confident in my students abilities to pass. I remember as well though the frustration of many fellow AP World teachers who had not yet begun to teach the DBQ when schools were forced online. Many of their students may have struggled much more. When students have the skills that let them analyze and source evidence, the content they are working with matters less.

I will again cite Sam Wineburg’s book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, where he compares the DBQ thinking processes of a recent APUSH student who mastered content with a history Ph.D. who has not thought about US history in twenty years. Not to ruin the surprise, but the Ph.D. is able to come up with more insightful questions and and a more complex investigation of the sources. Skills matter more than content and the DBQ is arguably the part of the AP history curriculum that requires the most thinking skills of students.

Anyway, The NCHS Historical Thinking Standards group their sub-standards related to working with evidence inside Standard 2: Historical Comprehension. Check it out using the link. The sub-standards differentiate different types of evidence, documents, visuals, artifacts, etc. as well as various skills for working with evidence, contextualization, POV analysis, and the like. Most of the language will be familiar enough to most history teachers, but when you unpack the sub-standards there is a lot to work with. Especially when you begin planning how to teach and assess them all. For our curriculum, not every skill was taught and assessed in every class. I won’t get into our process for choosing what skill to put in what class. Those conversations will always be understandably subjective depending on the teachers involved and the student population. What I will emphasize is that the first unit of every course has skills from this standard which are taught and assessed. We began with evidence.

In many high school courses, these skills are the only assessed standards of the first units. Once students achieve proficiency with these, it is an easier and more comprehensible step up to more complex skills such as multiple causation, historical comparison, or historical argumentation. Students do better analysis and make better arguments if they are already skilled at questioning evidence, sourcing documents, making inferences, and qualifying and corroborating sources.

The first step in improving our curriculum was learning to scaffold an individual skill within our lessons. The second step, was zooming out and recognizing the importance of a logical skill progression that helps students build towards more complex thinking. I can say from experience that teaching students to make strong, historically defensible arguments is so much easier when they already have the ability to source and corroborate documents. Without these skills, too many classroom tasks become a regurgitation of information or produce “kitchen-sinkism.” If we want students to think like historians we need them to do what historians do, begin with the evidence.

Example: US History

I always want to provide a specific example of what I think this CAN look like. I say “can” because I will never claim that the way I am doing it at this moment is the only way it can be done. However, courses and units are better when a teacher considers the way their skills fit together. And, I do think its important that teachers think about these things themselves rather than trusting whoever wrote the curriculum. Not because curriculum writers can’t be trusted, but because understanding the curriculum can offer insights that help make teachers better at what they do.

Below is an overview of the first semester of the thematic US History course I taught. I have removed the numerical designations we used for each standard. No one cares about that. Instead, I have simply noted the standard number that NCHS uses. To them, what I am saying is obvious, but it took us time working with the standards to see the importance of writing curriculum that honors the spirit of the standards instead of just following the usual curriculum by chronology.

Unit 1: The American Character & Ideology

  • Continuity and change over time (1)
  • Sourcing evidence (2)
    • Contextualization
    • Author’s POV and purpose
    • Intended audience

Unit 2: Immigration

  • Analyzing multiple perspectives of people in the past (3)
  • Evaluating historians’ arguments & historiography (3)
  • Historical argumentation (4)

Unit 3: The Struggle for Equality

  • Continuity and change over time (1)
  • Historical research (4)
  • Historical argumentation (4)

The Why…

I wanted to teach continuity and change over time in the first unit alongside evidence-based skills because CCOT provides the spine of so much content. Each unit was chronological, with students ideally approaching content from the 18th century up to the 20th in each one. I always hated waiting until the end of the year to get the more recent stuff. Doing all this without a firm foundation of CCOT seemed crazy.

The evidence-based skills of the first unit allowed me to use more complex sources in the later two units. It also fit my style of using primary sources and various supplemental material more than an actual textbook. I want students to actually be the historians, not reading from an “omniscient” textbook that has been scrubbed by the publisher of any sense that it was written by an actual human. (My dislike of many textbooks will be a later topic). When I did use secondary sources, they were real secondary sources written by actual historians. Students could see the methodology and perspective of the historian better for the work we had done in the first unit.

The third and final unit of the semester was driven by inquiry – Big I – where students would use the skills from the semester to complete a research project. Although they didn’t know it at the time, the various skills, tasks, and inquiry – little i – activities of the first two units were slowly building them up to do the research project on their own. No throwing them in the deep end here. Essentially, the progression of the skills was intended to turn them into mini-historians while also teaching a lot of interesting and important content. As my last post made clear, the skills were the main thing here.

Any AP World colleague will understand when I say, we don’t want the DBQ to just become an LEQ with window dressing. The DBQ is an entirely different animal and the documents need to be the star of the show. Research projects might be larger and more intensive, but they are not philosophically different. I want students producing research and analysis that includes primary sources, not giving me a book report of the textbook and three websites they googled the night before. (Well, since I am in China many of them probably didn’t use google, but saying Baidu-ed just doesn’t roll of the tongue as well.) That final research project also graded students on nearly all of the standards we had done in the semester, giving them another opportunity to show proficiency before final grades calculated. Spiraling standards through the semester/year is an important SBG process to honor student growth over time. the NCHS standards make this very easy in a history classroom.

Whatever your content, whatever the skills or standards you are teaching, begin with evidence. It makes inquiry more possible and gives power to students, turning them into active historians instead of receptacles of information.

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