National History Day & the C3 Framework

When I taught in Florida I volunteered as a judge for National History Day and had the occasional student who took part. This year is the first time I have integrated NHD with my classes, having all students participate. It was not entirely my own choice, the school I am at having been the NHD China host since the NHD affiliate’s inception, but I immediately recognized the value it can add to a regular social studies curriculum.

NHD projects ask students to align their interests to an annual theme, develop and refine research questions, conduct primary and secondary source research, apply historical thinking skills to their analysis, and present their argument in a form of their choice. National History Day is credited on the C3 Framework “task force” of professional organizations. This is likely why the C3 process is so well aligned to what students are expected to do as part of NHD.

The alignment between NHD and C3 creates unique opportunities when a curriculum actively leverages both. Students need to see how skills are interconnected and rely on each other when applied to a “real world” task. Regardless of whether a school uses traditional or standards-based grading, NHD and C3 are powerful tools for doing inquiry based learning and teaching historical thinking skills.

I have organized this post based on the four dimensions of the C3 Framework, discussing some of the connections to National History Day within each.

Dimension 1: Developing Questions and Planning Inquiries

“Questioning is key to student learning” – C3 Framework

We want students to have the ability to conceptualize questions and then pursue answers; loosely, these skills apply beyond social studies. The first step in the NHD process is topic selection and the development of a research/compelling question that can then be broken down into supporting questions. Students will need some type of structure to help with this, especially if it is their first large research/inquiry project. The image below is an example of what this might look like when given to students.

One of the most important things a teacher can do in the first week of school is to spark student interest and get them excited for the upcoming year. Doing this well sets the tone for the class and can help establish strong classroom rapport. On day one AP World History Modern I always start with my favorite source activity, Ordeal by Cheque (Linked and explained in a previous post). It is document based, collaborative, investigative, and most importantly, fun. Next year, on day two, I plan on jumping into the NHD inquiry and topic selection process for similar reasons. I want students to see that they are an integral part of the classroom and that learning and inquiry mean helping students find their own voice in the classroom.

C3 offers a great structure and resources for jumping in the deep end with inquiry and NHD!

Dimension 2: Applying Discipline Specific Tools

This dimension is the meat of the C3 Framework, including specific skill standards for history, civics, economics, and geography. Teachers will recognize the historical thinking skills that are needed for a strong NHD project; skills like contextualization, causation, continuity and change over time are critical building blocks that show a student’s analytical abilities. These standards are likely taught and assessed as part of regular social studies curriculum. NHD simply gives an opportunity for students to practice them or be assessed on them as part of a large project.

For traditional grading categories or total points based grading, its is easy to weight smaller tasks or assessments appropriately against larger projects. With standards-based grading this can be a little more of a challenge. In theory, every standard is weighted equally before standards within the same measurement topic are then averaged together. Assuming measurement topics are balanced, one way to weight assessments within a standards-based grading system is to create assessments that have multiple standards attached to them. Of course, these will likely be projects or larger tasks that reflect their linked standards. An NHD project can easily cover multiple discipline specific standards from the history strand, and thereby be weighted appropriately so as to recognize the effort and work required from students.

National History Day, C3 Standards, and Standards-Based Grading can be a perfect match!

Dimension 3: Evaluating Sources and Using Evidence

It may be a cliche to say that students need to learn how to differentiate between useful sources and all the “noise” that is thrown at them in the digital world, but that does not mean it’s not true. However, getting students to research and evaluate sources can very easily become an exercise in “task mastering” for them. It is important that the process is aligned to a topic they are interested in, and that there is clear application to both their learning and goals beyond the classroom. NHD helps with both of these and gives students the practice needed to become proficient in the skills embedded in C3’s Dimension 3.

There are tremendous volumes of information, primary and secondary, available online. Many students will have had practice in English classes with evaluating online secondary sources or articles for credibility. I have seen many English teachers use the CARDS process for this quite effectively. However, students may struggle to apply this to primary source research, or struggle to differentiate between the uses of various peer-reviewed articles that are all credible.

With primary source research I have always coached students to use the HIPP acronym (Some may also know it as HAPP) to consider a source’s historical context, intended audience, purpose, or author’s point of view. These can help reveal insight into the source and can be used to understand why some primary sources disagree. This can help students evaluate if their research is balanced, what gaps might exist, and can help them conceptualize their argument.

When considering peer-review articles (more useful for students than books) students need to consider the author’s methodology, know how they represent the state of their field, and recognize how they use primary and secondary sources themselves to see how and why scholars disagree. Ideally, teachers are pulling back the curtain on scholarship so students can see how it all works.

Finally, embedded in this process is developing and refining an argument that includes both claim(s) and counterclaim(s). Many students I have worked with want to have their argument done before they even begin research. Students need to see that arguments get drafted and refined as part of the research process and are themselves works in progress. I also feel strongly that high school students need to see that a proper argument is more substantial than the five paragraph essays they often write in middle school.

Sample Reflection Questions

  • Do your sources represent a wide range of views and perspectives within the field?
  • How do experts value the primary sources you have collected?
  • Have you found disagreements between experts within the field?
  • Are there inconsistencies between sources you have collected? How can these be explained/understood?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of your claims?
  • Is your claim both defensible and significant? Does it reveal any insight?

Dimension 4: Communicating Conclusions and Taking informed Action

Most learning and assessment is limited to the walls of the classroom. Looking for small but meaningful ways for students to interact academically with the broader community should be encouraged. National History Day offers this opportunity as students communicate their research and argument as either a research paper, exhibit, documentary, performance, or website. Through interactions with peers and judges they receive and reflect on criticism, explain their research process, defend their ideas, interact with technology tools, and build confidence through presentation.

A National History Day project may not develop into a student-led club on social activism, jump-start a community volunteer drive, or give students a path to entrepreneurship. However, it will push them into the public sphere and offer the growth that comes with the realization that they are part of a larger community and have a voice that deserves to be heard!

Helpful Links

National History Day

C3 Framework

C3 Inquiry Design Model

DocsTeach – NHD research support for 2023

National Archives – NHD Online Research Tools

EDSITEment – Teacher’s Guide for NHD

Beyond the Bubble History Assessments – Stanford’s Reading like a Historian

Teaching History through Inquiry – EducationWeek

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