Historical Thinking Skills: Decision-making

History is not a collection of facts but rather a collection of opinions. 

What is a fact in history?

There is a lot less fact in history than most people realize. Take the sinking of the Titanic for example. About half of the survivors say the ship sank as a whole while the other half of the survivors say it snapped in half and sank in two large pieces.

The facts are that we know when it set sail, where it was when it hit the iceberg, and how many people survived/died in the events. It is an opinion at this point how it sank, if it could have been prevented, etc.

Queen Elizabeth I was not a virgin. Fact or opinion?

Many, many people contend that she was in fact, not a virgin. They would point to the various favorites of her court, to the placement of bedrooms, etc. yet, we tend to ignore the other evidence to suggest that she was, in fact, a virgin when she died.

Her own confession in which she stated in her last confession to never jeopardizing the throne. Or the fact that she never had a child.

When teaching history, present the materials not as facts that can never be disputed but as opinions and teach your students how to form an opinion.

Decision-making

It really doesn’t matter anymore if the Titanic sank as one intact ship or in two pieces. It doesn’t matter if Elizabeth I was a virgin. You are, however, teaching students to evaluate the evidence given, be curious, and form an opinion.

Students should be deciding on their own how they feel about important historical events. Making a decision about how they feel is a skill. Making an informed decision will transcend all subjects but takes time and opportunity to practice.

Decision-making Lesson Plans

Making lessons that have students gather information and make decisions can be done in all subjects but sticking to specifically to history, you should be creating opportunities all school year long.

Present students with various viewpoints and primary documents. Allow students to add additional documents they find on their own if they wish. Encourage them to be curious and help them find answers to questions they have.

Present two sides of a historical event or person. Do not interject your opinion. Simply present it as neutrally as possible. Genghis Khan is a hero of Mongolian history and the villain of pretty much every other place he conquered. It is all about presentation.

Peter the Great was an inspiration to many during his reign as he modernized his country yet there are many who think he was a tyrant. Present both viewpoints as practice.

Joan of Arc is a hero of French history and the patron saint of the country for her dedication and contributions. The English, however, thought she was a dangerous heretic and burned her alive. Have the students learn the factual history and supplement with primary resources showing how people on both sides wrote about her. Include the court transcripts and have students assess the validity of the questions and the truthfulness of her answers. Let them decide where to take the lesson and how to think about her.

Marie-Antoinette: out of touch monarch or misrepresented through one of the most successful smear campaigns in history?

Have your students create two museums: one museum presenting the material with one perspective and the other museum with a different perspective. Let the students assess how the event or person was portrayed.

Movie analysis: you don’t have to spend a lot of time watching movies in class. Students can read the synopsis of movies to determine how an event or person is portrayed. Have students do the research about the movies or documentaries or series they include in the synopsis to determine how things are portrayed. Consider including foreign films to see how different events/people are portrayed differently from culture to culture or from time period to time period.

Investigate celebrated people in history and see how time and advances in social movements make us see people differently. Thomas Edison, for example, is beginning to have a shift in how he is portrayed. The celebrated inventor may have a PR problem if more people pick up on his ruthlessness and cruelty, and possible involvement in murders during his career. Students could investigate these claims further for many people in history.

Decision-making is a great way to introduce a variety of primary and secondary resources, engage students in investigations, and allowing students to explore their own questions. You just have to create the opportunities, not force a perspective.

(This is a continuation of my historical thinking skills series. Read the first in the series, Usurpation of Historical Thinking Skills.)

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