Norway Doorway, pt 2: Getting Students Interested in Historical Questions

Randall Stephens

I'm giving a talk on Wednesday to high school teachers in Trysil, Norway, which happens to be the largest ski destination in the country. Poor me. I'll be focusing in on how we might best engage students in historical, political, and cultural debates. That's always a tough task, especially if students arrive on the first day with absolutely no interest in the topic.

As a guide I plan to use a course I teach on America in the 1960s. (Admittedly, it's a bit easier to generate interest here. Would be more difficult if the class was about Medieval court records or Byzantine statesmanship.) Larger guiding questions, I've found, work well in a class like this. I want students to better understand change over time, the connection of the past to the present, and the debates that rage over American history. Here are some of the questions that help direct the 60s course:

Can we sum up an entire decade? Can we make coherent generalizations about America in the 1960s?

In what ways was America in 1969 different from America in 1959?

How is America in 2012 different from America in the 1960s?

What explains the degree of activism—anti-war movements, the black freedom struggle, the New Right, liberation movements—of the decade?

How did American politics and culture have a world impact in the 1960s?

How have the debates and key issues of that decade continued to shape American culture? (Hint: culture wars.)

To describe how best to make use of these sorts of questions—and more micro ones as well—I'm going to draw on some material from the National History Education Clearinghouse (NHEC). (This is a stretch for me. I don't typically cotton to endless pedagogy talk.) The NHEC website includes some great material on "Inquiry Lessons," which:

introduce students to the "doing" of history. Through using evidence to investigate historical questions, students are given the opportunity to see that history is not just a collection of facts, but rather a rigorously constructed set of arguments. As students encounter new and in some cases contradictory evidence, they are asked to reconsider their initial views, learning that interpretations of the past can change based on the available historical evidence.

The idea is to choose a historical question that can then be examined in detail with primary and secondary sources. Other questions might follow that will help students think about the sources. How do the documents relate to one another? How can one judge the relative value of one source against another? The evidence can go well beyond written materials. In the case of the 1960s one could use posters, video clips, music, photographs, and more.

I'm looking forward to my first interactive session with teachers. And I'm hoping that we'll have a good discussion about what works best to draw students into the debates. Maybe I'll get some skiing in as well.