Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Textbook on Trial: Some opening thoughts

The idea of having my students put our class textbook on trial came to me earlier this summer. My wife was in the middle of watching the George Zimmerman trial, and I was in the midst of reading and tweeting about historical thinking skills. 

What I was doing and what my wife was doing started to merge, to the point where I could not help but notice the similarities between what lawyers do and what historians do. 

I am obviously not the first to recognize that the thinking skills, habits, and attitudes of mind often internalized and utilized by lawyers, at times at least, bear close resemblance to how historians think, how they approach evidence, and how they construct interpretations about the past. 

Indeed, the structure and procedures of the American legal system, which is adversarial in nature, also resemble, in ways, how historians handle evidence, construct arguments, and, ultimately, prove their case to readers. 

It is understandable, yet disheartening, that these similarities may go unnoticed. Anecdotally, and more formally, it has been well established that many students and teachers associate learning history with memorizing facts. Often, these crammed facts are then regurgitated on tests in the form of written responses and dozens of multiple choice and true/false items. The facts are then forgotten so that the next test can be conquered. This is a dance that occurs in too many classrooms.  

The gap between what historians do and how history is taught in schools is often wide. Some of the differences are justified; many are not. 

This assignment, which I currently imagine as ongoing and semester long, will attempt to decrease this chasm by deliberately highlighting the parallels mentioned above and below. Specifically, I will use an adversarial framework to teach my students how to think like a lawyer and an historian as they put their history textbook on trial.  

Here is a quick list of some of the thinking skills this assignment will emphasize:

-Asking questions of sources 
-Identifying and questioning  facts
-Speculating about physical evidence
-Considering the benefits and problems associated with eyewitness accounts 
-Creating a narrative that conforms to (is supported by) the facts (Making the facts conform to a narrative structure, making disparate pieces of evidence fit together, like putting together a puzzle without all of the pieces. Also, noticing when this is done and pointing where and how it was done) 

-Identifying and making inferences 
-Corroborating stories/accounts of the past
-Critically examining accounts of the past (questioning these accounts,handling conflicting accounts of the same event,understanding and explaining why accounts of past events may differ) 
-Deciding when we can express confidence or when we should be skeptical about our ability to "know what happened" in the past 
-Establishing context to understand past events

-Establishing context to construct accounts of the past

Some caveats
Teacher who rely solely on textbooks to teach history considerably limit their students' awareness of the dynamic and sophisticated nature of the discipline of history. Though some of you may disagree, I am comfortable saying that textbooks have a place in a history classroom. 

At the same time, if my child ended up in a history class with a teacher who did not use a textbook, I would be less concerned than if they ended up in a class where on a daily basis the teacher taught directly from a textbook. 

Finally, to a large degree, my idea is a gimmick, a way of imposing certain attitudes and expectations on my students from day 1 of my class. I do not envision this structure to follow a mock trial format. In the coming days, I will attempt to get more specific, elaborating and refining as I go.

Your thoughts? I encourage (and need!) comments, reactions, questions, ideas... Thanks :)


  1. Some thoughts:

    " I am comfortable saying that textbooks have a place in a history classroom." I agree with this, and am curious what you have in mind for the defense? To be clear I also agree to that no textbook is also better than all textbook.

    I also like the idea of embedding this throughout the course with some possible product as a capstone. These skills need to be taught, especially to 9th graders. I teach some of this same content to 11th graders in AP Euro. They can read for main ideas, but are just as gullible regarding text.

    Providing examples of alternative approaches to history, which I'm sure that you will emphasize, also strikes me as important to the trial process. Most students have no concept of history as something other than a received narrative. They will need experience "uncovering" history as a counterexample of textbook coverage. I will be interested in exchanging ideas on these types of lessons for World History.


  2. " I am comfortable saying that textbooks have a place in a history classroom." I agree with this, and am curious what you have in mind for the defense? To be clear I also agree to that no textbook is also better than all textbook."

    Hi Eric, my defense, influenced by Sam Winemburg's thoughts on this topic, is that as long as we are using the textbooks as a springboard to think carefully and critically about how historical narratives are constructed, then textbooks provide good fodder to do this. Given the ubiquitous nature of textbooks, teachers who refuse to use them are ignoring a resource that, at the very least, can be treated like a basic reference book that can be used to begin the process of providing students with some background knowledge. Also, as pointed out by Wineburg in his Undue Certainty essay, some teachers shun textbooks while embracing books like Zinn's Peoples History of the United States, treating Zinn's book as an anti-textbook. When, at least rhetorically, there are major similarities between how Zinn writes and the language of textbook authors. Both seem to treat the past as consisting of fixed, knowable accounts. Though their truths may vary, that historical truths can be known at all seems to be embedded in both books' styles.