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Thursday, January 4, 2018

Beyond Black and White

I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to answer our survey on how Montana history is taught in your district. (You still can!) I've been reviewing comments, and one middle school teacher mentioned that he was looking for lessons to help students engage in discussions without being so black and white about it.

Here are some techniques I have come across that may help:

1. Structured Academic Controversy (SAC), the goal of which is “discussion that moves students beyond either/or debates to a more nuanced historical synthesis.” Here's how it works (Excerpted from "Structured Academic Controversy" on Teachinghistory.org):

    • Choose a historical question that lends itself to contrasting viewpoints. 
    • Find and select two or three documents (primary or secondary sources) that embody each side. (Remember that you can pull these from existing document collections on the web or in print.)
    • Consider timing, make copies of handouts, and plan grouping strategies. 
    In the Classroom
    • Organize students into four-person teams comprised of two dyads. Together they review materials that represent different positions on a charged issue.
    • Dyads then come together as a four-person team and present their views to one other, one dyad acting as the presenters, the others as the listeners.
    • Rather than refuting the other position, the listening dyad repeats back to the presenters what they understood. Listeners do not become presenters until the original presenters are fully satisfied that they have been heard and understood.
    • After the sides switch, the dyads abandon their original assignments and work toward reaching consensus. If consensus proves unattainable, the team clarifies where their differences lie.
    Read more (and find handouts to use this technique) here. The website "Deliberating in a Democracy in the Americas" offers a slightly different version of SAC, but to a similar purpose. I really like their "brief lesson plan", which explicitly teaches the difference between "Debate, Discussion, and Deliberation." Government teachers may also like their lesson plans, which use the technique.

    2. Socratic Seminars. Many teachers I respect swear by this technique, which "Facing History and Ourselves" describes as an activity in which "students help one another understand the ideas, issues, and values reflected in a text through a group discussion format."
    • Select an Appropriate Text
    • Give Students Time to Prepare
    • Develop a Classroom Contract. Typical rules include: 
      • Talk to each other, not just to the discussion leader or teacher.
      • Refer to evidence from the text to support your ideas.
      • Ask questions if you do not understand what someone has said, or you can paraphrase what another student has said for clarification (“I think you said this; is that right?”).
      • You do not need to raise your hand to speak, but please pay attention to your “airtime”—how much you have spoken in relation to other students.
      • Don’t interrupt.
      • Don’t “put down” the ideas of another student. Without judging the student you disagree with, state your alternate interpretation or ask a follow-up question to help probe or clarify an idea.
    • Remind students that the purpose of the seminar is not to debate or prove a point but to more deeply understand what the author was trying to express in the text.
    • Have the discussion leader, a student or the teacher, ask an open-ended question. 
    • Sometimes teachers organize a Socratic Seminar activity like a Fishbowl activity, with some students participating in the discussion and the rest of the class having specific jobs as observers. 
    • Reflect and Evaluate
    You can read more about this practice here. (And credit where credit is due: Arlee teacher Anna Baldwin first introduced me to this technique. You can find her version in the accompanying Inside Anna's Classroom study guide.) 

    3. “Circle of Viewpoints.” I talked a little about this recently, in the post discussing the Visible Thinking Routines from Project Zero's Visible Thinking site.  The goal of this technique is to get students to "consider different and diverse perspectives involved in and around a topic." It "works especially well when students are having a hard time seeing other perspectives or when things seem black and white."

    • Ask students to brainstorm various viewpoints on the topic.
    • Ask each student to choose one of these viewpoints. Give them time to prepare to speak about the topic from that perspective.
    • Go around the circle and act out their various perspectives. 
    • Wrap up by asking "what new ideas do you have about the topic that you didn't have before? What new questions do you have?"

    4. Arbitration. One of my favorite history teacher bloggers, Russell Tarr, suggests this approach to avoid some of the pitfalls of debate and to help students reach more sophisticated conclusions.

    • Create teams of three (or 5), which consist of prosecution, defense and an arbitrator (choose your best students for this role). While the prosecution and defense gather evidence and prepare their arguments, the arbitrator is responsible for anticipating the arguments on each side and working toward a synthesis. 
    • Have all the teams conduct a debate in front of their own arbitrator at separate tables. After the debate, have the arbitrator work with the prosecution and defense to design a synthesis statement that both sides are happy to accept.
    • Gather all the arbitrators in front of the class to present their judgments.

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