If I had a nickel for every time I have used the word “evidence” in the last couple of years, I would have a substantial pile of nickels! We see the word evidence in the Common Core Standards, in the curriculum modules that have been developed to support ELA instruction and in every discussion of historical thinking. We want students to become skilled in finding and using evidence from text to support their analyses, their interpretations and their conclusions. We especially want them to be able to do this in their writing.
This is exactly what historians do for a living! What do historians do? They make claims about what happened in the past based on the evidence that they collect from primary and secondary sources. They analyze these sources to find patterns of agreement and contradiction, clarity and confusion, overlap and disparity. From that analysis, they formulate a claim: “Here is what I think this means and here’s why I think so.”
Chauncey Monte-Sano, a professor and researcher at the University of Michigan states, “Experts know that writing a historical essay involves sifting through sources and constructing an interpretation grounded in evidence.” (Monte-Sano 2012) The challenge for teachers is to help our students see and begin to apply this process to their learning in social studies, when traditional teaching methods have trained them to believe that history consists of “true” facts to be memorized, chosen on multiple choice tests and recounted and summarized in essays
Monte-Sano suggests that the problem for students in thinking and writing historically is that, “…adolescents tend to see the goals of writing differently, not always understanding that history essays require them to construct an argument or situate a topic in historical context. Instead, they focus on generating information and fail to organize essays around ideas. Indeed, writing experts argue that novices transfer their knowledge to their written work without shaping it in any way. When novices do try composing an argument, they may engage in a unidirectional process of first establishing a thesis and then finding facts to support it.” (Monte-Sano 2012) Hmmm…creating a thesis first and then cherry-picking the evidence that will support that thesis…sounds like something I may have done at some point in my academic career! Just sayin’.
What we want our students to do is to see that historical evidence doesn’t always line up neatly on one side or another of an issue, an event or a concept. The evidence is messy and often points to multiple conclusions. This makes history difficult to pin down. It is also what makes history dynamic and exciting! History is contested and contestable! Isn’t that why we love it?
What can classroom teachers do to build this skill of using evidence to make claims and build arguments? I have gleaned some ideas from the Teaching History Education Clearinghouse.
- Use primary sources regularly and help students become critical consumers of information. Multiple accounts, especially if they represent conflicting information, help students understand that history is about interpretation and depends on many factors such as point of view and purpose.
- Pose significant questions as the focus of students’ investigation. Meaty questions such as those contained in Historical Scene Investigations or History Labs help students use evidence to make claims and form arguments.
- Use “cognitive tools” such as handouts, anchor charts, or templates that support student learning. Mnemonics such as SOAP (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose) for sourcing and STOP (Suspend judgment, Take a side, Organize ideas, Plan) to organize writing can be helpful structures to keep students focused on the task.
Historical thinking is ultimately about reading and writing and then asking questions about what we read and write. Students have to have many opportunities to practice using evidence from primary and secondary sources in discussions and in their writing in order to develop their skills.
And I just added 12 nickels to my growing pile!
Monte-Sano, Chauncey. “Toward Disciplinary Writing in History: Preparing the Next Generation.” Perspectives on History, May 2012.