Lesson 7: Reading The Great Depression Like a Historian

The importance of the subject history is teaching valuable skills, which are essential in this 21st century society. The amount of information that each and everyone of us processes on a daily basis is uncountable. Unfortunately, we are not -yet- sufficient in distinguishing reliable sources from inadequate ones. There are several institutes currently developing material to teach those essential skills in history classes. One of the initiators is the Stanford History Education Group. They have developed lesson series that teach students to compare and contrast sources. The majority of their material is focussed on the history of the United States, which is this lesson as well. The inspiration from this lesson is directly derived from these clear-cut lessons created by the Stanford History Education Group, of which Sam Wineburg is a member. In Wineburg’s latest book “Why learn History (When it’s Already on Your Phone)”, Wineburg refuted the claim that these activities would hinder students from acquiring knowledge. Rather Wineburg observed “our classrooms proved the opposite. By assuming responsibility for making knowledge rather than serving as receptacles of others’ conclusions, students took a charge of their own learning.” Inspired by this quote, I tried such lesson with grade 11 who took history on a higher level. 

The question for this lesson was “Why did Black Thursday happen the 29th of October 1929?“. The students received five different sources, of which some were in agreement, while others were conflicting. The sources were different stations that students visited, each station was visited for about seven minutes. While the students read the source, they completed a graphic organiser that required them to highlight corroborating and conflicting evidence.

This activity should be done in a sequence of lesson since it takes some time to: introduce of the topic, read the sources, and discuss the information. I showed a presentation about the Great Depression to make students familiar with the lay of the land during the economic disaster. This is something that is also done by the Stanford Education Group; to create a framework for the students. I am teaching at an international school, thus there is no common knowledge to build upon, therefore an introduction to the topic is necessary. Wineburg (122) said the following about creating this common framework to start off with:

At the same time, our approach disrupted the kind of history that students were accustomed to without fundamentally altering traditional components of classroom life. Teachers introduced each topic using the textbook or giving short lectures.

After the introduction of the topic, students read the different sources and filled out the graphic organiser, which took about a double period (90 minutes). The subsequent lesson was used to debrief, by pointing out the differences in information and the (potential) reason behind the differences.

Example of student work

I should do these activities more often, not only because students enjoy the inquiry, it promotes a critical mindset within students.  The students found it difficult to be critical of a source about a topic that they felt no expert in. The analysing of the different sources went fine, but to really find corroborating or conflicting evidence was more challenging. Wineburg outlined the importance of developing such critical thinking skills (123):

We intentionally followed a similar lesson format to make the act of struggling with different interpretations as predictable routing part of of a history class, a way to install and solidify habits of mind. Like other habits, habits of mind demand repetition, stick-to-itiveness, and exposure to multiple examples where the content changes but the cure intellectual moves remain constant.

While debriefing with the students, I realised how important it is that students are sceptic of the information they are reading and cross-referencing with other sources to check claims made in reports. Even though these students study history, there is no automatic critical reading alert that went off when reading the sources. Information was more or less accepted easily without asking the necessary questions about an author/text/time. The lessons made clear to me that comparing and contrasting sources to find corroborating and conflicting evidence is indeed a skill, and one that should be explicitly taught frequently.  

Wineburg. Sam. (2018) Why Learn History (When it’sAlready on Your Phone). Chicago: Chicago University Press. 

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