10 Elements for Teaching History 4

4.  Debate over History

History is not names and dates.  History is the reasons for things.  This is why we have that famous quote of Churchill (quoting Santayana), “Those who fail to learn from history we will be doomed to repeat it.”

Doing history means presenting a debatable thesis in a persuasive manner using primary documents and reason.

What do we need to learn from history? We need to know how to look at cause and effect, how to interpret viewpoints, how to understand change, among other things.  The role of the history teacher is to initiate students into the academic arena of analysis. Students are natural challengers. They enjoy questioning the status quo, they enjoy pressing their own opinions.  The teacher can use this inherent part of human nature to initiate the student into analyzing history.

The best way to start this process is to use guides.  I recommend three that have worked for us.

CLASSICAL HISTORIAN (Middle-school; High School)

Firstly, take a look at CLASSICAL HISTORIAN. John DeGree has a very thorough program where he shows you how to take middle school students (and high schoolers) through a “toolbox” of skills needed to be a historian, and then leading them to a series of debates as they analyze history.  The debates, however, are not what you think.  The purpose of these debates are for students to come to a consensus!

For example, if the prompt asks for the most significant cause for the Fall of Rome, one student may say that Weak Emperors caused the Fall, a second student may say that The Diseases caused the fall.

As the students defend their theses, they must fine-tune arguments, listen to the reasoning of other student(s) and choose the strongest most persuasive case, even if it is not their side of the debate. What matters is reasonability.

This program is best when used with two students, even at different academic levels, though if a parent is willing to do a bit of research it can be between parent and student.


Secondly, I recommend Critical Thinking Company’s “Critical Thinking in United States History” series. This can be used with a single student or with a group. I wish I had discovered this sooner, since the more I use it the more I value what it offers. There are many concepts taught, and a student who goes through this series in middle school will be wonderfully prepared for high school.

While this is not a debate, per se, it approaches historical questions from differing perspectives.


Thirdly, I recommend Peter Pappas’s Debates. This would be for High School level.  I assign a side of each debate to one student, and following the debate plan in his introduction, have the students argue for their point. In these debates, I do not emphasize consensus as much as persuasion. The topics are opinion-driven, and I approach it as a court case.  The strongest, most persuasive argument wins.

The iBooks that Peter Pappas offers look very useful. I have not used them in our class yet, having recently come across them. (They are on the schedule to start using in two weeks. I’ll update this page afterwards with my review.) I list them because of their heavy use of primary sources along with the questioning method he uses in the books. Plus they’re free.

“If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!
But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us
is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind.”
  –Samuel Taylor Coleridge

5.  Analyze History–>

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