Opening Up the Dialogue

A thought-provoking historical question can open up space for collaborative historical reasoning. Choosing a well-formulated question for the discussion focuses the discussion and relates it to the learning goals. Evaluative questions are particularly suitable to elicit historical reasoning as there is no fixed answer and they incorporate various components of historical reasoning (Van Drie, Van Boxtel, & Van der Linden, 2006). The central question for the discussion can be the same question students first work on in a task, or the question can be of a higher level, or take a different perspective on the historical issue at hand. For example, students study the outbreak of the First World War and have been working on several causes in an assignment. The question for the subsequent whole class discussion could be what the most important cause was; an evaluative question. Another possibility is to take a different perspective and raise the question of how Russia became involved in the war. To answer this question, students have to use their knowledge of several causes, but have to take a different perspective on it.

Not only does the central question need to be well chosen, but also the preparing task needs to be well chosen. In our studies, we found that especially open-ended tasks, tasks that are meaningful from both a curriculum and a student perspective, and tasks that engage students in constructive activity are powerful in triggering situational interest and historical reasoning (see also Havekes et al., 2010; Van Boxtel & Van Drie, 2013). An example is the lesson unit we developed on historical significance (Van Drie et al., 2013). Central question of this unit was: Which person or event was most significant for the development of Dutch democracy? This question was set in the context of a museum organizing an exhibition on this topic and the students had to give advice on which person or event should certainly be part of this exhibition. In the lessons, students first studied several criteria for establishing historical significance. In expert groups, they studied one of the pre-selected persons or events and they shared their results in front of the class. In different groups, they made a ranking of the presented persons or events, and this ranking resulted in a class ranking. This class ranking was discussed in a whole-class discussion. The final task was to write an argumentative letter to the secretary of the museum, in which they made a case for one of the persons or events. Analyses of the whole-class discussion in two classes showed that this task elicited active student participation and historical reasoning (Van Drie et al., 2013). To illustrate, the teacher did not bring in his own perspective of who was most significant, but he stimulated students to think for themselves. There was room to bring in different perspectives and to discuss these perspectives and related arguments with each other. The teacher orchestrated the discussion for example by asking questions to make student thinking visible (‘Why is he so important?’); by allocating turns and in doing so giving room to different perspectives (‘Sarah, you do not agree, I notice’); and by challenging students’ viewpoints and arguments (‘Why is Thorbecke more significant than Universal Suffrage? Thorbecke matches all criteria for historical significance well.’).

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