In this post Gary describes two quick ways to get students practicing the historical thinking skills of narration and interpretation.

In our new book, From Story to Judgment, we describe gold-standard activities — we call them “inquiry labs” — for practicing the Four Questions and the historical thinking skills associated with each of them: narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. It was important to me and Jon to get those inquiry labs right, because we wanted to be super clear about what skillful thinking really means and how we can practice it with real students in real classroom settings. There are lots of empty-calorie activities out there and lots of fakery in what are billed as ‘rigorous’ activities and assessments. We want teachers to take their questions seriously so that students learn how to do it, too. That’s what drives real and skillful thinking. So we worked hard to lay out what that means for each of the Four Questions. 

We also included playcards in the book, in which we describe lots of ways to practice those thinking skills without committing the substantial class and prep time a full-blown inquiry lab requires. The playcards include quick-hit activities that can exercise the minds of students in the ordinary flow of a lesson. 

This year, I’m finding tons of cool, quick ways to get my students practicing elements of each of the core thinking skills, many of which I’ve never tried (or imagined) before. What’s great about these quick activities is that they require very little preparation on my part beyond selecting decent narrative sources for my students to read. 


Here’s an example: my students read a textbook section on an early Chinese dynasty. There isn’t much story there: the Shang dynasty consolidated power, coerced workers into building walled cities, oversaw irrigation projects, and made war against border tribes. Then the dynasty collapsed and a new aristocratic family, the Zhou, took over the Yellow River valley.

The textbook version of the Shang story is fairly static. Aside from coming to power and losing it, the ‘story’ is basically a list of actions and accomplishments. That, it turns out, is no obstacle to practicing narration. We played a game: tell me what the Shang rulers and people did. In table teams, my students made lists from their notes of all the things the Shang did. Then we went around, in turn and at pace, with no repetition allowed. Much vigorous talking ensued.

It sounds perfectly obvious, but the action is all in the syntax. Every qualifying utterance must be a sentence, and every sentence has to start with a subject — the Shang rulers, the Shang people, someone historical and identifiable. And every subject must be followed by an action verb. That, it turns out, is genuinely challenging for students who are accustomed to copying lists of information from their textbooks. Students couldn’t respond with “irrigation” or “bronze weapons.” They had to say, “Shang rulers built irrigation canals,” or even better, “Shang rulers made their subjects build irrigation canals.” 

The thinking skill we were practicing is drawn right from the narration rubric in Chapter One in the book. The second row of that rubric describes “Agency,” the narrator’s capacity to say who did what (to whom). That’s a core element of storytelling. Learning to read through that lens is a core element of an essential historical thinking skill. My students got to practice it. 

The INTERPRETation Game

The next day, we played a similar game with Question Two. This time students had to say what the Zhou rulers thought or believed using the information in the textbook. Just from reading their notes, students could say, “The Zhou thought that natural disasters were a sign that the ruling dynasty had lost Heaven’s approval for their rule.” Once that Question Two claim has been aired, things get interesting. Now you need to begin making inferences about what the Zhou must have assumed to be true about the world if they believed in the Mandate of Heaven. For example, students now had to say things like, “The early Zhou rulers probably believed that they would do a better job controlling floods than the Shang.” That activity made for a great, low-cost and high-return practice in one of the core elements of interpretation: unpacking the assumptions implicit in an author’s meaningful text or utterance. 

My students have already done and will continue to do all the usual 4QM stuff this year. We made storyboards for the creation of the imperial system, from Zhou to Han. We did a full-blown interpretation, with rubric and template, of selections from Confucius’ Analects. And we’ll do a formal judgment exercise on Confucianism as a governing ideology soon enough. 

But it’s good to know that we can practice thinking every day, simply by focusing on the language we use to recount what we’ve learned about what people did and what they were thinking while they did it. The activities may be quick, but they add up. I’m wagering that, among other things, that daily focus on language will make my students better readers of historical sources, which are chock full of responses to Question One and Question Two.