In the United States the big players in the “historical thinking skills” space are the College Board and the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG). Both identify “contextualization” as a key skill that history students should learn, and at 4QM Teaching, we agree. But we think we’ve got an easier way to make that thinking skill accessible to students than they do. In this blog post I’m going to argue that their definitions are needlessly complex, and give you a suggestion for a much easier way to teach kids to contextualize sources, people, events, and ideas.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog you know that I think the College Board makes their materials overly complex for no good reason (see my earlier rant here). Their definition of the historical thinking skill of contextualization is no exception: it is delightfully vague, and uses Gary’s favorite weasel word, “analyze.” Contextualization is College Board Historical Thinking Skill 4, and is defined as, “Analyze the context of historical events, developments, or processes.” They offer two sub-definitions of this skill, 4A and 4B: “Identify and describe a historical context for a specific historical development or process” and “Explain how a specific historical development or process is situated within a broader historical context” (College Board). I think these sub-definitions are synonyms: I can’t see the difference between “identifying and describing the context” for something and “explaining how it is situated within a broader context.” Definition 4A is pretty good — if they had just gone with that alone I’d have no significant complaints, but of course they can’t be that simple and direct – they’re the College Board, and must appear rigorous at all costs.
SHEG’s definition of contextualization is more straightforward: “Contextualization asks students to locate a document in time and place and to understand how those factors affect its content.” Seems pretty clear. But their “Contextualization” poster, which is meant for classroom display and thus to help students practice the skill, asks students to answer questions that are not especially helpful in contextualizing, except for the first one: “When and where was the document created?” That is followed by these three: “What was different then? What was the same? How might the circumstances in which the document was created affect its content?” (SHEG). The middle two questions are so broad as to be useless, and the last one presumes a lot of thinking skills that students may not have. I think we can do better.
CONTEXT = STORY
When we teach history with the Four Question Method we always start with a story of the unit. So when we ask students to contextualize a document, person, event, or idea we can do it by relating it directly to the story of the unit. Our 4QM Primary Source Analysis Sheet, for example, starts by having students identify and date the source, identify the author, and then asks them to contextualize this way:
“What has happened in our unit story at the time this source was created?”
“How is the author or creator related to the story so far?”
“What might you assume about the author given their relationship to the story?”
These questions work really well because they’re straightforward and direct, and most kids can actually answer them with a little bit of effort. Take the example of an important document from American history: the Declaration of Rights and Grievances of the Stamp Act Congress. The document was created in October of 1765, by a committee of colonists meeting in New York City. Assuming your American Revolution unit starts with the Seven Years War, we know that Britain has accrued a very large debt in fighting the war, and is seeking ways to pay it off. We know that the authors of the document are related to that story in that they will be the ones who have to pay, and we might assume that they won’t like that. We might also assume that they’re going to be seeking public support for their position.
I think that our “contextualize” questions are what both the College Board and SHEG are actually after with their definitions. We all want students to be able to relate the document (or person or event or idea) to the broader historical story that it’s a part of, and we all want students to understand that sources are shaped by their creators to serve particular purposes. But by prioritizing “story first,” the Four Question Method makes is easier for teachers and students to practice and demonstrate those thinking skills.
So don’t let the big guys push you around. If your students find the College Board’s or SHEG’s definition of “contextualization” confusing or clumsy, don’t blame them and don’t blame yourself. Ask your students how the document, person, event, or idea fits into the story of the unit instead. I bet you’ll find that more of your students can contextualize than you thought!