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History Labs – Creating academic discomfort in your students

history lab logo

Several years ago, during one of our four day summer Teaching American History seminars, 40 of my middle teachers had the opportunity to work with Bruce Lesh. Bruce was teaching high school history in Maryland and had just recently published his sweet book titled Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer? Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12.

And we got the chance to pick his brain, try out his ideas, and adapt some of his lessons. There was tons of useful stuff but one of my biggest takeaways was that he called his lessons History Labs. As in, here’s a problem. Collect some evidence. Figure it out.

For most of the teachers in the group, this was something new. Common practice – encouraged by our state standards – was to lecture, provide some worksheets, and assign multiple choice tests. The concept of History Labs offered a different and more effective method of teaching and learning.

For me, it wasn’t a new idea. But I loved the name. It highlighted the fact that social studies and history need to be about inquiry and uncertainty. About what one teacher called “academic discomfort.”

More organizations and teachers are creating their own versions of History Labs. The Stanford History Education Group is perhaps the biggest name in the game right now. But it’s always nice to find new tools and examples.

During some teacher conversations in the last week or so, I ran across the History Labs section of the UMBC Center for History Education. And it supports all of the kinds of stuff we want a History Lab to do. Force kids to solve problems using evidence and to communicate their solutions with others.

In the UMBC History Lab world, students:

  • Seek to answer an open-ended overarching question that permits multiple possible answers
  • Analyze sources and apply information to develop answers to the overarching question
  • Apply literacy skills in the reading, evaluation and analysis of historical sources;
  • Critically examine source materials for authorship and purpose, significant information, context and subtext, and multiple or conflicting perspectives
  • Apply grade-level and ability-appropriate interpretive skills
  • Adjust or modify the overarching question itself, as necessary
  • Develop present, defend, and refine their evidence-based answers

Be sure to notice the menu of options in the top right hand corner of the site. Work your way through the six areas that helps you make sense of what a quality History Lab looks like in practice:

Then head over to their list of completed labs, organized by historical period, to either download a PDF version of each lab or to access an online version. Every lab has an overarching question that guides the instruction and study of the topic. Kids discuss the lead question and determine what is needed to formulate a response. Source materials are analyzed for authorship and purpose, significant information, context and subtext, and multiple or conflicting perspectives.

Students then synthesize this information to construct evidence-based responses to the overarching question. History Labs can be taught in parts or in their entirety, and can be adjusted for different knowledge and ability levels. The student work products take the form of written narratives, oral presentations and debates, or multimedia projects.

What I really like is that they provide a very useful template that is perfect for developing your own version. So check out some of their stuff, then jump in the deep end and try your hand at creating one of your own.

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