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Tip of the Week: Assessing historical thinking made easy

Several years ago, I had the chance to be part of a learning community facilitated by Bruce Lesh. At the time, Bruce was teaching high school in Maryland and traveled to Kansas for a week as part of our Century of Progress TAH grant.

He shared a ton of great stuff including his idea of History Labs and the process of historical thinking. Like many of us, part of his social studies world view included ideas from Sam Wineburg. Wineburg uses the semantics of sourcing, contextualizing, and corroborating. He also talks quite a bit about kids working to “read between the lines” as part of that analysis process.

Bruce altered that language a bit and used the words text, context, and subtext to describe student thinking skills. The basic idea is the same but I like the alliteration / re-use of the word “text” and how that can help kids remember what their task is when making sense of evidence. Since then, teachers in the group have continued to use his vocabulary.

Many of the TAH project participants continue to meet four times a year to share ideas and hone their skills. Yesterday was day four of the year and among other things, we celebrated the birthday of Thomas Jefferson and hosted a historical political campaign t-shirt design contest.

tj b-day cake

273 years old if I did the math correctly

We also had the chance to share ideas about best practice and assessments. One of the most difficult things teachers have to mess with is how to best measure learning. And when we’re asking kids to think historically and solve problems, traditional assessment methods such fill in the blank just don’t work very well.

But Jon B. from St John stepped up yesterday and highlighted some of the things he does with kids. I thought that he had some pretty sweet assessment ideas and so I asked if I could pass them on to you. Hats off to Jon for finding a simple way to support historical thinking skills while also measuring students’ ability to actually use those skills.

Jon’s first idea was to literally “think aloud” for his students with his assessment questions, using documents previously discussed in class to ask kids what thinking skill is being used.

jon b 1

I really like this. We always talk about training kids to using text / sourcing, context, and corroborating to make sense of evidence. Jon has flipped this  – now asking kids to identify the actual skill by telling them what they are “thinking.” It’s a way to support these sorts of thinking skills from a different direction, forcing students to remember the analysis (with help from Jon) that they’ve already completed in class while reinforcing the use of the vocabulary and the identification of the skill with a specific example.

This type of think alouds can be a powerful way to support strong analysis skills.

Jon also shared one of his methods for measuring a student’s ability to synthesize information through the use of writing. I’ve talked before about using hexagons to measure students’ ability to make connections between people, places, ideas, and events. Jon developed a different method of measuring this ability. It’s a simple, quick but powerful method.

jon b2

Seriously. Simple. Fairly easy to score with a rubric. But a kid’s going to need to really know what he’s talking about to do well with this. Easy but still a powerful way to collect evidence of learning.

We talked about different ways that teachers could adapt this. You could throw all 12 items into a text box and ask kids to pick their own four. Maybe keep the same three groups as shown above but require kids to add at least one more of their own. You could differentiate fairly easily as well for kids that need that – three items instead of four. If you’re a tech rich school, you post the assessment in digital format and link out to videos, photos, and other multimedia options for kids to connect.

I didn’t ask Jon if these 12 items had been discussed in class or not. But you could also have half of the items from class discussion and half from a new document or evidence – forcing kids to make brand new connections. In Kansas, our standards require a connection to contemporary events. Maybe ask kids to not just make a connection between the four items but tie it to some sort of current event.

Or . . . you could do just what Jon did. Cause it’s a sweet idea just the way it is.

Thumbs up Jon. Cause together with birthday cake and fun t-shirt designs, getting better at what we do makes a pretty good day.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rob Kamrowski #

    This is an awesome idea. Thanks for sharing.

    April 16, 2016
    • glennw #


      Jon does do great stuff in his classroom!


      April 18, 2016

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