31 March 2016

Was the American Revolution a Mistake? Teaching History as Choice.

I bet that title got your attention, didn't it? Well, I'm sure that was Mr. Burton Weltman's intention when he came up with it. However, before you go assuming that this is some sort of revisionist history book, pump the brakes.

Mr. Weltman, an unabashed history nerd, takes aim at the downside of being a history nerd, which is the assumption that everyone must love history as much as us. This leads to a disconnect between many students and their historiophile teachers (yes, I just made that word up). To start, Mr. Weltman takes issue with the way that conventional history is taught: X leads to Y, which causes Z. It's not surprising that history has been taught this way; it allows students to make connections between events and analyze the causes and effects of historical movements. However, this strategy also places fetters on learners and may prevent critical thinking.

This is where Mr. Weltman's revolutionary (pun intended) method comes into play. Rather than learn history through a never ending chain of causes and effects, Weltman has unlocked the manacles of traditional historical learning through what he calls "studying history as choice." Weltman makes the argument that historical actors did not exist in a vacuum, and certainly did not have the luxury of hindsight that we have. Leaders and average citizens alike behaved and made decisions based on the cultural environment and information that was available to them at that time. Weltman scoffs at the idea that historical events were inevitable and always for the best. True critical thinking is always ready to challenge even the most cherished beliefs in order to develop a more well-rounded and insightful understanding of them.

As Plutarch once said, "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." For too long, history teachers have been filling their pupil's minds with facts; it's about time we began sparking their curiosity. For those that may question this teaching method, think about how much teenagers love to argue. They will literally argue about anything. Teaching history as choice gives them the agency to analyze the evidence and make a claim about what the best decision should have been at the time. Imagine the power, autonomy and buy-in that gives a student? (particularly one who has already "checked out")
Can a case really be made suggesting the American Revolution was a mistake? When you teach history as choice, you give your students the tools necessary to make up their own minds by analyzing multiple perspectives and finding evidence.

The book is organized into two parts. Part I covers the rationale for teaching history as choice. Part II provides the reader with 13 historical scenarios and essential questions to use Mr. Weltman's method. If you are interested in seeing a snippet of the book, use this link to see a Google Books preview.

Some of the essential questions and historical "what ifs" include:

  • Did the English in North America really need to conquer the Native Americans?
  • Was the American Revolution a mistake?
  • Was the Constitution a mistake?
  • Did the Missouri Compromise cause the Civil War?
  • Was the Civil War necessary or was the cost too high?
  • Why is there no socialism in the United States?
  • Was the Cold War necessary?
As you can see, some of these topics are rather controversial, but what better way to get students excited about history than by "teaching the controversy?" (as famous social studies teachers Alan Singer and James Loewen would say) The main point of these activities is to give students an opportunity to analyze the multiple perspectives of people living at the time through primary sources. For example, while we may assume (falsely) that the Loyalist's arguments for remaining loyal to the crown didn't have a firm foot to stand on, Weltman provides examples of some robust evidence that the American colonies might have in fact been better off not waging a war against their brethren from England and instead, maintained the paternal relationship until the colonies became too expensive for England to support, at which time, they would be granted their release without a bloody and expensive war. The point of these activities is not so much in "proving" one side right but rather to give students an opportunity to enhance the analytical and critical thinking skills that will serve them well beyond their schooling. 

This book goes beyond Weltman's method of teaching history as choice. He also includes a myriad of other social studies strategies such as:
  • Thematic approaches to the social studies
  • Avoiding "presentism"
  • Debating and public speaking
  • "Acting out" historical situations and other experiential activities
  • Comparing history: "bottom up" or "top down" approaches
  • Teaching with the textbook without teaching to the textbook
  • Teaching with children's literature
  • Teaching with music, art and poetry
  • Authentic assessments
Overall, I would highly recommend this book for teachers who like to challenge their students preconceived notions and are looking for ways to spice up their pedagogy. Burton Weltman does a fantastic job of challenging the traditional manner in which the social studies has been taught for years and I'm excited to use more of this method in my classes. 

If you like what you read here then I would suggest using the link below to purchase this book:


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