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February 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 5

How to Facilitate Discussions in History

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Instructional Strategies
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I watched a 6th grade boy's jaw drop. "Wait a minute. Did you just say Thomas Jefferson owned slaves? After he wrote all that? I'm confused." A wave of muttered agreement rippled across the room.
"It certainly is confusing!" the teacher affirmed. The students had just spent 20 minutes reading and dissecting an anti-slavery grievance that Jefferson tried to insert into the Declaration of Independence. The passage blamed King George for violating the "most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him."
"Why would Jefferson write this grievance if he owned slaves?" the teacher asked. "Do you think he opposed slavery?"
This head-scratching contradiction presents an entryway into true historical thinking. What were Jefferson's views on slavery? How do we begin to fathom how people thought and behaved centuries ago?
History presents us with many such contradictions. Whole-class discussions allow students to explore these tensions, examine historical texts from multiple vantage points, and enter what I call the "historical problem space." But how can teachers facilitate discussions that bring students into this space?
One thing is certain: It takes more than the documents. As both a researcher and a teacher educator, I've spent the past seven years working with teachers across the United States who have been using the Reading Like a Historian curriculum, a series of online document-based lessons in U.S. and world history offered by the Stanford History Education Group. Each lesson in the curriculum features open-ended historical questions that can be answered with the documents in the lesson. The teachers I work with are deeply committed to engaging students in historical thinking and developing their literacy skills. And yet, they regularly confess that they struggle to facilitate discussions, even when they have appropriate resource materials.
They're not alone. One large-scale study of 8th and 9th grade English classrooms found little evidence of classroom discussion—and the authors defined discussion as a mere 30 seconds of student talk (Nystrand & Gamoran, 1997). In a more recent study, I videotaped more than 100 document-based classroom lessons, but found only nine examples of text-based historical discussion (Reisman, 2015).
The reality is that it's hard to make such discussions work. Kids can be shy, and time is short. Historical documents are tough to understand. But recent scholarship on whole-class discussion has shed light on a number of practices that can foster and sustain text-based student discourse. Here I discuss two practices that pertain to whole-class discussion across subject areas and two that are specific to history.

Cross-Disciplinary Practice #1: Orienting Students to One Another

Whether the subject is math, science, language arts, or social studies, a teacher who wishes to promote in-depth classroom discourse must explicitly orient students to one another (see Kazemi & Cunard, 2017). Students must not only respond to the teacher, but also acknowledge and build on one another's ideas. Researchers have noted that productive discussions are associated with a teacher's use of uptake moves—that is, when the teacher incorporates a student's comment into a follow-up question (Nystrand & Gamoran, 1997). Others have identified additional moves that support students in attending to one another's ideas. For example, a teacher can ask, "Does anyone agree or disagree with [student]?" or "Who wants to build on [student]'s point?" Similarly, the teacher might simply ask one student to repeat another student's claim (Michaels, O'Connor, Hall, & Resnick, 2013).
I've worked with many teachers who have developed helpful ways to orient students to one another. One teacher designed a bookmark with a range of sentence starters that students could consult depending on whether they wished to agree, disagree, paraphrase, clarify, or build on another student's comment. Another teacher projected a T-chart or continuum representing the various positions that students could hold in a particular discussion. For instance, one T-chart was divided into two sections—one for students who thought Pocahontas saved John Smith and the other for students who thought she did not. In another case, the teacher asked students to decide where the New Deal fell on a continuum from success to failure. Students indicated their stance by taping an index card with their name written on it to the board. More important, students were invited to change their position as they encountered new evidence.
All of these techniques communicate to students that the work of understanding is collective and that their own understanding will be enriched by listening, challenging, and building on their classmates' ideas.

Cross-Disciplinary Practice #2: Orienting Students to the Text

Rigorous discussions require evidence. In historical discussions, teachers who want their students to base their claims in evidence must continually orient them to documents. At a minimum, such a practice involves ensuring that students comprehend the gist of a given text (for instance, "What is the main argument in Document A?") and pressing students to ground their claims in evidence from the text ("Can you find evidence in the document to support your argument that Lincoln believed in equality?"). In many classrooms, orienting students to the text demands dogged insistence on the part of the teacher, as in the example below from an 11th grade class discussion about Abraham Lincoln:
Teacher: John, what did your group say?
John: That he was racist.
Teacher: Why?
John: Because of the way he talks about the slaves.
Teacher: Where?
John: Because the way he talks bad about them like they're not equal.
Teacher: Do you have a certain document or quote?
John: No.
Teacher: We need that evidence. Where does he specifically say they're not equal? [Pause]
John: He says, "I as well as Judge Douglas am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position."
At first glance, a teacher who orients students to the text in a historical discussion about Abraham Lincoln sounds a lot like a teacher who orients students to the text in a literary discussion about The Great Gatsby or a scientific discussion about the extinction of bees (see Kavanagh & Rainey, 2015). In all cases, the teacher wants students to substantiate their claims with evidence. But whereas the literature teacher might want students to uncover universal truths about humanity, and the science teacher might want students to understand how environmental changes affect different species, the history teacher would want students to understand what happened in the past. Each goal determines how the teacher steers discussion around texts.
When we consider what questions students are discussing and why some interpretations are more warranted than others, we begin to differentiate disciplinary discussions in history from those in other subjects. It's important to attend to these disciplinary distinctions if we want discussions to deepen students' subject-matter learning.

Disciplinary Practice #1: Designing a Compelling Central Historical Question

A key distinction between text-based discussions in history and other subjects lies in the question students discuss. Most document-based history lessons are organized around central questions. But just because a lesson has a central historical question doesn't mean it invites student discussion. I've found that evaluative questions that ask students to judge a historical actor or event are most likely to launch whole-class discussions. The trick is to develop evaluative questions that remain closely tied to the documents.
Consider an example from the Reading Like a Historian curriculum (Reisman, 2012a, b; Wineburg, Martin, & Monte-Sano, 2011). I coached two 6th grade teachers who were preparing to teach the lesson about John Brown, the abolitionist whose failed raid of the federal arsenal in 1859 tipped an already-divided nation into the Civil War. The lesson included two documents: Brown's final speech before he was hanged and an excerpt from Frederick Douglass's autobiography, written in 1888, claiming that he advised Brown not to conduct the raid because it was doomed to fail. The existing central historical question asked whether John Brown was a "misguided fanatic" (a term President Lincoln used to describe him).
The teachers wanted to revise the question because they worried they would waste too much class time defining the term "misguided fanatic." They initially proposed a number of alternative questions: Was John Brown a terrorist or a patriot? Was John Brown's raid justified? Is violence ever justified?
I counseled against all three. Although these alternatives were evaluative questions that students would find engaging, none pointed students back to the documents. The first hinged on how one defines "terrorist" or "patriot." The question asked students to evaluate the act of raiding a federal arsenal, rather than to use the documents to better understand the context. The second two questions appealed to students' moral judgment rather than their interpretation of text. To be sure, all three questions are important, ethical questions that deserve to be discussed, but I always recommend that ethical questions follow text-based questions. One needs knowledge to judge wisely.
We settled on "Was John Brown's plan a terrible idea?" The question targeted the core tension between the documents. The text showed that John Brown clearly did not think his plan was terrible. Frederick Douglass, writing with hindsight, did. I watched as 6th grade students immersed themselves in the sophisticated and poignant task of exploring what avenues for reform were available to abolitionists in 1859. It was a well-framed question that helped bring students into the historical problem space.

Disciplinary Practice #2: Stabilizing the Content

Teachers face a second—and arguably more difficult—challenge in facilitating historical discussions: ensuring historical accuracy. In this sense, they must walk a fine line. On the one hand, they must create a space where students feel safe to participate and share emergent interpretations and hypotheses. On the other hand, teachers must ensure that the discussion proceeds on the basis of accurate information. A discussion about President Wilson's motives for entering World War I cannot move in a productive direction if students are unclear why the United States opposed Germany. When teachers detect widespread confusion about the topic or text under discussion, they must stabilize the content by pausing to review or clarify essential information.
Stabilizing the content is particularly important in discussions about the past because we struggle to appreciate the intricate ways that it differs from the present. In our effort to understand the past and render it familiar, we often make assumptions about how people thought or behaved that simply do not square with historical facts. It's understandable that students would want to imbue historical actors with moral standards that reflect their own convictions, but in many cases doing so precludes historical understanding.
By stabilizing the content, a teacher can take a brief moment to re-center the discussion in the past. Consider this discussion, in which several 6th grade students had insisted that John Brown could have achieved the same ends by marching on Washington or signing a petition. Here's how the teacher responded when another student claimed the Civil War would have happened without the raid:
Crystal: John Brown shouldn't have done that because the Underground Railroad was working and sooner or later the Civil War would have happened.
Teacher: But in 1859, did anyone know that the Civil War would happen?
Multiple Students: No.
Teacher: It's 1859. Slavery has been going on for years. The federal government isn't doing anything to solve the problem. They ignored it in the Constitutional Convention, and now they're just making compromises to appease people. So in 1859, nothing is happening, and John Brown decides to do something. The question is—do we think it was a terrible idea?
It's important to note that in this instance, students had studied the events the teacher referred to—the preservation of slavery in the Constitution, the escalating tension over slavery, and the compromises that attempted to maintain a delicate balance between slave states and free states. By stabilizing the content, the teacher merely reminded students of what they knew and signaled that their job was to integrate this knowledge into their interpretation of the texts.
A teacher can also stabilize the content when it appears that students misunderstand a particular text. I observed an 11th grade discussion about Texas Independence in which students struggled to make sense of a pamphlet written by an abolitionist who feared that independence was a ploy to bring another slave state into the union. Upon discovering that students did not grasp the author's argument, the teacher put the discussion on hold and asked students to consider the author's perspective—pointing to excerpts from the text and familiar historical events, such as the Missouri Compromise.
Many teachers understandably hesitate to stabilize the content for fear that they will quash students' confidence or stifle momentum. I have not found that to be the case, but in all instances, it's important to wait to see whether another student will introduce relevant historical context and push back on the inaccuracy. Indeed, stabilizing the content should not be used as a method for correcting every misconception students introduce into the discussion—such an approach surely would be demoralizing.
But when a teacher hears that the class shares a misunderstanding or misinterpretation that threatens to lead students away from rich text-based historical understanding, stabilizing the content can be a useful method for correcting course.

More Than Magic

Good discussions have little to do with magic and everything to do with careful planning and pedagogical savviness. Yes, sometimes students in one class are chattier and more energetic than those in another, just as an otherwise-routine lesson sometimes prompts a spontaneous, lively discussion. But more often than not, substantive discussions occur because teachers have a clear sense of how they want students to engage with the text, with one another, and with the content. By identifying practices that support text-based discussion, we can increase the likelihood of hearing students' voices and ideas.
It's certainly worth the effort. As one 11th grader described discussions in his history class, "It's like we're forced to actually think. We're forced to actually read and really just contextualize everything. It just makes your mind work much more than it did in the past."

Kavanagh, S. S., & Rainey, E. (November 2015). Considering disciplinary literacy in ELA: Literacy practices, instruction, and approaches to teacher education. Presented at the annual meeting of the Literacy Research Association, Carlsbad, CA.

Kazemi, E., & Cunard, A. (2017). Orienting students to one another and to the mathematics during discussions. In S. Marx (Ed.). Qualitative research in STEM: Studies of equity, access, and innovation. New York: Routledge.

Michaels, S., O'Connor, M. C., Hall, M. W., & Resnick, L. B. (2013). Accountable talk sourcebook: For classroom conversation that works. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh.

Nystrand, M., & Gamoran, A. (1997). The big picture: Language and learning in hundreds of English lessons. In M. Nystrand, A. Gamoran, R. Kaachur, and C. Predergast. Opening dialogue: Understanding the dynamics of language and learning in the English classroom (pp. 30–74). New York: Teachers College Press.

Reisman, A. (2012a). The "Document-Based Lesson:" Bringing disciplinary inquiry into high school history classrooms with adolescent struggling readers. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 44(2), 233–264.

Reisman, A. (2012b). "Reading like a historian:" A document-based history curriculum intervention in urban high schools. Cognition and Instruction, 30(1), 86–112.

Reisman, A. (2015). Entering the historical problem space: Whole-class, text-based discussion in history class. Teachers College Record, 117(2), 1–44.

Wineburg, S., Martin, D., & Monte-Sano, C. (2011). Reading like a historian. New York: Teachers College Press.

Abby Reisman is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Her research centers on the design of curriculum materials, teacher education, and professional development for teaching document-based historical inquiry. She has been working with Prince William County social studies teachers for nearly a decade.

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