Strong student opinions overheard following controversial news events – Entrenched viewpoints during discussions in the hallways and before class – Tensions between students identifying with opposing groups. While these might be seen as fraught moments to be avoided by some, or difficulties to be subdued by others, for teachers of modern history perhaps these could also be seen as golden opportunities to connect current events to historical content and to help equip students to grapple meaningfully with their modern world. Besides, my students were peppering me with questions, and I decided I shouldn’t and couldn’t avoid it.
And from a history teaching perspective I could see that the questions they were asking me about which media outlets were to be believed and which were not, were questions which were equally relevant to the questioning of historical sources of evidence which is something they should be learning from the time they enter high school, if not before. When they leave my classroom for the final time at the end of the summer term, I want them to be able not just to recognise obvious bias in a historical source, but to be able to sift and weigh evidence, understanding that not all evidence carries the same value, and that evidence which is unreliable it one way may be useful in another. These are skills which are not only useful to them at university but prepare them to play their part in a healthy pluralistic democracy in later life.
As a basis for the class, I took the lesson plan outlined in the Parallel Histories blog post here and I supplemented the sources they supplied with a couple of my own which I thought would add helpful context for my students. This included the historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which I asked them to examine first on their own using the 10 documents provided for each side in the Parallel Histories program on Israel-Palestine here.
We started by examining the media sources in groups and trying to plot them onto a map with an x axis showing how pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian they were, and a y axis other showing how credible or less credible they were. I then asked a spokesperson from each group to explain their map to the rest of the class. This produced an interesting discussion about how we could assess bias and credibility and together we developed a set of criteria to use to help us make an informed judgement. As they built this list of criteria, they pretty quickly realised that many of its elements e.g., the tone of voice, language, the purpose of the news report, and the audience it was written for, were very much the same as the criteria I ask them to use to judge historical evidence.
The sourcing of historical documents is particularly a focus for Advanced Placement History classes in the US. It’s always a pleasing moment for teachers when they see their students recognising that the things they’re being taught in class have a universal application outside the classroom. Indeed the connections made not only between the sourcing activities of current and historical documents, but between the developments, processes and themes of current and historical events act with multiplied effect. Not only do students understand more the current event and how to critically analyse it, but they understand at a deeper level the historical event and the need to critically analyse it as well.
I then asked them to make a more detailed analysis of pairs of the sources using the criteria that we had agreed as class. I gave them sources with a pro-Palestinian and a pro-Israeli bias which were reporting on the same event and ask them to compare and contrast the sources looking at the authors decisions as to what information to include and what to omit, what different images the picture editors at the news outlet I’ve chosen to use to illustrate the story and how that might reveal the biases of the author. This was a very interesting exercise for the students because it showed them how different narratives can be spun without introducing factual inaccuracy but by simply picking some facts but not others and by choice of words and terminology.
Finally, I asked the students to reflect on how they received news about the world at the moment. Some students were able to map the news outlets they use on the two axes we had been using, because they receive the news from multiple outlets. But other students couldn’t do this because they get all their news from one place and therefore, they have no comparisons to make. This in itself was a learning for them.
I left five minutes at the end to collect their reflections on the lesson. It was the first time I’d taught it, so I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I was heartened by the very positive feedback, and I’ve included some of it below. They clearly enjoyed the lesson. There were several comments about needing more background knowledge in order to make a better judgement and I’m split on how to respond to this. On one hand how can more knowledge before making a judgement be a bad thing?! But on the other hand, we so often find ourselves in situations where we don’t have much background knowledge but still need to make judgements about the reliability and credibility of information. I’m still pondering over that one! But I’ll definitely run this lesson again with other classes.
At the end of the day it remains to be seen whether my students look at the reliability of the news sources they use, adopt new sources from alternative perspectives they had not considered before, or begin to take more notice of global events in terms of relating them to the current history they are looking at in class. But at the very least I’m hoping their tone with each other, as they share their passionate positions, may be tempered by the awareness that the sources they/we rely on should not go un-examined.
That, and the fact that “distant” events or developments, affect us all more than we realize.
I thought this lesson, the article, the graph, the sourcing activity, and the discussion were pretty helpful. I think it was good to learn more about how to determine if sources are credible or not and I think it was interesting to read about the different views on the Israel-Palestine war. I also thought the discussion in class was helpful and interesting to compare the various results from people in our class average and the other class averages. Overall I thought this lesson was kind of difficult, just because I don’t feel like I know much about the subject or how to determine credibility, but I think it was helpful and interesting.
Well, to start, I am a very opinionated individual, and this topic is no exception. I believe that the Israeli government, as mentioned many times in our class discussion is massacring Palestinian civilians on such a scale it warrants branding it as a terrorist organization itself, its motives being that of political land grabs and religious conquest of a predominantly Muslim land. I really did have a lot of fun doing this assignment, I would have loved to do one on Russia/Ukraine. I especially enjoyed the class discussion BEYOND that of the work, in my opinion that makes it much more engaging, and I would love to do more activities like this one.
In my opinion this activity was a good way for me to keep up with the times, and to learn about things that I previously had never thought about. Before I would have most likely skipped over any news about the Israel-Palestine conflict because I didn’t feel the urgency to look up all of the context and backstory of the conflict to understand what was going on. This current event assignment helped out a lot, and I think that it would be good to incorporate more in the future. For the assignment itself I think that there should be some examples or guidance of how to tell if a source is credible or not. When it came time for me to decide if my sources were credible (and to what degree), I felt like I put all of them higher than what they might actually be. But other than that I found the assignment quite enjoyable, and a good mixup from the regular curriculum.
Colin Baker is the US Editor at Parallel Histories and teaches AP European History. He is also the Associate Director of K-12 Outreach and Engagement Center for European Union, Transatlantic & Trans-European Space Studies (CEUTTSS) a European Union Jean Monnet Center of Excellence at Virginia Tech