Why Historical Source Analysis Skills matter to the 2016 Presidential Election (plus a pre-assessment!)

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There’s obviously lots of talk these days about how the American public is under-educated, and how schools are largely failing to prepare students to be informed and productive members of society. We hear quite a bit about how American students lag behind students worldwide in math and science. And we also hear a lot about how improving STEM education in schools will better prepare students for “the jobs of tomorrow.” And maybe it will (I’m sure it will). But I want to talk about how to prepare kids to vote. Because what will prepare kids to vote is History class.

I’m not trying to downplay the importance of a strong math and science education when I say this, but the reason that so many people vote contrary to their own interests (or those of the public), is not that they aren’t good at algebra. As far as citizenship and civics are concerned, math and science aren’t the issue. The problem with American democracy, instead, is this:

We Americans are not critical consumers of information.

I haven’t done any formal studies, but I’d wager a guess that most Americans can’t really assess the reliability of a source. They weren’t taught how to assess source perspective or bias, and they wouldn’t know political propaganda from an ad for select-a-size paper towels. Maybe this isn’t true of your friends, neighbors, or coworkers. But I’ll bet you my measly teacher salary that it’s true of lots of other people. (It’s certainly true of me a lot of the time!)

While I don’t blame the American people at large for this, I do want to remind History teachers, specifically: Is it not our job to teach students how to read critically? To understand that in fact EVERY source has a bias? That EVERY source is a result of author context and purpose? That EVERY source has an agenda? That EVERYONE is trying to sell you something?

History teachers do students a disservice when we stand up in front of a class, lecture as if we are gods, and give students “A”s if and only if they repeat back to us our morsels of profound wisdom. By doing this we teach them that authority = reliability. And then we’re surprised and disappointed when they believe what they hear politicians and advertisements and talking heads telling them.

History students should be taught to be skeptics, to question the textbook, to doubt what their teachers say, and in short, to consider the source. If we were all such history students, we would be better citizens and better voters.

…so now on that note, a Common-Core-aligned pre-assessment to help you determine just how good your students are at doing just that! This pre-assessment is designed to determine how well your students understand that author origin and purpose shape source content and message. Ideally, the sources you choose would be two sources on the same topic. Since I’ll be working on unit about colonial America, my sources deal with the Pequot War. But this exercise would be equally suited for source material on immigration reform, Social Security, reproductive rights, and the list goes on. It’s available on Teachers Pay Teachers!

Okay, that’s all for now! Vote wisely, friends! Don’t trust anything anyone says! Doubt! Be skeptical! Be a good history student!

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