Teaching Students About Historical Significance

How can educators push their students to think past a static understanding of history in developmentally appropriate ways? This teacher offers some insights from his classroom.


What makes something or someone in history significant?

In my middle school history classes, understanding this question is at the heart of our learning. Asking it of my students inevitably leads to fascinating discussions about perspectives, bias and representation—exactly the conversations I want them to be having. We return to the question throughout the year to remind ourselves that what matters from the past is always up for debate. Indeed, many students’ struggles to develop their historical thinking skills can be traced back to the pernicious belief that history is a fixed, objective set of facts rather than a collection of historians’ interpretations and analyses. The challenge for history teachers is how to push students’ thinking past this static concept of the past in ways that are developmentally appropriate and explicit.

Cause and Effect

Students quickly arrive at the idea that something or someone is significant if it/they “did something important.” In this line of thinking, George Washington is significant for leading the country through the Revolutionary War, or the Battle of Gettysburg is significant as a turning point in the Civil War. The impact is clear, and students can capably reduce these well-known aspects of the past into simple “domino effect” relationships by the time they reach middle school.

To begin complicating their sense of causation, I introduce them to this chart that lists 28 different phrases for expressing cause-and-effect relationships. (For an elementary class, this chart could easily be reduced to fewer terms.) Now, the discussion gets down in the weeds and forces students to evaluate their criteria for significance. Different events and people come into focus. For example, the Emancipation Proclamation may have “set the stage for” a federal ban on slavery, but the work of activists within the abolitionist movement “highlighted” the injustice of slavery, “demonstrated” the breadth of support for abolitionism and “helped bring about” the end of slavery.

Although students intuitively understand that historical events and figures make varying contributions to history and have different impacts, it can be difficult for them to demonstrate a mature grasp of those relationships. This is due, I think, to a lack of sufficient language for expressing causes and effects. Asking students to choose from a list of 28 (and it could easily be more) phrases makes the diversity of available relationships explicit; it also allows them to see that historians are making choices about what matters by virtue of the actual words they use.

Working with this document has allowed my students to see and articulate different ways of thinking about historical significance. For example, the Industrial Revolution can stand on its own for “paving the way” to the United States’ industrial power, but it can also “reveal” harsh working conditions, “give rise to” the mistreatment of immigrants and “catalyze” the women’s rights movement. The event’s significance obviously changes if we look at it through different lenses or if we use different language to describe it. New kinds of questions emerge. What kinds of responses do we get if we ask students what the Industrial Revolution “gave rise to” versus what it “created the conditions for”? Building conversation and designing assessment around the chart pushes students to debate about how to write history and how to explain the complex and competing narratives of the past.

Bias Detection

Once students have started to embrace the idea that nothing in the past is fixed, they are ready for discussions of bias and injustice. Thinking through a variety of ways to express cause and effect quickly brings up conversations about bias because students begin to see that different historical language means emphasizing different factors and stories. In my classroom, I spend so much time talking about bias with my students that they’ve joked that I have a “bias toward bias.” I also emphasize considering alternative viewpoints, multiple perspectives and divergent narratives, while learning to be aware of bias.

An anti-bias approach in the history classroom—meaning that students are trained to be aware of stereotypes, to interrogate overly reductive history, and to study the contributions and actions of marginalized groups—is likely appealing to most teachers. The challenge is that students need concrete strategies for articulating their critical thinking around bias. Armed with a varied set of cause-and-effect vocabulary, students can investigate, interrogate and push back against accounts of history that seek to perpetuate a certain viewpoint or set of ideas. They can broaden the conversation about the past to include the contributions of others and investigate competing narratives. Learning to use a variety of ways to express cause-and-effect relationships fosters the development of bias detection and awareness.

It all comes back to vocabulary.

Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach him on Twitter @jonathansgold.

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More