The Notables: Making Significant Historical Personalities Come Alive, pp. 2 of 8

Activating Students’ Ideas about Significant Figures

To teach the concept of significance it is first important to activate and engage ideas students may have about why some people are considered important to study and learn about in history (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000). Later, they can build on this knowledge by learning and applying criteria to help them evaluate whether certain people are significant and worthy of historical study.

To explore students’ initial ideas about significance, I have them consider the following questions:

  • Who has been a significant (or important) person in your life?
  • Who are the 3 significant people in history?
  • What makes the people you have identified significant?
  • How would you define significance?

Students also complete a timeline of their life to help them think about significant “milestones” in their development (see Figure 1: Timeline Activity). The purpose of this activity is to encourage students to think about significant markers in their life and why those might be considered noteworthy. This activity also requires them to interview family members to help them consider these points in their young lives and to create “All About Me” posters that highlight some of these significant milestones.

From these activities, we then consider other figures that students consider significant. Students will often name sports figures and athletes, current pop stars, political leaders, movie stars, and even family members. This allows for a discussion about what really makes someone significant. For example, students may think the pop star Justin Bieber is a significant figure but may have some difficulty explaining why or being able to make a convincing case for his significance. This is where criteria and a more sophisticated notion of significance can be introduced to get them to fully consider what makes certain people worthy of study.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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