The Notables: Making Significant Historical Personalities Come Alive, pp. 3 of 8

Defining Significance and Criteria for Significance

The concept of significance has individual meaning for all of us, but since it is a key history and social studies concept it should be defined with specific criteria that can be used to guide and structure students’ work.  This can be done together with students with everyone agreeing to and having a sense of ownership of the criteria. Here is how the process “unfolds” in my classroom.

Together we discuss what they think makes the people they have listed in the above activities significant. In small groups students come up with 3-4 statements to describe why these people are significant. They then share these statements with the class. To help them consider criteria that the whole class might use to determine significance we refer to dictionary definitions of significance. For example, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary for Students at Word Central ( defines significance as: “the quality of being of notable worth or influence” and lists importance as a synonym.

Since dictionary definitions, such as this one, may still be vague for students, I share with my students characteristics used by Peter Seixas. Using Seixas’ (2006) criteria, a significant person has:

  • made a deep and important contribution or change
  •  affected a large number of people
  • had a lasting effect over a long period of time

A significant person’s life may also help us understand something important about the past or shed light on issues or problems that concerns us today. For example, Seixas (1996) notes that the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (1990) made the life of Martha Ballard, an 18th century midwife in a small town in Maine, a significant figure because she was able to demonstrate how Ballard’s life shed light on important social patterns and issues of that period. Historians, then, demonstrate the ways individuals are significant because of the contributions they made, the changes they helped bring about, or the impact they had. They also help us make “connections between historical events and issues of concern in our own time” (Seixas, 1996, p. 769).

As a whole class we “unpack” these criteria to help students consider what might constitute an important contribution, a lasting effect over a long period of time, and how studying someone’s life in the past might help us understand something important about the past or the present. We post the definition and criteria of significance in the classroom for all students to reference as they work through the next step of choosing a significant or notable person. We then “test” these criteria by applying them to a range of contemporary figures that students are familiar with by asking, “Which ones meet the criteria? Which ones do not? Why or why not?” For example, we might discuss whether the Formula One racer Lewis Hamilton and the boxer Muhammad Ali are historically significant figures (a case for Muhammad Ali as a significant historical figure can be made) or whether the pop singer Justin Bieber or Elvis Presley are more likely to be considered significant (Elvis, yes; Justin, no).

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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