Classroom Conversation: The Use Of Discussion-Based Strategy In The History Classroom, pp. 6 of 10

Teacher facilitation is important in the discussion-based classroom. In one of my (mixed-ability) Secondary 4 history class, students discussed responsibility for the Korean War in 1950 using Compass Point as a discussion structure. Compass Point is a routine that can be used to help students make decisions pertaining to a specific issue. The class was divided into four groups with each group representing one country and their leader: North Korea and Kim Il Sung; South Korea and Syngman Rhee; the USSR and Stalin; the USA and Truman. At the end of the discussion, the group was to establish a defense of the country and leader they represented, and demonstrated why they should not be held responsible for the Korean War. Students were asked to engage in prior reading about their respective country/perspective and also to learn about the views of the other countries in order to defend the perspectives they were representing. When students came back for their discussion, I found that all groups knew the country and the leader that they were representing very well. They could pinpoint the causal factors that led to the person’s actions or events that happened. However, when it was time for each group to defend their leaders and why they should not be held responsible for the war, students were inadequately prepared as they lacked understanding of what other groups were doing. At this point, all groups were stuck and I had to intervene. I asked each group to prepare a two-minute summary of the country/leader they were representing, and to present it to the class. Groups that were not presenting had to listen and pen down questions or pointers that would help support their argument. At the end of the presentation, students realized that the tension that had led to the Korean War was partially due to different national agendas and the Cold War tension that existed between the USA and the USSR.

In this lesson, teacher intervention was necessary to give further scaffolding that allowed students to reach a consensus. The role of the teacher in this case was to identify the knowledge gap and to help students bridge the gap so that they were able to benefit from the collective knowledge that the class had developed to gain deeper insight. It also helped build students’ confidence level and students were able to articulate their point of view and construct an argument successfully.  This process promoted critical thinking because the new information provided by other groups created dissonance that students needed to reconcile in line with their existing knowledge. When students are able to reconcile disparate information to arrive at a new conclusion, they may be said to have successfully synthesized conflicting information into a kind of new knowledge that they have made their own.

At the end of the Korean War discussion, students left the class excited and curious. The question on my mind was whether my students had developed critical thinking skills and understood the role of historical facts in developing historical arguments. Were students able to understand the broader causal factors that led to the outbreak of the Korean War or were they merely concerned with the perspective they represented in the class discussion? Were students aware of the motivations of each of the leaders they represented? Did my lesson help students perform the “unnatural act” in historical thinking as defined by Wineburg? I decided to use formative assessment to check their understanding. In the following lesson, I asked students to respond to another inquiry question: Was the Korean War a civil war or a proxy war? I was pleasantly surprised to find that most students were able to explain the different perspectives, according to the roles each country played in causing the Korean War. Most of them came to the conclusion that the Korean War was both a civil and a proxy war because all the countries involved had their own motivation, and that to determine if the war was a civil or proxy war will depend on which perspective we take. Their conclusion answered all the questions and concerns that I had on my mind. Students did learn history and could apply their knowledge to a broader context. They could toggle between the global perspectives and individual country’s perspectives, and were also aware of the motivations behind each political leader. I felt that the students had been able to view the event in historical terms and to evaluate causal factors based on perspective and context.

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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