Enhancing Students’ Understanding of Bi-Polarity in the History Classroom , pp. 9 of 13

Although it seems counter-intuitive to understand bi-polarity through the notion of change and continuity, an understanding of the latter might be useful in helping students achieve a nuanced understanding of Cold War developments. Indeed, the concept of bi-polarity has been largely “stable” insofar as the bi-polar competition between the USA and the USSR dominated the world order during the second half of the twenty-first century, but there were changes in-between which could be better illustrated through the lens of change and continuity. For instance, the Reagan administration has often been termed as the era of the “second Cold War” with the USSR. This enhanced understanding of the Cold War needs to be viewed through the lens of the limited successes brought about by détente. In other words, students would need to have a brief but substantiated conceptual understanding of American-Soviet relations in the 1970s in order to fully appreciate the dynamics of the Reagan-Gorbachev interactions in the 1980s.  

To help students achieve a historical understanding of bi-polarity during the Cold War, teachers would need to bring across to students a few key ideas. First, the ideological competition between the USA and the USSR never ceased during the course of the Cold War, even if there were brief moments of respite which allowed both superpowers to co-operate in some areas. Second, co-operation between both superpowers was more evident during the first few years after the Second World War and the decade after the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the moment of nuclear brinkmanship convinced both superpowers that a limited form of co-operation was necessary and viable. Third, the notion of bi-polarity was challenged in a few instances - the rise of the non-aligned movement in the 1950s and the Sino-Soviet split in 1961 meant that both democracy and communism were not monolithic movements and their dominance in the international discourse was constantly undermined. By conveying the subtleties of such changes to students, teachers will be able to help students see both the continuities and changes of the bi-polarity during the Cold War, and the ways in which such changes and continuities interacted. In doing so, students will be able to appreciate these changes as historically significant moments, as well as the interactions between the changes and continuities in superpower competition and relations during the Cold War.

The idea of change and continuity could be conveyed through the following activity which teachers could carry out with students:

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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