What Does It Mean to Make Inferences? , pp. 4 of 9

The two common ways of drawing up the LORMS at the moment are either based around the outcomes of the inferences or the presentation of such inferences. The first type of LORMS often break down the various levels of responses according to the “main message” or “main inference”, as opposed to a lower level “sub-message” or “sub-inference”. Within such a scheme, the levels of response are drawn up based on the varying acceptability of the outcomes of the students’ attempts at making inferences. However, it does not actually assess the skill of making inferences for two key reasons. First, it rewards the outcomes, not the process of making inferences. In a simple analogy, if this were a driving test, the current LORMS will be rewarding students based on how far they can drive when we are supposed to be interested in how they drive. This is symptomatic of a frame of thinking that is reliant on deductive reasoning. Inferences falls into an alternative epistemic framework, that of inductive reasoning – rather than dealing with absolute truths, as is common in the empirical sciences, history can only present probable narratives based on the evidence that we have available. In short, deductive reasoning is concerned with certainty, but history uses inductive reasoning that is concerned with probabilities (Feeney & Evan, 2007).

While students are not required to be meta-cognitively aware of the difference in the two methodologies that they are required to toggle between in school, there is at the very least a need to be clear when establishing the LORMS that history is not a discipline that is built upon the same reasoning basis as that of the sciences. A LORMS that spreads out student responses according to the “message” and “sub-message” is, in effect, guilty of mapping students’ answers according to a set of response levels that is grounded in deductive reasoning, and one that attempts to create a fixed canon of acceptable and unacceptable responses without breaking down the thought processes that led to the conclusion of what is acceptable or not. The skill of making inferences has to be assessed along the lines of inductive reasoning, and points should not be rewarded for “right” or “less right” answers, but rather rewarded for students who took the steps to create more probable answers based on the evidence and contextual knowledge available.

The second type of LORMS builds itself around how a student writes and presents his or her inferences, and rewards the various levels according to the manner the response is presented, giving a higher level to a response that presents cohesive explanations and evidence as opposed to those that do not. This, too, does not actually reward the thought processes that goes on behind the skill of making inferences, but rather rewards the ability to write and present these inferences after they have been made. The two most common ways of rewarding points in formal assessment, unfortunately, do not actually reward points pertaining to the processes and moves behind making inferences.

Before constructing a more precise set of LORMS that models the probabilistic nature of inductive reasoning, there is a need to first examine the work of actual historians to draw inspiration as to what making inferences really entail. As mentioned earlier in this paper, it is often seen as a skill that is so basic and irreducible that historians and teachers alike do not delve further and question how inferences are actually being made. By examining the process of two different historians, separated by topic and era, hopefully we can further demonstrate and elucidate this issue. 

The first case is Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men (1992), in which he attempted to address the question of how did ordinary reservist men of the 101 Police Battalion from Germany get transformed into genocidal killers of the Einsatzgruppen. He observed from a piece of primary source that “among the Jews shot in our sector of town, there were almost no infants or small children,” and the primary source later added that “even in the face of death the Jewish mothers did not separate from their children”. Browning used this as a piece of evidence to establish the inference that at this early stage in the career of the German men of the 101 Police Battalion, they still subscribed to a pre-war moral code, and were not quite the senseless mass murderers that history remembered them for. Browning further illustrated his point with another eyewitness account that noted that the commanding officer of the 101 Police Battalion ordered a generous amount of alcohol to be made ready, further demonstrating how unsettling the act of shooting civilians was. All these inferences require sufficient contextual knowledge to be made. A historian will have to be aware of the role that alcohol plays in German society, and how it puts people at ease thereby extrapolating with an inference that the fact that these provisions were made most likely meant that that the men of the Police Battalion did not enjoy their assignment as of this early stage.

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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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