What Does It Mean to Make Inferences? , pp. 7 of 9

Table 1: Steps in making inferences and guiding questions

Steps

Questions posed to students

Level 1a: Identifying the Inquiry focus.

What is the inquiry question asking you to uncover more about?

Level 1b: Reading the source(s) provided.

What is the message/meaning of the source provided?

Level 2: Summoning relevant contextual knowledge primary source.

What are might I know that is relevant to the inquiry question and primary source provided?

Level 3: Hybridising contextual knowledge and the primary source.

How does the primary source fit into what I already know about the past?

The class which went through this exercise presented a clear improvement in their overall ability to make cogent inferences. Attached in Annex I are a few examples of the final responses that students came up with. Of the class of 40, 32 of them were able to make an inference that was historically relevant and meaningful, and had backed up their inferences with the evidence from the source and their contextual knowledge. This was a large improvement from the previous exercise in which only 14 of the 40 students were able to achieve something similar having only been taught using an approach that focused primarily on the use of writing frameworks. Referring to the first piece of student response presented in Annex I, what could be seen in the student’s writing is a reference to his or her contextual knowledge, in which the student identified Batavia as a major port in the region based on the content knowledge from the Anglo-Dutch Rivalry that was discussed in the classroom. The student then used that knowledge to extrapolate and conclude that should Singapore have rivalled the leading port in the region, Batavia, it likely could serve as evidence to shed some light on the importance and success of Singapore as a trading port - thereby answering the inquiry question. However, it is important to note that this answer is built upon the understanding that Batavia was an important port, and therefore, as with the table above, by encouraging students to actively recall and factor in their contextual knowledge into their responses, it will only serve to improve the quality of student responses and likelihood of students drawing probable and persuasive inferences.

While this method does warrant further testing and refinement, it shows promise as a classroom tool to teach and assess inferences as it rewards and directly models the thought processes in which historians undergo when making cogent inferences, as opposed to merely demonstrating how to present those inferences. What is clear from this experience is that the inquiry approach has greater utility in the classroom and in formal assessment than is often given credit for. However, the potential of the inquiry approach in history can only be maximized if the process of designing and executing formal assessments is carried out with a clear reference to what the inquiry approach means in source-based work. This will thereby alter the way we ask questions in formal assessments, and correspondingly, the way we assess the skill of making inferences. However, the benefits to instruction in the classroom should not be passed on, especially since it presents an opportunity to more accurately model the process of drawing inferences than previously carried out.

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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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