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Makeover Column VII: Engaging Students to Retain Important Facts About the Past While Making Learning About the Past Meaningful

James A. Diskant, Ph.D.


     A March exchange on the AP-World Listerv about what, if any, facts students retain from high school history courses has led me to re-confirm the kinds of choices that teachers need to make in designing the courses that we teach, the roles that we need to have as teachers, and the assessments that we should utilize to allow students to demonstrate what they have learned. On the one hand, we know that students remember few facts a year or two after they supposedly learn them, and yet on the other hand we express disappointment and dismay when students do poorly on standardized tests. We all have our own anecdotes about what we forgot or how poorly we did on such tests and how our former students forgot all those facts that we taught them. So we debate about facts … what facts should students remember? Should they retain any? How we teach them "facts" (consider the image of an empty jug of water and how many facts we can pour into it)? Yes, I'm a proponent of students learning facts. How else can they understand cause and effect, as well as consequences of particular events, without knowing facts? Yet I also admit that certain facts do not come immediately to me (there are simply too many to remember everything!) and I feel quite free to say to my students that I'll look into something and let them know the next day.

     In this column I want to raise more questions about different kinds of facts and humbly suggest some possible answers to this problem, along the lines of some of the issues that I raised in my previous columns about engaging students to learn about communities, politics, and values, as well as how students come to care about what they learn in class (See columns I, II, III & IV). After all, facts are important, but context and skills will likely be better retained. The AP Listserv discussion in March of this year highlighted some of these issues: skill building, enthusiasm for learning, different approaches between U.S. schools and European schools. I suppose that I put myself in the middle of this discussion: some facts do matter and skills-acquisition (is that the right word?) matters as well. Just to list a few situations: imagine that we do not know anything about Islam or anything about Christianity (the facts). How, then, will the 12th and 13th century Crusades make sense? Imagine that we do not know anything about shipbuilding and Confucian values (again more facts). How will the 15th century choices of the Ming government to limit trade make sense? Imagine that we do not know anything about imperial values of European leaders and the interests of African chiefs (again those essential facts). How will the Atlantic slave trade make sense?

     So what are facts? According to there are 5 definitions:


something that actually exists; reality; truth: Your fears have no basis in fact.


something known to exist or to have happened: Space travel is now a fact.


a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true: Scientists gather facts about plant growth.


something said to be true or supposed to have happened: The facts given by the witness are highly questionable.


Law. Often, facts. an actual or alleged event or circumstance, as distinguished from its legal effect or consequence. Compare question of fact, question of law.

     Some facts are not disputed among historians: typically dates, names, places, battles, and treaties. Other facts, particularly concepts, ideas, and peoples' values, may be more open to interpretation. What should we—as teachers of history and historians—expect our students to know and remember, and how should we accomplish that momentous task? My rhetorical questions in the previous paragraph only serve to make my perspective clear: that some facts are important to retain if they are connected to higher level thinking. Another example: what good is it to remember that George Washington served as president from 1789 until 1797, unless we also remember that he was a military general who had little interest in being president, or that he wanted to be remembered for his opposition to an "imperial" presidency that divided American politicians in the 18th century. Which facts are more important: dates or concepts? I think that we get not bogged down in this discussion by our tacit acceptance that students should remember the minutia of information, when of course we know as educators that assumption is completely ridiculous. Let's try to move the discussion where it needs to go and to take the power away from test-takers who focus on the narrowest of facts instead of where it should be: on concept-building and the retention of ideas.

     If we can accept that some facts are, in fact, important for retention, how do we teach them effectively? First, we need to be honest to our students and to share how we learn or learned (even if some of us are those who did remember "all of the facts"!). Second, we need to acknowledge the obvious: some of this "stuff" may be boring even to us and there is just too much to remember. Third, we need to teach in a way that encourages multiplicity of learning styles. Finally, we need show that other approaches are viable and reasonable by allowing for fairer assessment that is connected with instruction.

     The first and second points are connected to one another: honest conversation goes a long way, I would suggest. When I share with my students that I did poorly on the SAT and that I do poorly on multiple tests for particular reasons that I have now figured out and yet now have a doctorate in history, I am taken more seriously than if they simply assume I expect them to remember countless facts, as I did (which I am not sure that I did, although I still remember some highly obscure facts about German labor history!). Second, let's not kid ourselves: some of what we must teach may not interest us particularly and some of those details may be hard for us to remember, so why not share that information with our students? Why do we create the pretence that we are interested in everything equally or have better retention skills than they do, when most often we don't?

     The third and fourth points are also connected to one another. We must focus on active learning as much as possible and ensure that our assessments flow from that assumption. Thus, students should be fairly assessed on projects, essays, and debates; assessments that both have rubrics and are directly tied to instruction. Not only does this allow more students to rise to the occasion, but it allows students to illustrate their knowledge of facts that matter in the real world, as well as enhance their presentation skills. If we do this, we are accomplishing the most important modeling skill that students need to acquire: facts do not exist in isolation. Rather, facts are part of a big picture where knowledge can and should be shared with others.

     The following example of a culminating activity that was worth 10% of my tenth graders' Term Grade illustrates these points well. In the tenth grade course (see Column VI for the syllabus) we had recently spent a considerable amount of time looking at President Lincoln's leadership skills. The big unit, however, was that of comparative nationalist movements, with examples that included Britain, France, the new Germany, and Russia. At the last minute I toyed with adding China, since it was an obvious comparison, but decided that without adequate time, it would be too rushed. The activity allowed students to demonstrate their grasp of certain facts in context and be assessed appropriately.

     So I created the following project (see addenda A, B, and C for its guidelines and rubric): students were already familiar with Dr. Propaganda (see previous column) and with the advice of my two colleagues Randi Stern (with whom I brainstormed the idea) and Clara Webb (who used the idea of Report Cards in a ninth grade course and provided me with the online link). I then encouraged them to "compete" for Dr. Propaganda's Award (a $10 gift certificate to Barnes and Noble, which they didn't know until the contest was over!). While having students compete for an award was a new teaching approach for me and didn't necessarily fit into my cooperative sense of learning, I do think that it is akin to the science contests with which my students are quite familiar, as well as to history contests that motivate students at other schools.

     They did a fabulous job. I have never heard as many fascinating presentations, seen as many great posters, and counted as many A's (in one class of 26 there were 4!) as I did with this project. Most students guessed who the winner was in one class: one of my quietest, hardworking, and conscientious students received a 100. The same girl who won the last time did so in the other class. She "graded" her leaders with precision and showed both her knowledge and creativity, and received the other 100. While I am not personally be a big fan of competitive activities, students like them and they brought the best work for some of them. Afterwards the post activities (see addenda D & E) allowed us to weigh the criteria of leadership more carefully.

     Perhaps the question should not be: "Should students learn facts?" but rather "What is the purpose of learning certain facts and how is best accomplished?" If we focus on the latter question, we are inevitably brought to a cooperative teaching and learning style, as we assist students in their on-going effort to grasp important lessons from our collective past in meaningful world history courses. If we can accomplish that task, we have in fact (I couldn't resist using that expression!) accomplished a great deal. We have fostered skills development, content development, and the reaffirmation of the skills needed to become life-long learners: curiosity, enthusiasm, and knowledge about the complex world in which we live.

Biographical Note: James A. Diskant, Ph.D., teaches at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury (Boston), Massachusetts, and was a Program Associate at the former World History Center at Northeastern University in Boston, from 1999 until it closed in 2003. He continues to keep the Center's ideas alive through teaching, writing curriculum, and participating in a Book Group, and hopes that the Center will find a new home in the Greater Boston area in the near future. He can be reached at

Addendum A:

United States and World History II
Dr. Diskant
Nationalism in the Post-1848 World: Leadership Skills' Report Cards

     Imagine that it is the fall of 1880 and that you are a famous political scientist living in the United States and proud that your country had had one of the best leaders in the 1860's: President Abraham Lincoln. You want to learn more about leaders in two of the following empires: France, Germany, Great Britain, and Russia to see if any of those leaders come close to possessing the skills of the former president:

  • French Emperor Louis Napoleon, 1849-1870
  • German Chancellor Prince Otto von Bismarck, 1871-1890
  • British Prime Minister William Gladstone, 1868-1874 & 1880-1886, and
  • Russian Tsar Alexander II, 1855-1881

     You learn that Dr. Propaganda, the editor-in-chief of Reform is having a contest for a visual description of political leadership's report cards! Since the honorarium for the winner of this contest is a quite high (and obviously secret!) amount of money, you immediately decide to enlist your creativity to submit a proposal. Time is short, and you learn the following:

     First, you must focus on the following skills of leadership to evaluate:

  1. Ability to balance competing interests
  2. Dedication to a national cause
  3. Level of Intelligence
  4. Use of new technologies
  5. Listening skills, and
  6. Willingness to accept change,

     Second, your must meet the following parameters:

  • You must use poster-quality paper no smaller than 2.5 ft by 2.08 ft to display your report cards, abstract, and art work.
  • You must illustrate your report cards through a drawing or cut outs from magazines or photographs (with proper citation, of course!).
  • Your abstract must be one page, typed, double-spaced 12 point Times New Roman font analyzing your report cards.
  • You must include a title for your report cards, which should be prominently displayed among the top of the poster.

     Finally, the following deadlines must be met:

  1. Submit your proposal: a one paragraph explanation by Friday, February 15th
  2. Submit your rough draft abstract by Monday, February 25th AND
  3. Submit your poster by Friday, February 29th


Addendum B: Rubric for the Report Card Project






Required Elements

The poster includes all required elements as well as additional information.

All required elements are included on the poster.

All but 1 of the required elements is included on the poster.

Several required elements were missing.

Written Components

All items of importance on the poster are clearly labeled with labels that can be read from 3 ft away. The abstract clearly analyzes the report cards.

Almost all items of importance on the poster are clearly labeled with labels that can be read from at least 3 ft. away. The abstract explains some of the report cards.

Some items of importance are clearly labeled with labels that can be read from at least 3 ft. away. The abstract somewhat describes report cards.

Labels are too small to view OR no important items were labeled. The abstract does not describe the report cards.

Graphics - Relevance

All graphics are related to the topic and make it easier to understand. The graphics are historically accurate and relate to the report cards.

All graphics are related to the topic and most make it easier to understand. The graphics are historically accurate and relate to the report cards.

Most graphics relate to the topic. The graphics are mostly historically accurate and relate to the report cards.

Graphics do not relate to the topic OR the graphics are not historically accurate nor relate to the report cards.


The poster is exceptionally attractive in terms of design, layout, and neatness.

The poster is attractive in terms of design, layout and neatness.

The poster is acceptable though it may be a bit messy.

The poster is distractingly messy or very poorly designed. It is not attractive.


There are no grammatical/mechanical mistakes on the poster.

There are 1-3 grammatical/mechanical mistakes on the poster.

There are 4-6 grammatical/mechanical mistakes on the poster.

There are more than 6 grammatical/mechanical mistakes on the poster.


Addendum C:

United States and World History II
Dr. Diskant
Nationalism in the Post-1848 World: Leadership Skills' Report Cards:
Additional Guidelines

     As you know Dr. Propaganda wants you to grade two of the following rulers:

  • French Emperor Louis Napoleon, 1849-1870
  • German Chancellor Prince Otto von Bismarck, 1871-1890
  • British Prime Minister William Gladstone, 1868-1874 & 1880-1886, and
  • Russian Tsar Alexander II, 1855-1881

     1. Use the 6 categories that we discussed for President Lincoln to do so:

  • Ability to balance competing interests
  • Dedication to a national cause
  • Level of Intelligence
  • Use of new technologies
  • Listening skills, and
  • Willingness to accept change,

     2. As you do so, think about these questions when you assess their roles:

  • What were the goals of each leader?
  • How did they demonstrate and use their power?
  • What were their successes and failures?
  • What things did they do that were unique or interesting?

     3. Organize your evidence to determine what he achieved (or did not achieve) in each category.

  • Use the textbook, your homework, and the handouts to find information, and
  • Do additional research

     4. Assign each man a grade in each category.

     5. Write comments for each grade.

  • Explain why he earned that grade in that particular category.

For more information, see


Addendum D:

United States and World History II
Dr. Diskant
Reflections on Political Leadership and
Predictions of Post Civil-War United States

Part One: Brainstorming (10 minutes)

     Think about the presentations that you heard: "Nationalism in the Post-1848 World: Leadership Skills' Report Cards" and the categories that your classmates used to assess world leaders:

  • Ability to balance competing interests
  • Dedication to a national cause
  • Level of Intelligence
  • Use of new technologies
  • Listening skills, and
  • Willingness to accept change
  1. Which groups of skills appeared to be more important than others? Why?
  2. What skills were missing and should have been included? Why?

Part Two: Partner Sharing (10 minutes)

     Share your thoughts with the people at your table and see if you can come up with common answers to be ready to share with the class.

Part Three: Predictions of Post Civil-War United States (20 minutes)

     With those at your table, think about the interests of President Lincoln, the leaders of the Republican Party, leaders of the two wings of the Democratic Party, and the former slaves, as well as the conditions of the United States at the end of the war:

  1. What challenges will Lincoln have to meet the goals of the larger purpose of the war?
  2. What issues will make it hard to implement positive changes?
  3. If you had lived then and you were interested in making changes, what advice can you give the president?


Addendum E:

Quick Quiz:
Reflections on Political Leadership and
Predictions of Post Civil-War United States
6 Points

  1. On the one hand, a majority of participants in Dr. Propaganda's contest on leadership skills rewarded highest grades to Prince von Bismarck. For what two reasons?

  2. On the other hand, a large minority rewarded Tsar Alexander II or Prime Minister Gladstone the highest grades. For what two reasons?

  3. Meanwhile the United States President Abraham Lincoln continued to be used as a model of effective leadership; what two challenges will he have to rebuild once the Union won the war in April of 1865?



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