Editing the Textbook: A Lesson in Critical Thinking Essay
Developing critical thinking skills is arguably the most important job of the social studies teacher.
Every year I begin my history classes with the following question: “Who writes the history books?” The answer? “The winners of the wars. ”
I then tell my students not to believe what they read or what I tell them. Rather, I ask them to research topics from multiple perspectives, gather the information they find, and formulate their own opinions. I want critical thinking.
I am often met with confusion and questions. The following exercise helps clarify my point, and explain why critical thinking is necessary.
I present a quote from our current textbook:
“Early Attempts at Unity – One of the earliest steps toward colonial unity came in 1643 when the Plymouth, Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, and the New Haven colonies formed the New England Confederation. Their purpose was to defend against threats from Native Americans and from nearby Dutch colonies.”
-United States Government, Principles in Practice, Holt McDougal, 2012, page 38
I then ask them to write a paragraph of their understanding of what they have just read. Typical responses include:
- The New England Confederation was formed for mutual protection from attacking tribes and the Dutch.
- The implied idea that the “colonies” are the “good guys.”
I then present to them the actual wording of the document signed by the colonies. Here is the wording:
The Articles of Confederation of the United Colonies of New England; May 19, 1643
“The Articles of Confederation between the Plantations under the Government of the Massachusetts, the Plantations under the Government of New Plymouth, the Plantations under the Government of Connecticut, and the Government of New Haven with the Plantations in Combination therewith:
Whereas we all came into these parts of America with one and the same end and aim, namely, to advance the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and to enjoy the liberties of the Gospel in purity with peace; and whereas in our settling (by a wise providence of God) we are further dispersed upon the sea coasts and rivers than was at first intended, so that we can not according to our desire with convenience communicate in one government and jurisdiction; and whereas we live encompassed with people of several nations and strange languages which hereafter may prove injurious to us or our posterity. And forasmuch as the natives have formerly committed sundry Insolence and outrages upon several Plantations of the English and have of late combined themselves against us: and seeing by reason of those sad distractions in England which they have heard of, and by which they know vie are hindered from that humble way of seeking advice, or reaping those comfortable fruits of protection, which at other times we might well expect. We therefore do conceive it our bounder duty, without delay to enter into a present Consociation amongst ourselves, for mutual help and strength in all our future concernments: That, as in nation and religion, so in other respects, we be and continue one according to the tenor and true meaning of the ensuing articles: Wherefore it is fully agreed and concluded by and between the parties or Jurisdictions above named, and they jointly and severally do by these presents agree and conclude that they all be and henceforth be called by the name of the United Colonies of New England.”
There is generally considerable surprise. I follow the primary document with five guided questions including the following:
1.) Why do you believe the word “Plantations” was omitted?
2.) Why was the religious purpose of the document omitted?
3.) What does the phrase “we are further dispersed upon the sea coasts and rivers than was at first intended” indicate the Plantations might need more of?
4.) Why do you suppose, after reading the document, the colonists might be concerned the “people of several nations and strange languages… may prove injurious to us or our posterity”?
5.) How would you describe the intent of the words “for mutual help and strength in all our future concernments”?
The answers to the questions generally lead most students to a different understanding of the New England Confederation then the initial one gleaned after reading the short paragraph in the textbook. Discussion is usually lively and perceptive.
I then ask my students to become editors and rewrite the paragraph from the textbook. After we share and read varied responses I give them one final writing exercise. I ask them to rewrite the textbook’s paragraph from the perspective of a Native American.
This lesson sets the table for a more critical reading and understanding of history.