Using Decision-Making Activities to Think Critically in History Classrooms

Using Decision-Making Activities to Think Critically in History Classrooms

            Using a variety of different strategies, resources, and activities is essential to keeping my ninth grade Social Studies students engaged from one day to the next. I frequently get asked, “Miss, why are we even learning about this?” or “this was so long ago, why does this even matter?” One of the strategies I have found to be successful in combating student boredom and encouraging engagement in the application of decision-making activities.

            Decision-making activities at the secondary level can assist in the ways that students consider and absorb information. One activity required students to consider, make, and justify a series of decisions about prison ships located in the water by Perth Amboy, NJ during the American Revolution. They had to choose to make decisions either as an officer negotiating for the release of imprisoned men or as a prisoner facing a difficult-to-navigate situation such as hunger, disease, or death.. In a different, smaller activity, students were given a ‘do now’ each day that asked them a scenario related to lessons in the unit on Manifest Destiny. For example, the students were given a scenario such as, “You hear that the Transcontinental Railroad has been completed but tickets are very expensive and the only ones left will arrive in California in the late fall. You could also travel by horse and wagon using the Oregon or California Trails to go west, which is a more dangerous trip but you will arrive sooner and save money. Which should you choose?” Once they work as a group and make their decisions, a random fate would be revealed.

            These activities meet many of the NJ Social Studies Learning Standards that help students learn historical content, critical thinking, decision-making skills, and discussion abilities. For example, RH.9-10.9 states that students should be able to “[c]ompare and contrast treatments of the same topic, or of various perspectives, in several primary and secondary sources; analyze how they relate in terms of themes and significant historical concepts.

            These activities also engage and involve different demographics of students in my classroom. Many of my 504 or IEP students need regular check-ins and evidence of their participation. The distinct steps of these activities allow for this kind of monitoring while also ensuring that advanced students follow the same progression. This activity is also easily modified for bilingual students of different levels by translating elements of it or modifying some of the primary source texts or changing them to visuals.

            These activities relate directly to the students by engaging with them where they are. When they are able to personally connect with the content, the students are more likely to participate in and think critically about the content. The students are able to place themselves into the context of the time period with an assignment such as this more easily than traditional assignments. Furthermore, for students who live in Middlesex County, they may also be able to personally connect to some material from the Revolutionary War unit because this area has so much colonial and Revolutionary War era history.

            Decision-making activities such as these allow the students to engage more critically and thoughtfully with the material and content provided to them. It engages students and encourages them to become better writers and ‘critically-thinking’ learners and citizens.

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