Sensitivity and Accuracy Go Hand in Hand in the History Classroom

How can educators teach history in an honest, accurate manner while also being sensitive to their students? I believe those aims should complement each other perfectly.

It seems pretty common in our culture that honesty and accuracy are framed as values working in opposition to kindness and sensitivity. The truth often “hurts,” or it’s “harsh,” while being nice may require telling some white lies. I don’t believe that needs to be the case. In fact, I think a person who makes frequently inaccurate statements can cause much more hurt and offense than someone who consistently acts in an earnest and honest manner. To expand on these thoughts, I’d like to examine this topic in my own professional context—high school history education.

Several months ago, I saw a tweet that was short, sweet, and pretty challenging for history teachers to consider:

An image with two questions: List 3–5 pros of colonization. List 3–5 cons. The tweeter comments: “high school.”
a tweet with the following image: 12. List 3–5 PROS of colonization. 13. List 3–5 CONS of colonization. Above the image, the tweet simply states “high school.”

Imprecision is Insensitivity

The clear implication from Miranda, the tweet’s author, is that the questions she shared were inappropriate and even potentially harmful to students, both in terms of the students’ intellectual development, and in terms of their emotional wellbeing and sense of belonging in their classroom. This would be especially true for students with family members and ancestors who suffered under colonialism, or who may suffer under colonial systems to this day. Furthermore, Miranda implies that this sort of experience was common for her and others in high school. Unfortunately, I think she’s right.

Upon seeing the tweet, my immediate reaction was to try to think of whether I had ever asked questions like the ones in the tweet during my teaching career so far. I can’t remember any instances in particular, but I’m sure I must have written or spoken something that was similarly insensitive. I try to put a lot of thought and care into the questions I write for all the quizzes and assignments I create, so I generally wouldn’t give students a task as vague as “list 3–5 pros” or “list 3–5 cons” on a subject as complex as colonialism. However, I certainly have made quite a few insensitive comments about history in my teaching, especially off the cuff.

When I consider the tasks mentioned in the tweet — “List 3–5 PROS of colonization” and “List 3–5 CONS of colonization” — what strikes me first is the generality. Usually I’d reserve listing “pros” and “cons” for an informal discussion of a present-day issue that is directly relevant to students. How can we list “pros” and “cons” when we’re talking about something in the past, separated from our own personal or societal benefit? Essentially, the implication from the tasks as written is that the students need to make some sort of universal judgment about what would be seen as generally positive and generally negative about this destructive historical phenomenon.

Obviously, whoever wrote the questions hardly put much thought into them, but it is most likely that they weren’t trying to ask their students to use a universal moral system to evaluate general benefits and harms. Rather, they were probably attempting to ask students to list a variety of benefits and harms to different groups of people in history. The problem is, their vague, imprecise questions don’t explicitly ask their students to consider the specific people and historical facts involved.

Removing Offense by Adding Historical Specificity

I believe adding just a few more words would have solved all of Miranda’s problems with these questions:

12. List 3–5 benefits of colonization to colonial powers and settlers.

13. List 3–5 harms of colonization experienced by colonized peoples.

By striving for accuracy and specifying exactly what information the students should be sharing, educators can avoid many ways in which they might otherwise offend or be misunderstood by their students. Instead of asking students to list “pros” and “cons” as if they need to prepare points for a debate on the dubious question of whether colonialism was “good” or not, a more careful educator can ask students to focus first on specific examples of the effects of the historical phenomenon. Then, that evidence can be used later for the students to develop more informed opinions about the phenomenon itself.

The writer of the original questions may also have intended for students to include examples of how there were “pros” of colonization for colonized peoples. (The vague questions didn’t make that explicit, though.) That is a legitimate educational goal, although it is a more difficult one to discuss. In that case, it would be even more critical for educators to be as specific and precise as possible, so as not to give students the impression that their teacher wants to justify colonialism or diminish its harms. A proper follow-up question might look something like this:

14. Did any colonized people benefit from colonial systems? If not, explain your answer. If so, list 3–5 examples of how they might have benefitted.

By leaving the question open to the student’s opinion and not basing the question on the premise that “Yes, there were colonized people that benefitted from colonialism,” there is an opportunity left for a student like Miranda who feels vehemently about the subject to answer “No” and explain her perspective. Rather than insisting from the get-go that a particular perspective on history is true, there’s great educational value in allowing students to freely express their strong initial feelings. Then, if a student insists on continuing to hold a questionable position, a teacher could later respond by patiently providing further evidence. In this case, a teacher could supply further examples of how some colonized people were able to become colonial elites, intermediaries, or otherwise profit from colonial regimes.

Teachers should aim to avoid any circumstance where a student might feel that their personal biases or a skewed narrative is baked into an assignment or the way a question or discussion is structured. Instead, students should feel that their teachers are open to hearing any and all opinions and evidence they can bring to the table, and the teacher will answer by gently offering other perspectives and information for the students to consider.

Other Examples and Ways Forward

I started thinking about recent examples of questions I’ve asked regarding highly sensitive and potentially offensive topics, and here’s an example of a question I wrote this year for a quiz in my AP European History class:

The question states: What factors may explain why soldiers, bureaucrats, and other German citizens served as willing participants in carrying out the Holocaust?

I remember that I wanted to craft this question very carefully, and it has a very clear purpose: All of us need to consider how and why people at different times in history have become accomplices and perpetrators of genocide. However, there are many ways in which the question could be made less precise, more potentially offensive, and ultimately much less useful to the students’ education: “Why would someone want to murder Jews?” is one version I could imagine. The basic meaning and intent of the question may be the same, but when students aren’t being directly asked specific historical questions, a crude and generalizing question may bring to mind irrelevant or counterproductive information, and even disrespectful or hateful comments that no educator should invite.

I don’t use this example to say that I always do everything perfectly in my teaching. As I mentioned previously, I know I’ve done and said insensitive things in my classroom. There are also many times when it’s very difficult to judge what may or may not rub students the wrong way. Miranda’s tweet shows that she was alienated by a teacher asking for “pros” to colonization, but what if a teacher talked about possibly positive effects of the Mongol conquests, or the Black Death? Would it alienate students to seemingly dismiss the deaths of millions of people? On the other hand, what if a teacher asked whether Andrew Jackson committed genocide, or whether Winston Churchill committed war crimes? Would it alienate students who consider these men heroes? I have done all of these things in my teaching, and I can’t know for sure how my statements and questions were perceived by all of my students.

In all of the above cases, it seems essential that teachers should pose controversial questions in as neutral a manner as possible, and they should not share their personal opinions about who or what they might love and hate in history, or how strongly they may feel about certain subjects. At the very least, they shouldn’t do so flippantly or without qualification. I very much enjoy the history of the Mongol Empire, but I’m not going to tell my students I think Genghis Khan was the greatest leader of all time while they learn how his actions led to massive bloodshed. (For the record, I don’t think he was.) Here’s an example of a task I’ve assigned in my world history class in the past, and will probably continue to use in some form in the future:

The assignment asks students to consider different arguments and sources and judge for themselves whether the conquests of Chinggis Khaan (Genghis Khan) and his descendents had an overall positive or negative effect on the world.

Now, after looking at this assignment, some readers may wonder if I’m being a hypocrite. If it was problematic and insensitive to ask students about positives and negatives of colonialism as if they could be equivalent, or as if colonialism could be justified, wouldn’t the same hold true for the Mongol conquests? Like I stated before, these issues can be difficult to judge, and they may depend greatly on the students in a particular school and classroom. In this case, however, I think there’s a big difference: The Mongol Empire existed over 20 generations in the past, far beyond the capacity of most any family or culture to hold a grudge. Modern colonialism, on the other hand, is far more recent and continues to exert powerful harms on individuals and societies.

While I believe it is possible a student could dislike or disagree with the premise of this assignment, I would hope that they would channel those feelings into the tasks of examining evidence (including interesting primary sources both praising and decrying the Mongols) and then sharing their own opinion in writing. Nevertheless, given the nature of school systems and the power dynamic that exists in classrooms, many of our students may never speak out or call our attention to missteps we make that cause offense or hurt. (They might just tweet about their experiences years later.) That reality should make it even more imperative for educators to be careful and deliberate in our words and actions: The ways in which we present ideas to our students will shape how they see and feel about us, and how they see and feel about the world at large.

As is true for so many issues, it is absolutely critical for educators to constantly reflect on our teaching, and strive to develop and emulate best practices. In the history classroom, I believe it is best practice to formulate questions, assignments, and discussions that are phrased and presented in a manner that is as emotionally sensitive and as historically accurate as possible. By striving to be clear and precise in our language, we should avoid possible misunderstandings, and help focus our students on the historical content that is most important for them to engage with. Caring about and staying aware our students’ feelings doesn’t require lying to them, and teaching critical truths about the past doesn’t need to be done in a coarse or offensive manner. Sensitivity and accuracy should go hand in hand.

Please leave a comment below if you agree or disagree with my assessment, or have other thoughts and stories to share!

Teacher who writes about history, language, travel, politics, and education. Kichx̱áanx’ yéi x̱at yatee. (I live in Ketchikan, Alaska.) Twitter: @peterstanton