Weigh the Evidence

posted Apr 15, 2015, 3:17 PM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Apr 15, 2015, 3:18 PM ]
Docsteach.org is the lesson-plan of the National Archives. It has some really cool stuff for U.S. history. When I found it a couple years ago I was most intrigued by their Weighing the Evidence activities. In these students drag and drop documents onto a scale to represent not only which side of a question the evidence supports but how strongly it supports it. As with most things I find there were some things that I didn't like about it (mostly how it was only U.S. history...) so I did a bit of next-leveling and have been very happy with the results. I now have a bunch of WTEs for both World and U.S. history.  Here's how they work.

Here's a sample WTE that you may want to see before reading on (which just happened to be the one I used today.)

Each WTE starts with a statement that can be evaluated. "Robin Hood was a real person from history." "The Mayans were an advanced civilizations." "Most of what we're told about ninjas is true."  That statement (which could be formed as a question if you want to go to the Essential Question route) guides the entire activity. More than anything else I do these labs really focus attention on that one big idea.

Once I have the statement I look for 5-7 sources of information that can shed light on it's validity. What I love about this activity is that I don't have to spend a ton of time looking for perfectly reliable sources. In fact, the point is to do quite the opposite. This allows me to bring in some "cool" sources that have little to no historical value such as this hilarious War of 1812 parody trailer that I used on my Madison WTE. I've also used clips from video games (Assassin's Creed 3), Mythbusters and songs.  I try to find a balance of sources on both sides of the statement but that isn't always possible and actually isn't really needed anyway.

The statements are put into a presentation like the sample above and we go through them together as a class (bonus points if you include an intro video!). I put the exhibit up and students write a numerical rating ranging from -2 to +2. Negative numbers indicate evidence against the statement while positive indicates those for. A +2 is a very reliable source that provides strong information in favor of the statement, for example.  A rating of 0 means the source has no value for this topic. It may be from an unreliable author (I love using those silly answer websites as sources for this) or just not be particularly relevant to the statement at all. Students must write a 1-2 sentence explanation of their rating so they learn the importance of citing information.

They then take about a minute to share their rating with a partner. These discussions are vital as it forces the students to see that their rating can be seen differently by others. This helps reinforce the idea that some evidence is simply better than others. We then pick a few randomly to share out to the entire class. I will often then give my own personal rating (usually I give a range) just to model how I would evaluate the source. I do not ask them to change their answers.

After going through the exhibits students simply add up their ratings to get a positive or negative result. (Note: this can be a true challenge for early 7th graders as integers are a new concept to them!) This step makes it very easy for them to take a position because it is essentially done for them. With their position they write an ARE paragraph (Assertion-Reason-Evidence) where they defend their claim with evidence taken from the exhibits. We share a couple of these as a class and then wrap up. This all takes place pretty easily within 50 minutes. Sometimes the exhibits run long and we only get through 4 or 5 but 6 seems to be about the right number.

The amount of higher order thinking and inquiry that goes on throughout the entire period always amazes me. Many lesson I do will culminate with something like that but this one does it all the way through. What is equally amazing is how well my on-level students do with this. Of course honors kids can do inquiry but this model works very well with all students. Since it is guided they are kept on track throughout. The constant discussion and sharing keeps them accountable. Best of all - they love it. 

Weigh the Evidence hits on so many aspects of Common Core that honestly if it was all you ever did you'd hit most of the History literacy standards and a handful of the writing ones too. It is engaging for kids and very easy to manage for the teacher. Check out the sample above or my other versions on the Common Core page of the site and let me know what you think.