Across the Street column: Teaching facts vs. teaching interpretation

Joyce Rankin
Across the Street
Joyce Rankin

Who won the Civil War? Is your answer based on “facts” or your, or someone else’s, interpretation?

Last month the State Board of Education reviewed and voted upon social studies standards, which include history, geography, economics and civics.

The word “interpret” appeared 90 times somewhere in the social studies revised document. The word “interpret,” defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, means “to conceive in the light of individual belief, judgment or circumstance.”

Researcher and developer of K-12 mathematics curriculum Paul Goldenberg asserts that “wrong answers are often correct answers to an entirely reasonable alternative interpretation of a question.” Children, because of their limited experience and knowledge base, may “interpret” a situation quite differently from an adult. Add their access to today’s most popular research sources, “Wikipedia” and “Google,” and you may find unexpected answers to seemingly obvious questions.

As an example, take a middle school assignment: “Who won the Civil War?”

One of the essential skills, under the new social studies standards for eighth grade, is to “interpret information as historians and draw conclusions based on the best analysis using primary and secondary sources.”

The first challenge is understanding the definition of primary and secondary sources. When the eighth-grade student “Googles” these terms he finds:

A primary source “provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event,” including “internet communications via email, blogs, listservs and newsgroups.”

Secondary sources “describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon,…”

So if the 13-year-old uses “Google” and searches on “The South Won the Civil War,” the first article that appears is from the New Yorker (2015) with the title, “The South Won the Civil War.” The first photo caption, “Southernization of American politics,” cites civil and voting rights as the reason the south won the war.

The second article is from, advertised as “your best source for antiwar news and viewpoints,” and titled “How the South Won the Civil War.”

The process the student used fits the standards. However, the conclusion is incorrect.

History Professor Terry Jones of the University of Louisiana wrote a piece in the New York Times titled “Could the South have won the Civil War?” His article provides many “what if” scenarios that could have changed history. Might a 13-year-old use this as a primary source?

How would a teacher evaluate the student’s report when the process was followed, yet the outcome was incorrect?

The board approved the new social studies standards by a single vote.

Should we be teaching facts or interpretations?

Joyce Rankin is a member of the State Board of Education. The Department of Education is located across the street from the Capitol. “Across the Street” will appear monthly.

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