In subjects like history it is important that students form, express and substantiate their judgements on central issues. One efficient way of doing this at the end of a topic or during the revision period is to present them with snappy assertions and then challenge teams of students to explain, using evidence, why they think it is convincing (“brilliance”) or weak (“baloney”).

Case Study: Foreign Policy of American Presidents

As part of our revision for History of the Americas in IB History, my students conducted a series of debates on the successes and failures of US Presidents between 1945-1980. To round things off, I formulated a series of concluding statements overnight about each president. I then organised the class into three teams (A, B, C) ready for an arbitration exercise, and each team was then shown which statements it would need to focus on using this table:

Statement to consider: Brilliance, or Baloney? Teams involved
In foreign policy, Truman talked tough but acted weak X X
Truman’s policy in Korea demonstrated exceptional restraint and pragmatism X X
Ike, despite his protestations to the contrary, was neither new, nor successful X X
JFK deserves outright condemnation, not fawning credit, for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis X X
JFK never would have got embroiled in Vietnam in the same way as did his successor X X
LBJ’s policy in Vietnam has overshadowed his other, much more successful diplomatic achievements X X
LBJ deserves credit, not condemnation, for trusting the advice of the ‘Wise Men’ X X
Nixon was the most visionary of all the post-war Presidents up to that point X X
Nixon was inconsistent and unpredictable in equal measure X X

Preparation phase

Each team was then given time in class (which could have been homework) to (a) Decide whether they agreed with the statement or not and (b) Gather substantiating evidence to support their judgement. Depending upon the time available, this can be done collaboratively, or different members of each team could focus on different statements and then share their ideas with their groups before the feedback phase for comments and suggestions. Finally, these ideas were written up neatly in a PowerPoint slide.

Presentation phase

Starting with the first statement, Team “A” declares whether they regard it as ‘brilliance’ or ‘baloney’ and proceed to explain why, with their PowerPoint slide on display. Team “B” then presents its thoughts on the same issue (again, with their PowerPoint slide on display – thereby ensuring that they don’t simply ‘steal’ specific points from the first team in their presentation if they happened to be in broad agreement). Finally, the third team, in classic arbitration format, has to declare a winner. At this stage they could plot a number ‘1’ on a continuum line to indicate how strongly they regard the statement as being ‘brilliance’ or ‘baloney’ and everyone should have a moment to jot down some notes before proceeding to the next statement.

Taking it further

The format of the activity can be varied in a number of ways:

  • Get the teams themselves to prepare the statements in advance of the lesson. Statements from team “A” should be answered by “B” and “C”, statements by “B” will be answered by “A” and “C” and therefore statements by “C” will be answered by the “A” and “B” teams.
  • To force students to see both sides of the case (and force the ‘arbitrating’ team to have more of a challenge), demand in each debate that one team should construct a case for ‘brilliance’ and the other for ‘baloney’ rather than give them a free choice (this also negates the need for each side to produce a PowerPoint slide because they won’t have any motivation to steal the other team’s ideas).
  • Divide the continuum line so that it runs from “Baloney!” at one end, “Brilliance!” at the other, with “Borderline!” in the middle. Maybe even allow teams to choose from these three options rather than just the two extremes. Here’s another alternative:


Russel Tarr, Revision: Who was the greatest US president? – ActiveHistory (Available at: https://www.activehistory.co.uk/Miscellaneous/menus/IB/americas/revision.php, Last accessed 17th May 2017)