In a subject like history, a common pitfall for students is to make sweeping assertions which are not backed up with hard data. This is often the result of the standard approach of teaching which involves students reading around the subject using secondary sources like articles and books which are themselves advancing a particular line of argument (or using primary sources pre-selected by a teacher who already knows what they illustrate). As a result, students find themselves trotting out lazy assertions second-hand, but without the same degree of conviction or engagement as demonstrated by the original authors who had built up their interpretations based on primary sources.

To mitigate against this problem by encouraging students to form their own opinions based on raw data they have hunted down directly, consider turning the usual process of studying a topic on its head. Instead of using books, articles, worksheets and pre-selected sources to build up the initial bedrock of knowledge, simply present students with the “Big Question” for investigation and ask them “What hard data would help us to answer this question?”. Thereafter, students need to locate this specific data and then frame their arguments based directly on its findings: in other words, they are doing ‘real’ history from first principles rather than rehearsing and re-hashing the ideas of other people. Then, and only then, should students proceed to consider what other historians have said on the issue in question: and they are much more likely to be engaged in this process as a result.

Case Study: The Rule of Fidel Castro

At the start of our unit on Fidel Castro, I started by asking students to consider how a government aiming for re-election might seek to ‘prove’ to the electorate that it had been a success in economic, social, cultural and political terms. Through discussion we came up with the following sorts of ideas:

  Some ideas about how we can measure ‘success’
Economy Low unemployment | Few strikes | Low inflation | Good balance of trade | Growth in real wages | Low emigration/High immigration
Society High birth rate | Increasing life expectancy | Increasing literacy rates | Civil rights promoted (how?) | Sexual equality promoted (how?) | Forges a strong national identity
Culture Free press | Regime works constructively with the church(es) | Propaganda highlights positive achievements rather than demonises perceived opponents | More museums, galleries
Politics No mass demonstrations against the regime | No political trials / prisoners | Free, fair, regular elections | Universal suffrage | Parliament has real power to hold government to account


We then took the opportunity to bring the Geography students in from next door, as conveniently they are timetabled against the historians, and they gave us a few extra helpful ideas (although Geographers and Historians both belong to the humanities, History leans traditionally a bit more towards the arts, and Geographers lean a bit more towards the sciences, so they had a lot to offer us for this data-driven approach). In particular, they threw in references to such things as GDP per capita, and the importance of the growth of tertiary industries as a measure of a healthy system.

Next, we proceeded to consider how we could frame questions which would allow us to empirically measure these various indicators. Some speak for themselves (“Low unemployment” = “Did Castro reduce unemployment in Cuba?”) whereas others required a bit more thought (“Sexual equality promoted” = “Did Castro’s rule see more women going into higher education?” plus others).

The next stage was to collate these questions, which we did in a shared “TitanPad” document so we could all contribute at once:


Finally, the class was divided into four groups to try to find answers to each of the questions they identified, then reported back to the class with their findings. The job of the teacher during this research phase is to encourage students to consider as they proceed such issues as whether an answer to the question changes over time (long term v. short term), for different types of people, or how far these successes were because of, rather than in spite of, Castro’s policies.

Taking it further

After the feedback phase, students should consider different historiographical interpretations of Castro’s rule, and use a matrix grid or a game of interpretation battleships to decide not just how successful he was, but how totalitarian he was.