Substantiating assertions forcefully and with evidence is a valuable skill for young historians to develop. The “chatshow challenge” forces them to do so by drawing them in with what appears to be a simple “yes/no” question, then throwing them out of their comfort zone by immediately demanding that they justify this position with a second, connected question. In this sense it is a great method for revising, consolidating and extending knowledge and understanding.
Case study: The Middle East crisis
Step 1: Framing the questions in advance of the lesson
Although all historical topics raise thorny questions of interpretation and judgement, few subjects are as contentious as the Middle East crisis and therefore demand so sharply that students clearly substantiate their viewpoints with reasoned argument and carefully selected evidence. I therefore started to construct a series of “Yes/No” questions covering different aspects of the topic, and then produced two accompanying questions to follow each one designed to force students to explain their reasoning in more depth. By doing so, I ended up with the following:
|If they answer “no”…
|If they answer “yes”…
|The Jews were promised territory in the Balfour Declaration, but were not then given it. Do you agree that the British acted dishonourably?
|How do you justify the fact that the British promised territory to these people when they needed their help, then abandoned them directly afterwards?
|Aren’t you being naïve here? The British were fighting a war of survival against Germany, and made promises to both sides which simply couldn’t be fulfilled.
|Do you agree that the Holocaust established the unquestionable necessity to create the state of Israel to protect Jewish interests?
|How can you argue that the deaths of 6 million innocent civilians at the hands of the Nazis didn’t prove that the state of Israel was an urgent necessity?
|But the Holocaust was the responsibility of Europeans, not Arabs in the Middle East. So how can you argue that the creation of Israel in the Middle East wasn’t a gross injustice against the Arabs?
|Do you agree that the Arabs were right to reject the UNSCOP partition plan?
|But the Arabs completely rejected the UNSCOP proposals and massed armies on the borders of Israel even before its declaration of independence. So how can you say they’re not responsible?
|But the Jews had been reponsible for terrorist atrocities in Palestine (Irgun, Stern Gang) and UNSCOP offered half the territory even though they only had a third of the population. Wasn’t this the real act of war against the Arabs?
Step 2: Conducting the “Chatshow challenge”
With these questions now ready (along with others framed around the 1948 Civil War, the 1956 Suez Crisis, the 1967 Six-Day War and so on), the activity could commence. The first “initial question” is read out to the class and copied down by each student. They then reflect on their answer individually and in silence, and simply write down “yes” or “no”.
Students then raise their hands to indicate how they voted (merely to indicate the popularity of each point of view). Then display the “follow-up” questions on the board and instruct students to copy down the one which applies to their response.
Repeat this process for the remaining “initial questions”, then give students class or homework time to frame their developed responses to the follow-up questions. The best “Chatshow” dialogues could then be acted out in a subsequent lesson, with the rest of the class acting as a studio audience or a press corps taking detailed notes.
Taking it further
- To improve upon the format further, students could be given classroom time to ‘pair up’ with somebody else who took the same “yes/no” position for the first question to brainstorm possible responses to the follow-up question. This process could be repeated for each question, with five minutes or so being set aside for each discussion and different partners being allocated for each of the remaining questions.
- Students could also be instructed to write each of their follow-up responses in the format “Although…Nevertheless…”. In this way, they are forced to display an awareness of a merit in the argument they disagree with before proceeding to drive home their own position.
- Take two particularly able students and demand that one of them takes a “yes” position for each of the initial questions, and the other argues “no”. In this way, the teacher can then conduct a two-way debate in a subsequent lesson, with each follow-up question being guaranteed a response. The “studio audience” can then vote on who produces the most peruasive argument for each question (and maybe ask follow-up questions themselves) with the total votes won by each “guest” overall being used to declare an overall victor.