Bob Regan, Big History Project Team
Washington, USA

What makes a great response from a student? It’s not enough to have the right answer – they have to defend it. Making a claim and supporting it well turns students into scholars, kids into citizens, shouted out answers into conversations. Now, this transformation isn’t instantaneous, but making small changes to your approach to classroom discussions will have a noticeable impact.

Just in case you haven’t heard of claim testing before, check out Bob Bain in the video How Do We Decide What to Believe? or the activity Claim Testing – What are the Claim Testers?. These resources will introduce the concept quickly. However, it is not enough for students to merely watch one video or complete one activity. If you really want to see the benefit of claim testing, you need to encourage—if not insist—that students use the language of claim testing in classroom discussion. It might take a while, but eventually, students develop the habit of explaining why a source is a reliable authority or a piece of evidence is strong.

To start, let’s talk about the most underrated of all of the claim testers: intuition. Many ignore this test since it “isn’t scientific.” Yet, asking students to articulate what their intuition tells them serves a very important cognitive purpose. It gets students to activate their prior knowledge. As they decide whether their “gut” is telling them whether or not a claim is true, they are searching long-term memory for anything they know on the topic and making it available in short-term memory. This is a critical precursor to learning. You might have to push past the inevitable “I dunno” to get a student talking. Prompts like “if you have to guess” and “what can you say about this” can help. As one student works through this, other students might have a spark that gets more of a conversation going. More than guesswork, the brain is doing essential work here that will help students retain the information.

At the same time, we should push students past simply providing an answer, even if it’s the right one. “Why?” is a great response from you here. Is the evidence strong? Do you trust the authority? If you’re able to make the justification of a response routine in your classroom, you push students past the simple yes/no or fill-in-the-blank kind of answers. This also invites other students to chime in with alternative views of the evidence or the logic in the author’s argument.

This same approach of defending responses is even more powerful when students disagree, particularly with one another. This is where real debates and conversations begin.

To help create this climate, there are a couple of simple things you can do. Did you know Big History has posters in the teacher resources section of the Big History website’s console? There are several different claim testing posters available, and all of them are there. Placing these in prominent places in the classroom can be a helpful tool and remind students of how to structure their responses. Another idea that we love: We met a teacher recently who had the clever idea of using simple pencil erasers to remind students of the claim testers. If a student had trouble coming up with a response, she might toss them a heart-shaped eraser to nudge them to talk about intuition or an owl-shaped eraser to talk about authority.

Change in your classroom discussions will not be immediate. Your students might groan a bit when you constantly ask, “why?” They might struggle to think of reasons. You might need to think of different questions that invite deeper conversations. Stick with it–over time, you’ll see a big change.

To learn more about how to incorporate claim testing in the classroom, check out 8.2: Claim Testing in the Teaching Big History online professional development course.

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