Debating the Past

Lesson Name: Debating the Past

Primary Museum Pedagogy: Narrativity

Course Title and Description: A lower level history course that covers one event or theme, ie. the Civil War or Industrialization.

Lesson Overview:  In this activity, students portray different people from history and debate historical ideas. This lesson involves two components, a written summary of the students’ chosen individual’s thoughts on a certain issue and a presentation, during which students debate a historical topic with one another. After the presentation, the class can decide who “won” the debate and why.


  • Synthesizing primary and secondary source material
  • Public speaking and presentation skills
  • Making and supporting an argument

Pedagogical Considerations:

  • Performing can be nerve wracking. Although, students are encouraged to get in character, but they need not dress up or use antiquated language. However, they must embody their character’s thoughts and ideas, even ones counter to their personal beliefs.
  • This activity can be scaffolded based on learning level. If the instructor chooses a topic and people who did engage in a debate, students can locate very specific sources to support their ideas and claims. An example of this might be Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois discussing African American advancement.  However, the instructor can also provide topics that the people assigned did not directly debate an issue. For example, one might add Theodore Roosevelt to the above debate.
  • It is up to the students to do quality research and present a historically accurate portrayal. To ensure this, the instructor might pair students up for the research and writing portion, having them debate on different days.
  • To keep the class involved, students should be permitted to voice questions or concerns to the presenters to guide the conversation. Additionally, one student can be elected to moderate and keep time.
  • This activity requires students to prepare a written summary of their character’s point of view and a short biography, submitted for feedback in advance of the presentation.
  • “What do I do if students present an unbalanced or reimagined historical narrative?” Call them on it. It is the instructors responsibility to ensure that this exercise follows a logical trajectory. One option is to require written drafts prior to the presentations to ensure students are on the right track. Furthermore, the instructor can share drafts with the class to increase accountability. With this said, instructors need to accept that someone might “win” who did not “win” historically, as a core element of this activity is supporting a claim. Either way, this opens up discussion as to why.

Content Objectives:

  • Students will explore historical perspectives and generate arguments supported by primary and secondary sources.
  • Students will hone presentation skills and exhibit the ability to think creatively and spontaneously.
  • Students will better understand the motivations behind historic decisions.


Possible Debate Pairing:
Topic: African American Advancement in the 1880s – 1890s
Question: What is the best way for African Americans to advance economically and socially?
Participants: Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois

  1. Students receive/choose a historical person to portray and a question that they’ll be debating.
  2. Students research and write their “position,” producing a 2 page essay.
  3. Students will be called to “debate.” This presentation can be run as a debate would be. Select a moderator to keep time.
    • Each participant states their position (2-3 minutes each)
    • Counter/Respond (10 minutes)
      • During this time, participants can respond to each other. They should do so in character and focus on identifying flaws for holes in the others’ arguments.
    • Audience Participation (10 minutes)
      • The class can ask questions and seek clarification. Participants will respond directly to the class’ questions.
    • Deliberation and Victory: The class declares a winner utilizing the below framework. Most importantly, the “winner” historically need not be the winner of this debate. The goal is to present a well researched, clear, rational argument. Thus, the class and the presenters will need to ensure they remain unbiased.
      1. Whose presentation was the most clear, concise, and easy to comprehend?
      2. How effectively did the presenter’s use historical fact to support their arguments?
      3. Were the presenter’s claims relevant? Did they justify their position?
      4. How effectively did each presenter respond to opposing arguments presented during the debate?
      5. To what extent did presenters demonstrate thoughtful consideration of multiple perspectives?
      6. Above all, how effectively did each presenter contribute to the class’ capacity to make informed, fair, and reasonable decisions about the topic?