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Document-Based Whole-Class Discussion

Photography, Diversity Discussion April 27 2010-36, 27 April 2010, Patrick Gibli
What Is It?

Document-based whole-class discussion is a classroom activity where students engage in the interpretation and reconciliation of multiple historical documents. Rather than a heated debate, the classroom dynamic resembles a deliberative seminar, where the teacher plays an active role in facilitating student participation.


The value of document-based whole-class discussion is threefold:

  1. Speech is an important scaffold for academic writing; students who observe and participate in discussions where they are expected to substantiate their claims with textual evidence are better prepared to do so in their writing.
  2. Document-based discussion simulates the intellectual work of professional historians who regularly disagree about the interpretation of evidence.
  3. Whole-class discussion fundamentally transforms the traditional history classroom from one where students are passive recipients of knowledge to one where they actively produce historical knowledge.

The importance of the teacher’s role in leading effective discussion about historical documents cannot be overstated. John Dewey wrote that in effective discussion, “ideas come into the class, various persons follow out those ideas, and new points are brought out; and yet the teacher harmonizes it all . . . so that it leads consistently and consecutively in a definite direction." (1)

Students love to talk and debate, but without effective facilitation, many will: 1) make claims without reference to documentary evidence and 2) evaluate or judge historical actors and events by present-day standards.

Teacher Preparation
  1. Choose a topic and formulate a central historical question that can be answered by multiple documents (see examples in Reading Like a Historian curriculum here). Questions can be interpretive and open-ended (e.g., Why did the U.S. enter World War I?) or evaluative and ask students to judge whether an event or historical actor is right or wrong, good or bad (e.g., Did President Wilson have good reasons for entering World War I?).
  2. Anticipate how students will respond and which quotes they will pull from the documents to support their claims.
  3. Choose 2–3 of the quotes from step #2 and think about how each one could be interpreted in multiple ways. In other words, prepare questions to challenge a student who has interpreted the quote in a particular way.
In the Classroom
  1. Have students fill out discussion preparation (Handout 1).
  2. Review norms for classroom discussion (Handout 2).
  3. Call on students to share their initial thoughts. As a discussion facilitator, your role is two-fold:
      • Monitor participation: As discussion unfolds, keep a list of students who want to speak so that they don’t have to keep their hands raised. You may also choose to call on students who have not participated.
      • Push student thinking: Your questions and prompts should serve to push student thinking “consistently and consecutively in a positive direction.” A list of some effective teacher "moves" describes some key strategies for facilitating effective discussion about historical texts.
Arc of Document-Based Whole Class Discussion

Phase One: In the early part of the discussion, the goal is to establish the sides of the argument. Students should be prompted to support their claims with textual evidence. The teacher’s main goal is to highlight and restate the key differences in student responses so that struggling students can better see the sides and frame of the discussion.

Example (questions for Texas Independence Lesson Plan discussion):

  • How did you answer the question of why Texans declared independence from Mexico?
  • What quote from the text supports your answer?
  • Who agrees with [student]?
  • Who disagrees with [student]?

Phase Two: In the second part of the discussion, the goal is to closely examine one or two quotes and establish multiple interpretations. Students may spontaneously begin to discuss a particular quote, but teachers should be prepared to turn students’ attention to quotes that are particularly generative. The teacher’s key goal is to help students appreciate the difference between the past and present. Close analysis of written text should prompt students to focus on the historical actor’s words so that they move away from preconceived judgments.

Example (questions for Texas Independence Lesson Plan discussion):

  • Let’s take a closer look at Document A. Why do you think it was called the ‘Declaration of Independence?’
  • Does anyone have a different interpretation?
  • Who does Colonel Juan Seguin refer to when he says “tyrant’s yoke?”
  • What does Benjamin Lundy believe are the Texan’s motives?

Phase Three: In the third part of the discussion, the goal is to return to the central historical question and have students formulate answers that are more nuanced and complex. Students should have a better appreciation for the strangeness of the past and perhaps temper earlier judgments leveled at historical actors. They may also develop an appreciation for multiple causality, rather than simple causal understanding.

Example (questions for Texas Independence Lesson Plan discussion):

  • Let’s return to the main question: Why did Texans declare independence?
  • Why did the Texans believe they were justified in declaring independence?
Common Pitfalls
  • Wrong facts: Students will inevitably present historical inaccuracies or anachronisms. Sometimes it’s difficult to correct students in the middle of a discussion because we’re so excited that they’re participating and engaged. However, it’s important to ensure that the discussion proceeds on the basis of sound and accurate information.
  • The “same” students: In every classroom, there are 2–3 students who love to talk and a larger number who never participate in discussion. It’s important to establish early on that you will call on students and expect them to at least share what they wrote on their Handout 1.
  • All over the place: Very few discussions will clearly follow the three-phase discussion arc described above. That’s okay. The goal is to corral student comments so that they generally move in the right direction.
For more information 

Beck, I. et al. Questioning the Author: An Approach for Enhancing Student Engagement with Text. International Reading Association, Inc., 1997.

Haroutunian-Gordon, S. Turning the Soul: Teaching Through Conversation in the High School. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Haroutunian-Gordon, S. Learning to Teach Through Discussion: The Art of Turning the Soul. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009.

Hess, D. Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion. New York: Routledge, 2009.


1 Dewey, J. Brigham Young educational lectures. In John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953: Vol. 17: 1885-1953, Miscellaneous Writings, ed. J.A. Boydston. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1901/1990.

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Awesome, this is great. It

Awesome, this is great. It does look like it requires a fair amount of background information, how do I reach students who may not have that background information, students who face language and cultural barriers and lack the US History background? How can I gave them access to this content, but also do Document Based Discussions?

From Teachinghistory.org's

From Teachinghistory.org's Daisy Martin:

These resources may help with your question:
See this entry in our ELL section about building participation skills or this one about using visuals. Be sure to explore the rest of the section.

More specifically, see this answer from a 5th-grade teacher about how to build students' content knowledge.

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