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Counterfactual History: Asking Your Students to Consider "What If?"

Updated on June 18, 2013

As a teacher, our ultimate goal is for our students to thoroughly understand our subject and apply their knowledge.

It's easy for a history class to degenerate into a simple survey of facts and ideas, with little deep learning going on. The crushing pace of the curriculum can force a teacher to move ahead at blinding speed, and it can be hard to think of and find ways to give kids an opportunity to apply what they've learned.

Well one solution - simple, but incredibly thought provoking for students - is counterfactual history. Essentially, this means asking the question, "What if?"

It's easy to memorize some facts, comprehend a book, and then regurgitate some information on a test or in a formulaic essay. It takes real thought and comprehension, however, to consider how history would change if a key event were to change as well. And that's at the centerpoint of counterfactual history.

Think about a pivotal event, define a new outcome, and then hypothesize how things might turn out differently. There's no right or wrong answer. There are only arguments, well supported or ill supported. Your students task is to make a well supported argument that proves they've learned something in a real, deep way.

A Couple Examples to Get You Thinking

So how might this work in a social studies class? Let's think about a few examples.

Considering we're in the midst of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, that's a good place to start. There are literally dozens of minute details you could consider, like "What if the Confederacy won the battle of Gettysburg?" or "What if Stonewall Jackson wasn't accidentally killed?" But, in a survey class, these might be too specific. For a general U.S. history class, a better question might simply be, "What if the Lincoln had negotiated a peace with the Confederacy?"

The country was divided over whether or not to spend so much, in terms of money and human lives, to force the Confederacy to remain in the Union. And it's a perfectly conceivable, if not likely, that forces within the U.S. government could have forced Lincoln to negotiate a peace with the Confederacy and recognize the C.S.A. as an independent country. The students' task, then, would be to consider how this would have altered U.S. history.

In the 1960's and the Civil Rights era, there are again many events that won could consider. It was a tumultuous time in American history, and many political leaders were assassinated - Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Robert Kennedy, to name a few. It would be an interesting exercise to consider how things would have worked out differently if one (or all) of these men had lived. For example, if RFK wasn't assassinated, would he have gone on to be elected in 1968 instead of LBJ?

Or, you could consider the events of World War II and the Holocaust. Here is an example of a social studies webquest about the Holocaust. In it, the teacher asks her students to think about a counterfactual possibility in the Holocaust and then write about how events would have played out differently.

The possibilities are endless. The whole concept relies on imagination - yours and your students. So next time you're struggling to devise a task that will engage your students in a deep, meaningful way, think about a counterfactual. Have your students ask, "What If?" And see how they answer that question.


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