The teaching strategies employed in this unit will entail three distinct activities for each case covered by the class. First, the students will begin their examination of a particular case by reading a set of background materials that will introduce them to issues and potentially controversial questions that they need to evaluate. Student readings will be discussed in more detail below. It suffices to say, however, that the student readings should provide a general description of the historical context of each case. Moreover, the readings should provide some analysis of the actions undertaken by American policy-makers. The readings should also help students to formulate and support their own independent judgments regarding the efficacy of policy actions undertaken in each case.
Second, students utilize the contextual knowledge from the readings in discussion groups. Before dividing into their groups, students can either choose or be assigned roles in which they will approach each case from the perspective of an individual decision-maker. Roles can include: a U.S. State Department official who brings a set of diplomatic concerns to the case in question; a Pentagon official who will advocate the interests of the U.S. military; a member of the President’s White House staff who will pay careful attention to the domestic political impact of potentially controversial foreign policy decisions.
Discussion groups are charged with reviewing all the information at their disposal in order to formulate a set of policy recommendations that they believe the United States should pursue. For example, in the atomic bomb case, one group might advocate against using nuclear weapons on Japan in favor an alternative strategy. Another group might conclude that using atomic weapons is after all the best course of action. Another group might advocate a demonstration of the destructive power of atomic weapons for Japanese officials. The groups can formulate their positions independently or the teacher can assign groups to devise arguments in support of particular policy position.
Discussion groups will formally present their policy proposal to the class in a format that can be tailored by the teacher. I generally utilize a parliamentary debate-style format in which teams of two to three students will debate a specific resolution that is placed before the class. A specific resolution might take the following form:
“The United States should use atomic weapons against a Japanese target to end the Pacific War.”
The members of each group would a have set time limit, usually two to three minutes, for presenting their arguments for or against the resolution in alternating fashion. At the conclusion of the debate, time can be allotted for a question and answer session if so desired.
Following the discussion and debate exercises, students are required to formulate a three to five page typed-written paper that supports their own particular policy position. Each student is expected to use both the reading material supplied for the case study as well as arguments developed during class discussion/debate. The papers will be evaluated by a rubric that incorporates modified performance standards developed for the interdisciplinary segment of the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) and the Advanced Placement examination in United States History.
A CAPT/AP type rubric serves two purposes. First, the State Department of Education has indicated that all Connecticut high school students in the near future will have to meet some type of minimum CAPT performance standard as a statewide graduation requirement. Although this unit is being designed for an advanced eleventh grade class, the simple reality of urban education is that a number of my students are likely to have not met the CAPT performance standard in their tenth grade year. This unit will therefore provide ample opportunity students to practice their CAPT skills. Second, even those students who have already met the minimum requirement need to continually practice their critical thinking and analytical writing skills. This is especially true for those students in my class that hope to move on to Advanced Placement United States History.
A sample position paper evaluation rubric is presented below:
(figure available in print form)
The Utility of Historical Cases for Simulations
Why have students revisit foreign policy decisions about which the outcomes are widely known and for which numerous post-mortems have already been done? Will students simply conclude that that the courses of action undertaken by policy-makers in the past were either correct or incorrect based upon prevailing conventional wisdom? My experience is that high school students tend to be highly critical and are quite willing to second-guess historical decisions.