Social Education
Volume 62 Number 1
January 1998

History Alive! Six Powerful Constructivist Strategies

Bert Bower and Jim Lobdell

History Alive! is a series of instructional practices that allow students with diverse learning styles to “experience” history.1 These methods are the work of educators at Teacher’s Curriculum Institute who combined research and theory with the realities of classroom teaching. Beginning with the idea that students should be allowed to construct their own knowledge, these teachers created six dynamic and highly interactive teaching strategies that rely on three theoretical premises.
The first premise of the History Alive! approach rests on psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory that human cognition includes a far wider and more universal set of competencies than have traditionally been recognized in the schools.2 Gardner found that every student excels in two or three of seven intelligences: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, body-kinesthetic, musical-rhythmic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Each History Alive! activity attempts to employ as many of these seven intelligences as possible.
The second premise is that cooperative interaction can lead to learning gains. However, sociologists have found that when students work together in groups to complete collective tasks, some students dominate group interaction. In her research into group interaction, Elizabeth Cohen uncovered several practical ways to combat this problem.3 She found that if students are trained in cooperative norms and behaviors, placed in heterogeneous small groups, and assigned specific roles to complete during a multiple-ability task, they tend to interact more equally. Each History Alive! lesson uses these techniques to help make cooperative interaction more equitable.
The third premise behind the History Alive! approach is the concept of the “spiral curriculum.” Championed by educational theorist Jerome Bruner, the spiral curriculum is the idea that all students can learn progressively more difficult concepts through a step-by-step process, if a teacher shows them how to think and discover knowledge for themselves.4
What follows is a brief discussion of six strategies that employ these theoretical premises—the theory of multiple intelligences, the focus on cooperative interaction, and the idea of the spiral curriculum—to help students actively construct the past.

Interactive Slide Lecture: The Economic Collapse
Students often have a difficult time appreciating the impact of the Great Depression on individual lives. This Interactive Slide Lecture challenges students to experience the personal losses caused by the economic collapse of the late 1920s and early 1930s. During the lesson, students view, interpret, and act out photographs from the Great Depression era which are projected onto a large screen in front of the classroom. This strategy turns the usually passive, teacher-centered activity of lecturing into stimulating interactive learning.
With the aid of a special zoom lens, the teacher projects a slide of a 1933 bank rush on a large screen in the front of the classroom. Several students stand next to the screen and point to everything they see: how people are standing, what they are wearing, what the street and store signs say, and what the buildings look like. The teacher then poses a series of questions, spiraling from basic information to critical thinking, to help students use their visual skills to draw information from the projected image:

As the discussion unfolds, the teacher adds historical information and outlines it on an overhead transparency projected onto a smaller screen. Students learn how banks loaned great amounts of money to speculators who were unable to pay back their loans after the collapse of the stock market in 1929. They learn that thousands of bank failures in the early 1930s contributed to the severity of the Great Depression. And they learn what a devastating effect bank failures had on hundreds of thousands of families who were left penniless. Viewing the image and the written material simultaneously helps students learn and remember salient ideas that they might forget after a traditional lecture.
Now the teacher challenges students to empathize with the bank depositors by taking part in an act-it-out. This activity is intended to draw upon their interpersonal, intrapersonal, and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences. Several students come forward to stand in front of the slide, placing their bodies in the positions of the people waiting outside the bank. The teacher steps into the projected image in the role of an on-the-scene reporter to ask students:

As the lesson progresses, students view more slides that reveal the consequences of economic collapse: an abandoned farmhouse, an unemployed man selling apples, a “Hooverville,” a bread line, President Herbert Hoover in the White House, and incoming President Franklin Roosevelt in a 1932 campaign rally. By repeating the process described above, students further hone their visual and analytical skills.

Social Studies Skill Builder: Mexican Contributions to Southwest Culture
Many students learn about the Mexican American War without being taught how Mexican culture—with its Native American, Spanish, and Mestizo roots—helped the first European American
settlers in the Southwest to survive. This Social Studies Skill Builder activity provides detailed information about Mexican contributions to the culture of the American Southwest. Student learn of these contributions by analyzing a set of historical placards and creating a mural of the Southwest.
  In this activity, students work in pairs to examine a series of placards. Each contains a 1950s photograph of some aspect of Southwestern culture—for example, ranching, irrigation, adobe architecture or blanket weaving—that has antecedents in the earlier Mexican culture of the region. The students match each photograph with a corresponding descriptive paragraph taped to the classroom walls. Students move about the classroom at their own pace as they practice the skill of reading for a purpose.
As students match each photograph with a descriptive paragraph, they design a visual symbol and place it on an 11x17-inch map of the Southwest. Below the symbol they write a sentence beginning with the words: “This contribution was important because...” As students finish with each contribution, they show their map to the teacher, who provides immediate feedback and awards them points. The activity continues until students have matched all of the placards to the descriptive paragraphs and produced an illustrated map showing a variety of cultural contributions that Mexicans made to life in the Southwest.
This activity concludes with the teacher handing individual students placards and asking them to take their place in a human spectrum extending from “Mexican Contributions We See in Our Community Today” to “Mexican Contributions We Do Not See in Our Community Today.” Students are typically surprised to learn the ubiquitous and enduring nature of Mexican culture in the United States.

Experiential Exercise: Life on the Assembly Line
This activity helps students develop an appreciation for the human and societal impact of our nation’s change from an agrarian society to an industrialized nation. It involves a simulation of what life was like on an early 1900s assembly line, and challenges students to react to the experience as if they were workers of the time. Students use their intrapersonal and body-kinesthetic intelligences to connect to this drama of the past.
The activity begins with each student drawing a picture of a human body from head to foot. The class then breaks into two competing groups of students. Each group is asked to replicate the best picture drawn by one of its members. Students move their desks to form two long rows in preparation for mass production.
Each student specializes in drawing a particular body part, such as the head, nose, torso, or legs, as illustrations pass in a stream from student to student. Acting as the “boss,” the teacher recreates the stress of an assembly line by urging “workers” to speed up, concentrate, and try harder. Some teachers turn up the heat in the room, dim the lights, or seat students closer together to approximate the worst kind of factory conditions.
This Experiential Exercise helps students develop empathy for the physical, mental, and emotional stress experienced by assembly line workers. It also enables them to make comparisons between cottage industry and the assembly line as methods of production. The activity concludes with students drawing a T-Chart titled “The Assembly Line as a Means of Production” in their notebooks. On one side of the chart, students list “pros” (e.g., standardization, speed, efficiency) and on the other side they list “cons” (e.g., monotony, lack of personal investment, worker alienation).

Problem Solving Groupwork: Making Character Collages of Chinese Belief Systems
This activity is designed to teach students the basic tenets of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Students work in groups to create a character collage: the life-size outline of a figure (Buddha, Confucius, or Lao-tzu) within and around whom are placed words and visuals. This task is designed to require a wide range of intelligences—visual, interpersonal, linguistic, and musica#151;so that each student has something special to contribute to the group effort.
The teacher begins by placing students in heterogeneous groups of four and assigning a Chinese belief system to each group. Each student in the group has a special role. The Researcher is in charge of acquiring information; the Graphic Designer is responsible for the overall look and organization of the character collage; the Illustrator traces the outline and creates a rough sketch of the collage for the teacher to review; and the Paraphraser leads discussion of how to paraphrase key quotes from the philosopher so that classmates can easily understand them. The students are given precise requirements and evaluation criteria before they begin working together.
Students have two class periods to prepare their character collages. Each group completes a rough draft and shows it to the teacher before beginning the final draft. When students have completed their character collages, they post them on the wall in three distinct areas-one for the Buddha, one for Confucius, and one for Lao-tzu. Students then examine and take notes on the character collages of other Chinese belief systems.
To assess whether all students have learned about the three belief systems, the teacher reads a series of representative quotes and asks students to categorize them as either Buddhism, Confucianism, or Taoism. Finally, the teacher leads a discussion of the similarities and differences between the three belief systems, and uses the students’ input to create a three-circled Venn diagram.

Response Groups: How Far Have We Come Since Seneca Falls?
In this Response Group activity, students examine excerpts from the “Declaration of Sentiments” that resulted from the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. The object is to determine how well the grievances described by these nineteenth-century women have been redressed. The teacher begins by showing slides of five leading women reformers and providing students with information about them.
To assess students’ understanding, the teacher asks them to respond to sexist quotes of the time as if they were one of the five reformers. For example, a student might speak as Sojourner Truth in response to the statement: “Women have delicate bodies and emotions. They should not be placed under unnecessary stress or physical strain.”
Next, the teacher places students into heterogeneous groups of three, and projects a slide containing a passage from the Declaration of Sentiments, such as, “He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women.” Students discuss the degree to which this grievance has or has not been redressed using a fact sheet on women in the U.S. today as well as their own experience. They then place a symbol for “moral standards” where they think it belongs on a spectrum from Grievance Not Addressed to Grievance Fully Addressed. This spectrum appears on an overhead transparency.
For each passage read, a Presenter from each group (the role rotates) reports to the entire class what the group has decided, then placing a visual symbol for the grievance somewhere along the spectrum. Because students have more opportunity to talk about their opinions in Response Groups, the full class discussion tends to be characterized by longer student responses and more spirited exchanges.

Writing for Understanding: Poems from Angel Island
Interactive experiences can help students write forcefully about history. This activity for learning about Chinese immigration to the United States at the turn-of-the-century taps into students’ multiple intelligences. All learners, even those with lesser linguistic skills, will have something memorable to write about.
The activity begins with students standing in pairs next to a wall covered with pieces of butcher paper. The students view slides and listen to an audio tape about the history of Chinese immigration to California. While viewing a slide of Chinese immigrants being processed on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, students listen to primary source accounts of life in the detention center.
The teacher asks students to place themselves in the shoes of the immigrants and try to express their feelings in poetry. After listening to each account, students write several lines of poetry on the butcher paper—much as the Chinese detained on Angel Island wrote on the barrack walls. The teacher asks for student volunteers to share their poetry with the rest of the class. Then the class listens to poetry written by the Chinese immigrants themselves.
Students view several more slides of life on Angel Island and write lines of poetry to describe each scene. Then they walk around the room reading the completed poems of their classmates.
Students are now ready to create a more refined poem drawing on the photographs that have been projected, the poems of the Chinese immigrants, and the lines written by themselves and their peers. This activity can result in very moving and insightful poetry, such as this stanza composed by a middle school student:
I came to America to find hope.
But I am now in a fog covered prison,
Unsure of what tomorrow will bring.
Who can pity my loneliness?

Teaching that relies on self-discovery requires more time than traditional methodologies. Yet the cognitive benefits of allowing students to construct their own knowledge of the past are many. Active learning tends to be more memorable. It challenges students to use their critical thinking skills. And, it leads to a host of positive outcomes such as the ability to solve problems, to understand historical perspective, and to empathize with others.

1. Bert Bower, Jim Lobdell, Lee Swenson, History Alive! Engaging All Learners in the Diverse Classroom (Menlo Park, California: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994).
2. Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1983).
3. Elizabeth Cohen, Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom (New York: Columbia University Teachers College, 1986).
4. Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960).

Bert Bower was a high school teacher for eight years, a textbook writer, and a university researcher before becoming executive director of Teacher’s Curriculum Institute in 1989. Jim Lobdell was a high school teacher for five years before becoming senior director of Teacher’s Curriculum Institute in 1989.

Table 1
History Alive! Teaching Strategies


Interactive Slide Lecture

Social Studies Skill Builder

Experiential Exercises

Problem Solving Groupwork

Response Groups

Writing for Understanding
Size of Group

full class



four or five



Turns lecturing into a dynamic, participative experience.

Allows students to work in pairs to complete fast-paced, skill-oriented tasks and receive immediate feedback.

Taps into intrapersonal and body-kinesthetic intelligence to allow students to feel the drama of the past.

Requires students to use interpersonal skills to solve highly complex tasks.

Enriches class discussion and promotes critical thinking because all students have an opportunity to contribute.

Helps students write forcefully and in detail about history by giving them experiences about which to write.

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.