An innovative program designed to equip students to teach history to their peers may be on the verge of bringing a quiet revolution to America’s classrooms.
Called “Now Debate This,” the program began this past summer with 16 students handpicked from hundreds of applicants nationwide. The high school juniors traveled the country, conducting research and seeking historical clues to help them debate whether George Washington or Abraham Lincoln was the nation’s greatest president.
The program’s ambitious goal is help reverse the alarming historical illiteracy evident among young people.
The renowned philanthropic Templeton Foundation sponsored the program, which gave the students laptops and video cameras to chronicle their studies. And participants won about $250,000 in college scholarships along the way.
“I have always loved history, and this opportunity has been the experience of a lifetime,” says Philip Hayes of Lindale, Texas, who became the program’s grand prize winner for defending the proposition that Washington is America’s greatest president.
The debates were just the beginning, however, says John “Jack” M. Templeton Jr., M.D., the foundation’s chairman and president.
In Philadelphia, the students met and talked with Lincoln impersonators and Washington impersonators. They also toured Washington’s home in Mount Vernon and Lincoln’s residence in Springfield, Ill.
“Every aspect was captured on film, including the round-robin debate,” Templeton explains.
That enabled the foundation to compile a TV-quality DVD, now in production, that will be a resource teachers can use to stimulate students’ interest in history.
“It’s ready made for classroom use, and students do resonate with visual media,” says Templeton, who worries that a lack of historical literacy is leading to “the extinguishing of America’s historical memory.”
His concerns may be valid. In February, The New York Times reported that most of more than 1,000 17-year-olds surveyed didn’t know when the Civil War was fought. About a quarter of them said Christopher Columbus landed in the New World after 1750.
The key to Now Debate This: It encourages students to learn about history from other students.
“There’s a major concept in teaching today of student empowerment. This comes across as a vehicle of students teaching students,” Templeton says.
One of the advisers to the project is Stuart Leibiger, chairman of the history department of La Salle University in Philadelphia. Says Leibiger: “The Now Debate This program anticipates the future of teaching by combining technologies popular with today’s youth, especially blogs and videos, with intensive reading and discussion of both primary documents and recent historical scholarship.”
Producing the DVD and introducing it to school systems could take two years. But plans are under way for another debate program next year.
“We set a very high bar for the inaugural year of Now Debate This,” says Mary L. Hagy, the executive producer Templeton and wife Josephine credit for the program’s innovative format.
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