Rankin: In Colorado social studies classrooms, should we be teaching facts or interpretations? (column)

Joyce Rankin
Valley Voices
Joyce Rankin
Special to the Daily

Who won the Civil War? Is your answer based on “facts” or your, or someone else’s, interpretation?

Last month, the State Board of Education reviewed and voted upon social studies standards, which include history, geography, economics and civics.

The word “interpret” appeared 90 times somewhere in the social studies revised document. The word “interpret” is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as “to conceive in the light of individual belief, judgment or circumstance.”

Researcher and developer of kindergarten through 12th-grade mathematics curriculum Paul Goldenberg asserts, “Wrong answers are often correct answers to an entirely reasonable alternative interpretation of a question.” Children, because of their limited experience and knowledge base, may “interpret” a situation quite differently from an adult. Add their access to today’s most popular research sources, Wikipedia and Google, and you may find unexpected answers to seemingly obvious questions.

As an example, take a middle-school assignment: “Who won the Civil War?”

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One of the essential skills, under the new social studies standards for eighth grade, is to “interpret information as historians and draw conclusions based on the best analysis using primary and secondary sources.”

The first challenge is understanding the definitions of primary and secondary sources. When the eighth-grade student Googles these terms, he finds: A primary source “provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event,” including, “internet communications via email, blogs, listservs and newsgroups.” Secondary sources “describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon …”

So if the 13-year-old uses Google and searches “the South won the Civil War,” then the first article that appears is from the New Yorker, (2015) with the title, “The South won the Civil War.” The first photo caption, “Southernization of American politics,” cites civil and voting rights as the reason the south won the war.

The second article is from, advertised as “your best source for antiwar news and viewpoints” and titled “How the South won the Civil War.”

The process the student used fits the standards. However, the conclusion is incorrect.

History Professor Terry Jones, of the University of Louisiana, wrote a piece in the New York Times titled, “Could the South have won the War?” His article provides many “what if” scenarios that could have changed history. Might a 13-year-old use this as a primary source?

How would a teacher evaluate the student’s report when the process was followed, yet the outcome was incorrect?

The board approved the new social studies standards by a single vote.

Should we be teaching facts or interpretations?

Joyce Rankin is on the State Board of Education representing the 3rd Congressional District. She can be reached at

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