Using Classroom Mock Trials to Encourage Critical Thinking in Social Studies

In the world and U.S. history classes I teach at the high school level, the month of May—which is also Asian Pacific American Heritage Month—is time for World War II. Part of the challenge for me, as I have learned more about this turning point in the history of humankind, is to keep my instructional focus on student inquiry and critical thinking and to temper the urge to revert to a storyteller approach. When the transmission of facts dominates my class, students become passive learners and their thinking suffers. Instead, I ask myself, “In this unit, how can I use the events of the time to develop student’s thinking skills while also integrating literacy-based materials that require student inquiry and, eventually, judgment?” Starting from this perspective, the focus stays on what students must do and less on what I am going to do.

A strategy I have employed—in this unit as well as several others (listed below)—is to turn students into judges with the focus on a key, decision-making individual who helps to define the period of study. With the use of historical documents—including written accounts, political cartoons, photographs, and other available resources—students create a mock trial and analyze President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop the bombs (codenamed “Fat Man” and “Little Boy”) on Japan in August of 1945. The question students investigate, and eventually must answer, is “Did President Truman make the right decision in dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”

President Harry S. Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities has been debated for decades.
1. Identify Student Roles 

To maximize inquiry and participation, each student plays a different role in the trial process, from judges to key witnesses, including Truman himself, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and other figures. Defense and prosecuting attorneys question the witnesses, while jury members must deliberate at the end of the trial and vote on the decision. Since I use this activity several times during the year, I rotate students through different roles, while also recognizing that some students are just not comfortable playing some of the more important characters (attorney, for example). I give students descriptions and quotes for the individual they portray, and students are expected to research additional information to add to their knowledge and understanding of the individual, as well as incorporate their own viewpoint on the decision.

2. Gather Primary Sources

There is a long list of possibilities when it comes to deciding which important people to include in the list of “witnesses,” and this is an area where I have evolved recently. In the past, I focused almost entirely on American, or Allied, witnesses, such as U.S. military commanders. However, I recently came across fascinating documents from the Japanese perspective that surprised and excited me. For example, in one instance, Foreign Minister of Japan Shigenori Togo recalls his frustration with his government’s aggressive actions that caused the war in Asia. Togo actually defends President Truman’s decision, which eventually devastated Japan, and blames the military leaders who controlled the Japanese government for forcing Truman’s hand. Students are shocked when they hear their classmate, portraying a Japanese leader, offer this testimony in response to questions from "attorneys."

Likewise, in another primary source document, President Dwight D. Eisenhower offers his opinion, which criticizes his predecessor and offers alternative actions that would have avoided the use of the atomic bombs. This perspective also catches students off guard and forces them to think more deeply about how difficult Truman’s decision was. Additionally, students gain a greater understanding of how the democratic process works, with our nation’s leaders forced to consider the opinions of not just their own chosen advisors but also critics who are free to express their own views.

With regard to identifying useable resources, I have found that providing a link to a specific source—or just providing the source at the start—saves time that can instead be used to allow students to read and prepare for the actual trial. In searching for information, this forces me to be cognizant of providing enough information for the “attorneys” to formulate pertinent questions, but not so much so that we get bogged down in details.

President Harry S. Truman

3. Hold the Mock Trial

I use the same structure for every trial based on the procedures I learned as a mock trial coach. Defense attorneys proceed first, calling forward their witnesses for a series of questions that are based on the source information provided. As students gain experience and become more comfortable in the structure, the complexity of questions grows. (I caution them against using  outside information since this could create a situation where the witness may not even be familiar with the nature of the question.)

After defense attorneys question their own witnesses, prosecuting attorneys cross-examine. We then follow the same pattern for the prosecution side, with attorneys questioning their own witnesses first, followed by the cross-examination. During this time, the students serving as jurors are expected to take notes so that when the questioning ends, they can deliberate and eventually vote on a verdict. Appointing a lead juror will help this process go more smoothly.

4. Assign Post-Activity Responses

The final step in the activity is for each student to answer the question themselves: "Did President Truman make the right decision in dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?" To answer this, students must write a three-paragraph Claim/Evidence/Reasoning essay, using direct evidence that they learned in the process of the trial. At this time, I give each of them the same summaries that I gave the individual students who served as witnesses at the start.

Using This Format to Teach Other Topics

Other than Truman’s decision, there are a lot of individuals and topics you can teach in this format. In world history, these may include individuals such as:

  • Julius or Augustus Caesar
  • Galileo
  • Queen Elizabeth I
  • Charles Darwin
  • Karl Marx
  • Vladimir Lenin
  • Che Guevara

In U.S. history, these may include:

  • Thomas Jefferson (for his duality as protector of freedoms while also being a slave owner)
  • Andrew Jackson
  • John Brown
  • Margaret Sanger
  • Malcom X
  • Richard Nixon

With this approach, I do give up time that in the past I spent summarizing the events for students. What I gain, and what my students benefit from, is time spent digging deep into the past, with the students leading the charge. They are more focused, better equipped to make tough choices, and forced to critically analyze one of the most important decisions of the 20th century. I have confidence that this change in approach is not only better for students but, in a small way, also better for the civic development of students living in a democracy like ours. 

Plus, students find it a lot more interesting!

***

Want to further immerse your students in history? Learn more about the HMH Social Studies program for students in Grades 6–12.