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Neanderthals on Trial

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(Gr. 6-8)
I've been using a particular statement in the "Neanderthals on Trial" program to teach my junior U.S. History students a sense of awareness and understanding in noticing statistical bias in their research and fact gathering. (I teach at a private, all-boys, Catholic school.)

A statement in the film says: "Archeological sites can also be deceptive, tempting investigators to find the evidence they're looking for, whether it's there or not." The program goes on to describe the excavation of a cave in southwestern France at a place called Fontechevade, and the interpretations made about the artifacts found there. "So it appears that Fontéchevade was an elaborate illusion and not a human habitation site at all. What made it look real to the archeologists was an overwhelming desire to see the past in a certain way."

This film brings to light a subtle yet obvious human fact that we humans always wish to be first in something and the trail we are following at times can be the wrong one.

To demonstrate how bias may affect their research and their interpretation of their data, we conduct the following lesson. Each class takes on a historical case such as the JFK assassination, the effectiveness of the Vietnam War, the conditions of Eastern Pennsyvania coal miners, the First and Fourth Amendments, prayer in the classrooms, and the Watergate scandal.

The class is divided into two teams, with each team taking on one side of the case. Within the teams, students students work with a partner to research a particular piece of evidence from their case to support their teams' point of view (i.e., The Domino Theory and the Vietnam War).

I present clips from "Neanderthals on Trial" and 12 Angry Men (directed by Sidney Lumet) to provide evidence of how bias may affect their research and their interpretation of their data. Students conduct qualitative research through conducting a personal interview with an expert in their topic; visiting college libraries; and drafting their points of view, research, and data in a paper. They then dress up in suits and prepare for a five-day hearing in which they formally argue on their topic.

It turns out that many students notice bias in their data research and feel the compelling nature for their research to "turn out" as they expected.

Editor's Note: To read an extended description of this idea, see Featured Teachers.

Sent in by
Michael Accorsi
Junipero Serra High School
San Mateo, CA

Teacher's Guide
Neanderthals on Trial

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