Debating Significance: Big Brother Meets the History of Medicine
While the blood and gore that’s never far from the surface of Medicine through Time can be good for grabbing interest it’s often difficult to get students involved and committed to an individual’s viewpoint in the same way that is often a good motivator at KS3. This activity is designed to help motivation (and hence knowledge and understanding) and to improve students’ ability to talk constructively while revising the key elements of Ancient Medicine. By asking students to argue on behalf of particular individuals it takes the risk of moving away from our normal historical objectivity but subjectivity is a good way of engaging students’ interests and therefore increasing their motivation to read and investigate.
The activity is based on page 31 in Essential Medicine and Health through Time by Ann Moore et al.
This activity helps students to
- recap key developments in ancient medicine
- identify the particular contributions of individuals
- develop confidence in arguing and debating
You will need:
1. Five tabards labelled Egyptian doctor, Hippocrates, Galen, Roman engineer and Woman.
2. Five sets of the statements, like the ones below.
I was one of the first specialist doctors and thought of the first rational reasons for illness. The others would not have had their ideas if I had not been first.
I developed the Theory of the Four Humours which was the basis for Galen’s ideas. My ideas lasted for thousands of years.
Most illnesses are treated by mothers like me. We pass on herbal cures to our own children and grandchildren. They do far more good than all these fancy ideas.
My sewers and clean water supplies saved many lives. It's practical not theory, like these other ideas.
I improved on Hippocrates’ ideas and the important ideas in my books were used for over 1000 years, long after his sewers and pipelines were destroyed.
3. Split the class into 5 groups, each group representing one of the people. One member of each group should wear the identifying tabard.
4. Before beginning the activity, ask students how we can decide which people or events have been the most significant in medical history. Draw up a short list of criteria, such as how long a person’s impact lasted, the number of people affected by his or her ideas or methods and whether their ideas were beneficial or not.
1. Give each group a set of the 5 statements. Their task is to identify which is their statement and then to match the rest of the statements to the groups. (This then acts as a resource bank of initial ideas). Check that the right matches have been made.
2. Next, give the groups 5 minutes to prepare their argument - why their group made the most significant contribution to medicine in the ancient world. They must identify up to 2 things to say in their own favour and can say 1 thing against another group, using the criteria for significance identified earlier.
3. Each group in turn has 1 minute to make their statement. Record the main points on the board.
4. Either have a class vote on who is the most important figure in ancient medicine as a result of what’s been said or go into Big Brother mode and reject the 2 groups with the lowest votes and then have another round of debate and voting. Just how many rounds you have will depend on your judgement of your class.
1. Focus on what surprised students – who did they expect to win and why he/she was expected to win? Did it turn out like that?
2. What specifically have they learned about each individual? What do they think they’ll need to remember when they move forward in time to the Middle Ages?
3. How easy was it for them to vote objectively after arguing on behalf of an individual? What impact did they think this kind of activity had on their learning? Would they like to do this kind of activity again – why?
Notes & Variations
1. You can return to this activity with Renaissance figures - Vesalius, Pare, Harvey but also local healers, wisewomen and mothers. You could also use this to examine the contributions of individuals in the nineteenth century. Students will benefit from repeating this kind of activity as they will perform better with confidence and familiarity.
2. An alternative overview, suggested by Dale Banham, is to recap the significance of a range of individuals using the FA Cup as a model.
a) Choose enough key figures from medical history so that you have one key figure for each pair of students. You could also have representative figures e.g. a "universal Mum" as well as the famous names.
b) Allocate the figures to the students by drawing them out of a hat. Now make a cup draw so you set up matches e.g. Pasteur v. Galen, Vesalius v. Nightingale. Set aside time for preparation and for discussing criteria for significance - e.g. impact over a long span of time, impact on most lives, practical impact etc etc.
c) Go into the first round with each pair having a short, defined period (1 or 2 minutes) to explain why their character should win this bout - they can focus on their strengths and their opponents' limitations. At the end of the opposing presentations, have a class vote on the winner, then play the next match.
d) Move forward into the next round - use homework for preparation of the next set of arguments - they will need to be different to take account of a new opponent.
e) Continue until you have a winner.
- How often have you used this kind of debating activity before with this class? Does the frequency of use affect its effectiveness and, if so, what effects will this have on your overall course planning?
- Did you learn anything about individual students that would have been harder to learn from more standard activities?
- When and how will you refer back to this session later in your course? Will this reference back be more effective because of the use of the debating activity and subjective argument creating a link to an individual?
- How else could this technique be used within your History courses at all levels?