Francisco de Goya (1810-20)  Plate 39 of Disasters of Wat:  Grande hazaña! Con muertos!  ( A heroic feat! With dead men! ) Etching and aquatint. Prado, Madrid

Francisco de Goya (1810-20) Plate 39 of Disasters of Wat: Grande hazaña! Con muertos! (A heroic feat! With dead men!) Etching and aquatint. Prado, Madrid

History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.
— American historian Howard Zinn (1922-2010)
Who is reading Howard Zinn's iconoclastic book?

Who is reading Howard Zinn's iconoclastic book?

Historians do not, as too many of my colleagues keep mindlessly repeating, “reconstruct” the past. What historians do is produce knowledge about the past, or, with respect to each individual, fallible historian, produce contributions to knowledge about the past. Thus the best and most concise definition of history is: “The bodies of knowledge about the past produced by historians, together with everything that is involved in the production, communication of, and teaching about that knowledge.”
— Arthur Marwick: The Fundamentals of History. The Open University


Begin by asking volunteer students to read the Howard Zinn and Arthur Marwick quotes. Mention to the class that Zinn is famous for a life of civil rights and anti-war activism; and his revisionist A People's History of the United States. Marwick was a respected Brit historian who introduced the notion of "witting vs. unwitting testimony." It is worth asking students to reflect for a moment on why Marwick made this distinction when weighing historical evidence.

For further reading here is a printable pdf of a succinct introduction to the nature of History by Marwick. 

Continue in similar vein with two new volunteers; readings this pair of official distillations of the nature of history from the International Baccalaureate Organization itself. Ask the class to reflect on how much these lofty descriptions have aligned with their actual experience in school history classes.  

History is a dynamic, contested, evidence-based discipline that involves an exciting engagement with the past. It is a rigorous intellectual discipline, focused around key historical concepts such as change, causation and significance.

History is an exploratory subject that fosters a sense of inquiry. It is also an interpretive discipline, allowing opportunity for engagement with multiple perspectives and a plurality of opinions.

Studying history develops an understanding of the past, which leads to a deeper understanding of the nature of humans and of the world today.
— History Guide (First Examinations 2017) IB Diploma Program
History is an area of knowledge that studies the recorded past. It raises knowledge questions such as whether it is possible to talk meaningfully about a historical fact and what such a fact might be, or how far we can speak with certainty about anything in the past.

Studying history also deepens our understanding of human behaviour, as reflecting on the past can help us to make sense of the present.

Documentary evidence plays an important role in history, which raises questions about the basis for judgments of reliability of that evidence. The individual historian also plays an important role in history and in the 20th century there was much debate over whether historical facts exist independently of historians.
— Theory Of Knowledge Guide (First Assessment 2015) IB Diploma Program


Place students in groups of three. Allow a strictly timed six minutes to freely brainstorm a comparison of history and science. Tell students to write down bullet points under two simple headings: "differences" and "similarities."

Next combine trios to make groups of six. Tell them to nominate a facilitator and scribe. Next allow a timed four minutes to distill a single master list. They should add a third heading: "probably wrong or very controversial" to capture any wild ideas for later discussion. 

Finally provide groups with several copies of the following table (so that they can produce several drafts and a final clean copy.) The task is to take their similarity and differences bullet points and arrange them according to the official TOK Areas of Knowledge Framework. Lively debate should ensue. The teacher should circulate between the groups to provide clarity on the full intention of the 5 categories. Printable pdf.

When the task has exhausted itself, ask that all six participants to sign the final clean copy. Collect them. Before the next class meeting the teacher should produce a distillation of the efforts of the entire class for review and some whole class meta-discussion about the two Areas of Knowledge and our methodology itself.

If all goes well there should be ample evidence of the power of collective thinking--including the value of allowing some opportunity for free brainstorming, followed by a systematic reining in.   


This activity provides an encounter with seven famous oil paintings depicting the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. It will be immediately obvious to students that certain artworks seem to work as vivid and direct, non-textual, historic documents. As seductive and evocative as artworks can initially appear; critical examination reveals a more complicated and more interesting relationship between high art and history.

Printable color Pdf. 

Here for reference is list of the artworks. 

1. Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1806) Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne. Oil on canvas. Musée de l'Armée, Hôtel des Invalides, Paris.

2. Jacques-Louis David (1801) Napoleon Crossing the Alps. Oil on canvas. Château de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison.

3. Horace Vernet (1826) Napoleon Bonaparte leading his troops over the bridge of Arcole. Oil on canvas. Christie’s London.

4. Illarion Pryanischnikow (1874) French retreat from Moscow in 1812. Oil on canvas. Location unknown.

5. Paul Delaroche (1850) Bonaparte Crossing the Alps.  Oil on canvas. St James's Palace, London

6. Paul Delaroche (1850) Napoleon at Fontainbleau 1814. Oil on canvas. Musée de l'Armée, Hôtel des Invalides, Paris.

7. Jean Baptiste Mauzaisse (1843) Napoleon on Deathbed 1821.  Musee Nat. du Chateau de Malmaison


“The map that made a nation cry”

Charles Joseph Minard (1867)  Napoleon's Retreat From Moscow (The Russian Campaign 1812-1813)

Charles Joseph Minard (1867) Napoleon's Retreat From Moscow (The Russian Campaign 1812-1813)

Minard’s famous image from 1869 is a very early examples of a scaled flow map. Minard's visualization is certainly a shocking and poignant counter to glorification of Napoleon Bonaparte's previous successes with his large scale, conscript army. Parallels with Hitler's downfall, beginning with the Siege of Stalingrad, will not be lost on HL History students. This is a good time to air (of course, with extreme caution) the perennial Knowledge Question: "To what extent does history repeat itself?"

Even at this low magnification, it is easy to appreciate the relative size of the army starting out (ochre) with the meagre numbers returning (black).  422,000 men, crossed the River Niemen in Lithuania. Only 10,000 survived the retreat from Moscow to see the river again.

Students should explore briefly the interactive online version of the Minard map at the mass:werk site.  Dragging the knob backwards over the chart allows the visitor to appreciate the details of geography and freezing temperatures for each day. There is a startling visual of the body count too.  

Students should be encouraged to make connections with The Map is not the Territory and Draw history (including cubist history) units.


Several students may have seen these iconic images that are often presented in Higher Level History courses. The TOK class can be asked to “spot the difference,” determine approximate time and place, identify the key players and attempt to explain why photographs like these were altered by Stalin's darkroom technicians.


  • To what extent are photographs reliable historical sources? What is it about historic photographs that make them categorically different from oil paintings?

  • Would images like these be successful propaganda today?

  • What recent technological advances have further debased the notion that “the camera cannot lie”?

  • How should we approach academic history written under the auspices a totalitarian regime?

This timely collage work by illustrator Tim O'Brien evokes Magritte and Orwell.

This timely collage work by illustrator Tim O'Brien evokes Magritte and Orwell.