Historical thinking 101

For many students, the first word that comes to mind when you ask them about history class is “BORING!” They will complain that history is about thousands of names and dates that they are required to memorize “just ’cause.” In fact, even students who love history tend to think about the discipline this way — names and dates that we need to remember because it’s “important to know what came before you.”

Yikes! Something has gone terribly wrong!

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When history class focuses on the content of history — what happened — students come to see history as synonymous with the past. For these students, historical knowledge consists of established truths that the book or teacher tells them to remember. But history is not the same as the past. History is what we say about the past and thus consists of our inferences, arguments, and theories — none of which are absolutely true.

Rather than asking students what happened, let’s ask them how we know what happened. Not “What caused the Civil War?” but “How do we know what caused the Civil War?” In both cases, students would come to understand the causes of the war, but the second question helps students see that history is inquiry and that they, too, can create it.

The National Research Council has published an incredible resource for teachers who would like to learn more about historical thinking and how students come to think historically. The scale below is based on their findings in “How Students Learn: History in the Classroom.

Novice

Apprentice

Practitioner

Expert

You do not distinguish between source materials and notes or textbooks. You assume that the facts of history are known because witnesses wrote them down in the past. You believe that sources are either correct or incorrect because there is one “true” past. You believe that newer sources are necessarily less reliable than older sources.
You distinguish between source materials from the past & accounts of past created by historians and recognize that both have value. You see the value in investigating multiple pieces of evidence about the same event. You understand that conflicting sources can both be true.
You distinguish between relics & records as well as intentional & unintentional evidence. You realize that the reliability of evidence changes for different questions and that bias does not make a source useless. You use evidence to support your claims.
You construct your own understanding of the past by making inferences using relics & records. You are able to figure out things about the past that no witness reported. You understand that no matter how much evidence supports your claim, one piece of evidence may be enough to refute it.

How do your students currently think? Do they consider the past to consist of one “true” story? Or do they understand that history is created when historians make inferences about the relics and records of the past?

Beyond the understanding that historical thinking is heavily based in the ways historians understand and use evidence, students need to understand how historians deal with time, change, and cause. They must also develop historical empathy and learn to construct valid accounts of the past. (All of these concepts are developed in the resource in the link above!)

Wondering how to get started? Check out these videos of teachers teaching students to deal with evidence and accounts the way historians in the field do. The Stanford History Education Group also provides great resources that are ready to use in the classroom — take a look!

Let us know how it goes!

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Categories: Stage 4: Disciplinary Thinking

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