History is much more than a few wars and things some dead guys did a few hundred years ago. It’s all too easy to fall into that trap, especially for children. But when you focus on historical thinking skills, history comes alive for your students.
Here’s how teaching students to think like a detective, examine source materials, and think critically moves history lessons from memorization to critical thinking and exploration—skills that will serve them well even beyond history class.
What Is Historical Thinking?
The definition of historical thinking is vague but encompasses several core concepts. Essentially it includes the reading, analysis, and writing necessary to tell historical stories—not just what we know about the past, but how we know about it.
Historical thinking is a “tool for helping students at practically any level learn how to formulate and support arguments based on primary sources, as well as to understand and challenge historical interpretations related in secondary sources.”
Lindsey Gibson of the Canadian Historical Association offers another succinct definition of historical thinking: “[T]he cognitive process of analyzing and interpreting historical evidence to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct historical narratives.”
The Five Concepts of Historical Thinking
The American Historical Association breaks historical thinking down into five important concepts. They call them “The five C’s of historical thinking.” These are:
1. Change Over Time
Students probably already know much has changed since the time of their ancestors. Technology, societal structures, and the world around us are different than they were 500, 200, or even 20 years ago. But there’s also a key bit of continuity running through history: many rituals and other aspects of life stay much the same.
Historians have to understand the context of the past. Things do not happen in a vacuum. It’s all interwoven, and understanding this context can help students make sense of history, especially when they’re reading primary sources.
Things change because of cause and effect. Historians can’t run tests in the past to see what changes when a variable is altered, but they can read primary sources and interpret the explanations these sources offer.
This concept means that every outcome in history is contingent on everything that’s happened before. Any change to an event could have had widespread effects on what came after. Imagine if Lincoln never went to the theater the night he was assassinated, or if Jefferson had never pursued the Louisiana Purchase.
The world’s a messy place, and it’s always been that way. People crave order, but we need to remember things were never simple. Understanding and accepting complexity helps students better understand the past on its own terms.
Historical Thinking Techniques for Students
Knowing the core concepts of historical thinking is one thing. Teaching them is another. The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) has created a rubric for educators to help students strengthen their historical thinking skills. Here are some techniques students can use to exercise their historical thinking muscles, according to the SHEG rubric.
Knowing who wrote something, when, why, and what their perspective was gives much-needed context to historical documents. Students should ask themselves when and why something was written, and perhaps most importantly, “Is it reliable?”
The next skill to work on is understanding when and where something was created, and what was different in those times (as well as what’s the same). Context matters. How would the circumstances of the time have affected the document’s content?
History doesn’t always get its story straight. With this skill, students need to look at other documents of the time. Do they generally agree with each other? If not, why, and what are the differences? Which documents are most reliable?
4. Close Reading
Close reading means observing facts and details about a text you’re reading. Students should look at an author’s claims, evidence, language, and word-choice patterns. All of this can indicate a writer’s perspective and intention, which can help students evaluate a document even if it’s a difficult text.
Teaching Ideas for Introducing Historical Thinking Skills
Here are some exercises that help teach historical thinking skills to students.
In this example, students are shown a late 19th or early 20th century photograph of a Zulu chief and are asked why the photograph was created, its intended audience, and why its reliability might be questioned.
This activity sheet provides a counterpart to the book “Lincoln and Kennedy: A Pair to Compare.” It asks students to explore critical thinking about the presidents and develop opinions about their importance.
The Stanford History Education Group has posted hundreds of US and world history lessons to help students learn historical thinking skills (a free registration is required). One example examines Pocahontas, whose name and life story (at least the Disneyfied version) are familiar to most people. But what do historical sources of the time tell us about her life events? This lesson has two versions—one for younger students and one for older students.
What Your Students Can Learn From These History Skills
The more these historical thinking skills are taught to students, the better equipped they will be to think critically about information they’re presented.
Even beyond history class, teaching strategies that emphasize historical thinking skills benefit students, writes Mike Maxwell:
“Like history teachers, teachers of mathematics, language, science, and other school subjects may encourage their students to distinguish between fact and opinion; view circumstances in a wider context; seek valid evidence and corroborating viewpoints; consider underlying assumptions, alternative explanations, and unintended consequences.”
Teaching your students historical thinking skills can help them improve their entire educational experience. Instead of the rote memorization of events in the distant past, students can use history as the launchpad for learning essential critical thinking skills, and thus better learning how to learn.
- Teaching History.org. National History Education Clearinghouse. “What is Historical Thinking?” https://www.teachinghistory.org/historical-thinking-intro
- Andrews, Thomas and Flannery Burke. “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” Perspectives on History. January 2017. https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/january-2007/what-does-it-mean-to-think-historically
- Stanford History Education Group. “Historical Thinking Chart.” https://sheg.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/download-pdf/Historical%20Thinking%20Chart.pdf
- Steward-Goldberg, Lindsey. “How Important It Is to Teach Historical Thinking Skills.” Looking Back Moving Forward in Museum Education. November 2019. https://lookingbackmovingforwardinmuseumeducation.com/2019/11/14/how-important-it-is-to-teach-historical-thinking-skills/
- Maxwell, Mike, “Historical Thinking Skills: A Second Opinion”, Social Education, Vol. 83 Issue 5: pg. 290-294. https://futurefocusedhistory.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/ncss-article-102019-1.pdf
- Pappas, Peter. “Teaching Historical Thinking Skills.” Copy/Paste. July 2020. https://peterpappas.com/2020/07/teaching-historical-thinking-skills.html
- Stanford History Education Group. “Reading Like a Historian.” https://sheg.stanford.edu/history-lessons
- Gibson, Lindsay. “What Is Historical Thinking.” Canadian Historical Society. September 2020. https://cha-shc.ca/teaching/teachers-blog/what-is-historical-thinking-2020-09-07.htm