Teaching Historical Thinking Skills

Every year in one of my classes, I give students what proves to be an exceptionally difficult assignment. I ask them to choose and analyze one article about race that was published in a scholarly journal sometime in the years between 1880 and 1920. The first year I gave this assignment—to first year students, no less—I was shocked at how much students struggled. Many had a hard time even understanding the argument of their chosen article. Others ignored the question of who had written the article, sometimes turning in papers where they mistook a leading African American thinker of the day for a white supremacist.

I did not immediately understand why this assignment was so hard because I was assuming a host of what the readings for this week refer to as “automatic processes” that trained historians engage in. These are ways of historical thinking that need to be decoded for students so that they can begin to recognize and practice them. The assignment, I now realize, challenged students to engage in all of the most important elements of historical thinking. First, It asked them to do a careful analysis of a primary source, sources that in this case often included ideas and words that were unfamiliar to modern students. Second, it demanded that the students engage in “sourcing,” by asking questions about the source’s author, about when the article was written, and the journal in which it was published. Third, to make any kind of meaningful argument, students had to try to understand the historical context in which the source was written. Many students ended up arguing that the authors of their chosen articles were racist, when, in fact, some of them were among the most progressive racial thinkers of their day. Like Sam Wineburg, I found that my students were prone to presentism and were predisposed to judge people and ideas from the past according to their own modern-day perspectives.

The assignment also challenged students to think historically in a fourth way. Even when students fully understood their source and interpreted it ably, many fell into the trap of making sweeping claims beyond what their evidence could support. They would argue, for example, that their one article proved that all Americans thought a particular way. While doing history demands close reading of primary sources, historians develop interpretations and arguments by looking for patterns and trends among many different sources from the past. It was only when my students stepped back and began trying to synthesize all the different ideas that arose from the many varied articles of their classmates that we were able to begin developing arguments about the prevalent ideologies or parameters of thought during a particular era.

My reflections on this assignment and other experiences in my years as a classroom teacher have raised many questions for me about the best process for teaching students history, by which I mean not only content information, but also the ways in which historians come to make arguments and construct knowledge. Here are just three of them:

How do we best help students understand that there is no single historical truth but rather a series of interpretations that evolve and change over time? Many students are taught history as if it were a series of dates, facts, and events; they understand history as a single “truthful” account of the past rather than as an argument about how and why things changed over time based on the evidence we have available. They often see “content” as truth or fact rather than as a constructed version of the past. To address this issue, I try to help students recognize historical arguments. I begin lectures—which students tend to see as authoritative accounts of the historical truth—by telling them that I am making an argument and that they should feel free to question that argument. I identify the interpretations of others when they appear (telling students, for example, that this idea or account comes from the work of a particular historian). Offering students different interpretations of the same event and asking them to explore how and why the interpretations might differ is another way to help them begin to understand the factors that shape the writing of history: are authors with different arguments about an event drawing on different bodies of evidence, asking different questions, reflecting the political zeitgeist of the era in which they were writing?

How do we help students recognize that there are better or worse accounts of the past even if there is no single historical truth? Teaching students that interpretations change over time can lead them to adopt a form of relativism where they come to assume that all accounts of the past are equally valid. If there is no single historical truth, they wonder, on what basis can we judge the reliability of any account of the past? At the most extreme, some students grappling with the loss of the certainty of “truth” come to see history as not much better than fiction. Students of history need to be taught how to assess the reliability of different interpretations if we want them to be active and critical interrogators of the stories, arguments, and media that is all around them. Asking students to consider the source base an author uses is one way to begin to get them to think critically about the quality or reliability of a particular interpretation. If an author “cherry-picks” sources by only using those that support their argument and ignoring those that might complicate it, the  argument is not reliable. If the account is based only on sources from a single perspective, it is limited. If an interpretation makes claims that go beyond what can fairly be argued in relation to the evidence, it may not be trustworthy. In helping students see how knowledge is constructed, they can begin to develop their own frameworks for assessing what makes for a good or compelling argument.

How do we get students to see the past on its own terms rather than through the lens of their present-day understandings? Teaching history requires that we help students recognize and move beyond presentist thinking when they engage in it. As Sam Wineburg points out, presentism reflects a natural thought process for humans. We interpret information through the frames we carry with us; we understand the world based on our own existing beliefs and experiences. Learning to think historically requires that we develop the ability to imagine a world other than our own. I have found that one way of helping students recognize presentism is by asking them to try to see their own beliefs and behaviors from some kind of critical distance. Even a very simple question—asking students, for example, why they put stickers on their computers—can lead to a fascinating conversation about contemporary culture, identity politics, and consumption. When students begin to raise questions about the beliefs and culture of their own times, they are better able to understand that the beliefs and culture of a previous time might have been very different.

Historical thinking is complicated, but I believe it can be taught to students at any level, from elementary school to those long out of school. But teaching historical thinking requires that we recognize it for what it is: the methodology of a discipline that has evolved over long practice.

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