How Important it is to Teach Historical Thinking Skills

November 14, 2019

I have learned, as a historian and public historian, that having and utilizing thinking skills are essential for understanding history and the current events surrounding us in our communities. Therefore, I emphasize it is significant to continue as well as improve how we teach historical thinking skills in schools. Before I became a historian and a public historian, I was a student in the public-school system with a passion for history. In addition to going to museums at a young age with my family, I remember reading biographies and history books for kids in the school library where I discovered my childhood hero Albert Einstein (I admired how smart he was, and that we both played the violin).

While attending public school, my history classes focused on learning the significant events in our nation’s history then as I got older there was deeper conversations about historical events in U.S. and World history. It wasn’t until I started college that I was introduced to the historical thinking skills I am more familiar with today. These memories of how history was taught while I was in public school and how I was introduced to historical thinking were sparked when I came across a blog post from Future-Focused History sharing Mike Maxwell’s article in the Social Education, a peer-reviewed journal of articles on theoretical and practical ideas from the National Council for the Social Studies.

What are historical thinking skills? According to the American Historical Association, historical thinking skills are comprised of a number of skills that students should take away from a history class: chronological, historical comprehension, historical analysis and interpretation, historical research skills, and analysis and decision-making on historical issues. Students who study history should understand how to distinguish past, present, and future to identify how events take place in time while being able to look for, find, and interpret information from the documents found from the past, or primary sources. The question that needs to be addressed is: how can improve on helping students develop better historical thinking skills?

Mike Maxwell, in preparation for his article and his book Future-Focused History Teaching: Restoring the Power of Historical Learning, conducted a seven-year study of contemporary history schooling. He concluded that there are two factors that limit historical thinking skills’ potential, and those are: useful thinking requires useful knowledge to think about; and historical thinking skills aren’t exclusive to history.

Historical thinking skills are especially important for future generations of historians to develop and utilize to uncover forgotten history and to keep history relevant. If we do not do a good job in educating students on historical thinking skills, we would be doing a disservice for the next generation of life-long learners. While it is good to educate students about historical events to provide context, this practice encourages students to take the information at face value and not take the time to delve deeper into history with any thinking skills. When we do not use skills, we can lose the skills and serious consequences in interpreting history emerge.

One of the skills, for instance, I remember was taken away from lessons in school was how to read and write in cursive. The problem with taking away cursive is the majority of documents analyzed were written in cursive, and historians utilize those skills to read and interpret documents. Without that skill, we will not be able to interpret documents that have not been previously interpreted and learn more about our past.

Even students who are not interested in pursuing history as a career benefit from learning how to use and develop critical thinking skills. Maxwell’s article in Social Education argued that historical thinking skills could be used in other school subjects taught to students. His article pointed out that

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. Because such critical thinking processes are general in nature, the educational system does not need a separate discipline of history dedicated to teaching them; other school subjects can adequately handle the job.

Historical thinking skills do not necessarily need to only be used for studying history. They can be utilized in varying subjects as they all require teachers to help their students develop thinking skills for solving problems, developing their own opinions, and have a better understanding of what facts are. Critical thinking skills are used as a part of life in varying situations, which would lead students to becoming more well-rounded individuals.

Discussion Questions: What are your thoughts on historical thinking skills? Can you share examples of historical/critical thinking skills you have used in your work and/or daily life?

Resources:

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

https://futurefocusedhistory.blog/historical-thinking-skills-a-second-opinion/

https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/teaching-resources-for-historians/teaching-and-learning-in-the-digital-age/the-history-of-the-americas/the-conquest-of-mexico/for-teachers/setting-up-the-project/historical-thinking-skills

https://www.socialstudies.org/publications/socialeducation

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