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?


Maxwell, Mike, “Historical Thinking Skills: A Second Opinion”, Social Education, Vol. 83 Issue 5: pg. 290-294.

Historic House Keeping: A Hands-On Professional Development Experience

July 18, 2019

On previous blog posts, I shared my experiences in participating in professional development programs including conferences and seminars. I participated in another program that would not only help me refresh my skills as a public historian and museum professional but could also help several museum professionals who are responsible for collections. Also, by sharing my experience in professional development programs it will also help individuals understand the challenges museum professionals face to maintain our collections for the public to enjoy and appreciate.

This past Monday I participated in a Historic House Keeping all-day seminar provided by the Greater Hudson Heritage Network in New York. Greater Hudson Heritage Network serves the museum and history communities as a catalyst to advance professional standards and practices, build the capacity of organizations to meet their missions, and create a network of effective and professional stewards of regional history and culture now and in the future. It serves member cultural organizations, their staffs, their boards, and their communities in New York State and beyond, offering consultations and assistance, a resource network, and professional development opportunities to advance the work of historians, historic house museums, heritage centers, historic sites, archives, and libraries. The workshop I participated in was one of the examples of programs Greater Hudson Heritage Network offers.

Before I took this workshop, my previous experience with historic housekeeping was at the Connecticut Landmarks historic houses in Hartford. At the houses, I assisted in cleaning the floors, carpets, and the collections within the house including but not limited to furniture and toys. I also unpacked and set up holiday decorations that were in the collections to use during the holiday season. For summer tours, I helped set up the family trunk used for their summer trips to Niantic and laid out their wool bathing suits on the bed they once wore when they swam in the summertime. I decided to take this workshop to both refresh my memory of historic housekeeping but to learn more about techniques that I should utilize when I take on my next historic housekeeping project.

Historic House Keeping took place at the Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport on Long Island. The Vanderbilt Museum, located in Suffolk County, includes the Eagle Nest Mansion once owned by William K. Vanderbilt II. He established a trust fund to finance the operation of the museum and deeded it to Suffolk County, New York, upon his death in 1944. Suffolk County opened the museum to the public in 1950.

During the full-day workshop, I learned the proper, hands-on methodology of collections care by working directly with collections which equipped myself and other attendees with the knowledge and skill sets necessary for cleaning, handling, and storing collections, along with the tools to teach our volunteer base these critical skills. Participants received a lite breakfast, networking luncheon, resource packet, and cleaning toolkit. The day began with introductions to Before we began our sessions, we had an opportunity to participate in an hour-long tour of the Mansion.

We learned a lot about the history of the Eagle’s Nest Mansion and the history of the Vanderbilt family. Each room we visited within the Mansion gave us a glimpse at the life of William K. Vanderbilt II through the estate that memorializes his legacy. Once we completed the tour, we were separated into three groups to start the first session before our lunch break. After the lunch break, we went to our next two sessions in our groups. While we did listen to their tips and had the opportunity to ask them questions, we were able to move and handle table settings, pack textiles, clean the carpet and objects, and clean silver based on the tips we were given. When we completed the three sessions, the three groups came back together to work together on a couple of storage and cleaning sessions. Also, we learned about various archival boxes that are recommended for various types of collections.

I enjoyed the full-day workshop not only because it was a great way to network with museum and history professionals, but we worked with session professionals on hands-on projects. We were able to practice our skills so we would know what to do when we are faced with these situations. At the end of the program, we were given cleaning kits of our own that included materials we used during our sessions and information we can refer to later during our own historic housekeeping. The main purpose of each session we participated in was how to prolong the collection items for preservation and for people to learn more about the past. If we do not practice these steps in preserving our collections, we will lose all of the physical connections to the past more quickly through decay. By participating in this workshop, I feel that I am better prepared for cleaning and preserving historic houses.

Discussion Questions: What techniques do you use in historic housekeeping? As a visitor of historic houses, what are your impressions of how the collections are displayed?

To learn more about the places I referenced and Greater Hudson Heritage Network, check out the links below.


Museum Leadership: What We Need To Do To Develop Our Skills in the Museum Field

Added to Medium, July 19, 2018

All museum professionals need to develop their skills to succeed in the field, and we need to do more to help museum professionals, especially emerging museum professionals, develop their leadership skills. The current state of our field, however, does not do a lot to encourage its museum professionals to practice their skills that will help them develop their careers. There are numerous resources we provide on what leadership is and what characteristics make a great leader, but how are museum professionals exercising their leadership skills? In our field, gaining experience is a double-edged sword because we attempt to develop the skills we learned and are well versed in by applying for jobs with leadership building opportunities but we are turned down because hiring managers say we lack the experience.

As a museum professional, I continue to seek leadership opportunities and take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. Throughout my career, I have developed my skills in museum education and would often have to take on leadership responsibilities to maintain time as well as knowledge for school programs. I began to see more leadership opportunities when I came to Long Island. As I became more involved in the museum field on Long Island, I took on more responsibilities that I have not taken on before such as administration duties like booking programs and creating docent schedules. A lot of what I am able to do now as a museum professional I have learned from experience. Lately I have been thinking about my previous and present experiences, and tried to recall how much of my leadership skills were learned from lessons and how much of them were learned from experience. I also wondered what we are doing now for museum professionals on developing leadership skills.

Based on the articles such as “Leaving the Museum Field” and numerous articles about museums and self-care, our field is not doing enough to make sure museum professionals have well-rounded experiences with time dedicated to self-care. We still have far to go in having a sustainable and effective museum workforce. There are many resources museum organizations and associations provide about leadership and how leadership skills should be utilized. Our museum associations provide a wide variety of leadership resources in forms of books, articles, blogs, museum association standards, webinars, and conferences.

One of the books that discusses leadership Martha Morris’ Leading Museums Today: Theory and Practice published for the American Association for State and Local History through the Rowman & Littlefield publishing firm. In her book, Morris revealed that this book is about the context, the urgency, and the nuances of service to the mission of the museum organization whether at the level of the governing body or a middle manager. The book also provides a balanced look at external operations of the museum which are factors that influence success such as demographic changes and political trends, and internal operations of the museum such as organizational design, new modes of planning and decision making, implementation of strategic programs, and flexibility in response to the reality of constant change. Museum professionals also find resources from other museums and museum associations especially about leadership.

Blogs, like this one, is one of the ways museum professionals can learn from one another and other museums or museum associations to develop their leadership skills. Also, there are articles and standards museums and museum associations provide about leadership. I took a look at the resources page on the American Alliance of Museums’ website, and I found the following.

The American Alliance of Museums has a page on its website that shared standards the Alliance has for Leadership and Organizational Structure. Its page stated standards regarding governance, standards for museums with joint governance, standards regarding the composition of the governing authority, and standards regarding delegation of authority. In the latter standards, it describes how

Having clear delegation of authority means that the governing authority understands the main areas of its responsibility. Those areas are to collectively determine mission, set policies for operations, ensure that charter and bylaw provisions are followed, plan for the institution, approve budgets, establish financial controls and ensure that adequate resources are available to advance the museum’s mission.

In other words, if authority is clearly laid out in a museum’s organization all of the responsibilities of leaders would be fulfilled for the museums. Each standard I have previously listed discuss the purpose and importance, implementation, and documentation.

AAM also provides blog posts such as “Leadership, and Why You Need a SWOT Analysis (and a Personal Board of Directors)” which is a conversation between Greg Stevens and Anne Ackerson about ways to improve leadership skills such as the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, and “Museum Leadership, Organizational Readiness, and Institutional Transformation” which is a case study that was a part of a series on museum leadership, developed for the career and leader-ship management workshop for participants in the International Program, held at the AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo in May, 2016.

The American Association for State and Local History also have a number of resources available on the website. One of the blog posts AASLH previously posted about leadership is “A Special Kind of Leader: Small Museum Leadership Characteristics” that lists characteristics that museum professionals have or should have when working in a small museum. Another example of a blog on leadership is “The Ideal Director?”; the writer of this post gave their impressions of job descriptions looking for directors and what they believed are the characteristics an “ideal” director should be for an organization. I do realize that there are many more resources than what I previously described but the point is leadership is a common discussion that is addressed throughout the field.

Providing all these resources is all well and good but the question remains: How do we utilize all of the resources we learned from on leadership?

There is a difference between having the knowledge and actually practicing this knowledge. If museum professionals are under the impression that there are only certain professionals that can exhibit their leadership skills, then we would be hindering our museum professionals and future professionals’ potential. We need to show museum professionals at all levels how leadership skills benefit all of them within the organization. Our field right now is working towards improving the museum workplace throughout the field but there are still issues we need to work through to untangle this web. A blog post I found addresses leadership and where we are now as a field.

This week Joan Baldwin wrote on the Leadership Matters blog about where we are now with museums and leadership. She discussed how Baldwin and Anne Ackerson are planning to revise the original Leadership Matters book by interviewing more museum professionals in the field. In the meantime, Baldwin provided a preliminary list of places where leadership intersects with the lives of individuals, directors, organizations and boards. For individuals, for instance, she pointed out that

-The job market remains highly competitive and graduate school is still the admission ticket.
-This is still a field where too often one is asked to work for no money in the form of volunteering or internships before actually making too little money.
-This is a field that too often fails to train for leadership, but asks for independent, creative forward-thinking employees.
-This is still a field where race, class and gender are barriers: Race because too often young POC are hired for the wrong reasons and asked to represent a race/culture rather than being treated with equity; class because poor salaries continue to make it easier for wealthy individuals to enter the field; and gender, because for women, particularly women of color and most especially trans women, even the most casual Facebook survey points to a boatload of bias.

Individuals within the field constantly move through figurative cobwebs of expectations that contradict themselves making it challenging for museum professionals to meet their personal goals. This double-edged sword needs to be addressed, make expectations clear and be sure the reality can meet these expectations. Baldwin also pointed out that for leaders in the museum field need to remember:

-The back of the house is as important as the front of the house. Museum workers who have a long tradition of not retaliating when mistreated have started to react individually and collectively.
-Museum workers and museum audiences expect (and want) organizations to be values driven. Sorting out what that means for a given museum or heritage organization is one of the tasks for today’s leader.
-Leading an organization means engagement not just presentation.
-Leaders need to understand how and where personal and organizational leadership intersect and mirror one another. A self-aware leader means a self-aware organization.
-21st-century museum leaders need the courage to tackle the hard stuff.

The relationship between directors and staff is a significant one especially within the museum field. Directors have many responsibilities and challenges when running a museum, and by establishing expectations and applying them both parties will be able to create a strong organization that will make both of their jobs easier to execute in the long run.

Museum professionals at every level should be able to serve as both mentors and mentees. When museum professionals learn from one another, the bonds between them will not only be strengthened they will also be able to preserve and strengthen future museum leadership in the field.

What are your impressions about leadership? Where and how have you learned to be a leader? How have you utilized your leadership skills?
Below are resources I referenced in the blog post and additional resources I found.