What is historical thinking?

Published on September 7, 2020

By Lindsay Gibson

Historical thinking is a lot like critical thinking. It’s a term that almost everyone who teaches history has heard, seen, or used, yet there are varied and conflicting understandings of its nature. In Part I of this this three-part blog post, I attempt to clarify some of the conceptual murkiness by defining what historical thinking is. In Part II, I describe how the concept of historical thinking has changed over time, and in Part III I discuss common critiques of historical thinking and identify possible contributions historical thinking could make to history education in the future. 

Part I: Defining historical thinking

For more than a century, democratic states have experienced intense debates between those who think school history should be used to promote patriotism and national solidarity, and those who argue school history should promote engaged, thoughtful, and critical citizens. Beginning in the 1890s historians and educators promoted historical thinking as an important purpose and method for teaching history. The Committee of Seven’s 1899 report to the American Historical Association about history teaching in U.S. schools stated that the primary aim of historical study is “the training of pupils not so much in the art of historical investigation as in that of thinking historically”.[1]

Historical thinking was variously and imprecisely defined in these early discussions, and it remained a relatively obscure notion until the late 1960s when a series of concurrent developments in psychology, educational theory, and historiography led to its further conceptualization.[2]

Image 2 du 7 septembre
A view from the back of the classroom looking towards the teacher and the blackboard. Broadview Elementary School, Ottawa, Ontario, 1960.   (Photo Credit: Christopher Lund)

In psychology researchers influenced by the “cognitive revolution” challenged commonly-held beliefs among behaviorist and Piagetian psychologists that students were incapable of thinking deductively or hypothetically in history.[3] In educational theory, Jerome Bruner’s “structure of the disciplines” and P.H. Hirst’s related notion of “forms of knowledge,” inspired history curriculum reform in Western Europe and North America that required students to construct knowledge by emulating disciplinary inquiry processes utilized by historians.[4] At the same time, successive social, cultural, and postcolonial turns in academic historiography undercut the narratives of national progress that privileged the nation and political-military-diplomatic history while ignoring the experience of marginalized groups.

In the last fifty years historical thinking has become a standard in the theory and practice of history education in Western Europe and North America before spreading globally.[5] Defining historical thinking is a complicated task given its complex and contested nature, the numerous conceptual models and approaches to historical thinking that exist, and because historical thinking is often conflated with related, yet distinctive concepts commonly discussed in history education including: historical mindedness,[6] historical reasoning,[7] historical understanding,[8] historical literacy,[9] and historical consciousness.[10] Despite the difficulties in defining historical thinking, there are three defining features of historical thinking, it is educational, disciplinary, and empirical.

One of the defining qualities of historical thinking is that it is fundamentally educational. Historical thinking must be distinguished from “history;” otherwise, “historical thinking” would include all of historiography, and it would be difficult to define as a distinct concept. Thus, historical thinking becomes necessary and useful only when one is attempting to teach students how to do history. History is more than an “informational” subject focused on learning factual knowledge and fixed grand narratives, but an “educational” subject that emphasizes learning critical disciplinary methods, concepts, and procedures essential for active participation in society.[11] If historical thinking is to be taught, learned, and assessed in schools then clearly articulated, easily communicated, and pedagogically practical conceptions of historical thinking are essential.

Historical thinking can also be defined in relation to the academic discipline of history. If the past is everything that has ever happened, and history is comprised of narratives that are told about the past, then historical thinking is the cognitive process of analyzing and interpreting historical evidence to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct historical narratives. Historiography provides a guiding framework, yet there is a huge gap between the practices, methods, and procedures used in the academic discipline and what is possible and appropriate in the school classroom.

The third defining characteristic of historical thinking is that it is empirical. Over the past fifty years, numerous studies have mapped students’ understanding of different disciplinary concepts, methods, and procedures, assessed the progression of students’ historical thinking over time, and identified effective teaching practices.[12]

Lindsay Gibson is an Assistant Professor of Social Studies and History Education in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia. He has published several journal articles and book chapters about historical thinking, historical inquiry, history teacher education, the ethical dimension of history, and assessment of historical thinking.

 [1] “The Study of History in Schools: Report to the American Historical Association by the Committee of Seven” (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1899), 102.
[2] Thomas Fallace, “The Intellectual History of the Social Studies,” in The Wiley Handbook of Social Studies Research, ed. Cheryl Mason Bolick and Meghan McGlinn Mandra (Chichester, UK.: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 42–67; Ken Osborne, “A History Teacher Looks Back,” Canadian Historical Review 93, no. 1 (2012): 108–37; Peter Seixas, “The Community of Inquiry as a Basis for Knowledge and Learning: The Case of History.,” American Educational Research Journal 30, no. 2 (1993): 305–24.
[3] Roy N. Hallam, “Piaget and the Teaching of History,” Education Research 12 (b 1969): 3–12; Ken Osborne, “‘To the Past’: Why We Need to Teach and Study History,” in To the Past: History Education, Public Memory, and Citizenship in Canada, ed. Ruth W. Sandwell (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 103–31; Samuel S. Wineburg, “The Psychology of Teaching and Learning History,” in Handbook of Educational Psychology, ed. R. Calfee and D. Berliner (New York: Macmillan, 1996), 423–37.
[4] Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960); P. H. Hirst, “Liberal Education and the Nature of Knowledge,” Philosophical Analysis and Education 2 (1965): 113–40.
[5] Christopher W. Berg and Theodore M. Christou, The Palgrave Handbook of History and Social Studies Education (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2020); Lauren McArthur Harris and Scott Alan Metzger, eds., The Wiley International Handbook of History Teaching and Learning, 1st ed., Wiley Handbooks in Education (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018).
[6] Ken Osborne, “Historical Mindedness and Historical Thinking,” Canadian Social Studies 34, no. 4 (2000): 70.
[7] Jannet van Drie and Carla van Boxtel, “Historical Reasoning: Towards a Framework for Analyzing Students’ Reasoning about the Past,” Educational Psychology Review, no. 2 (2008): 87–110.
[8] Tim Lomas, Teaching and Assessing Historical Understanding (London: Historical Association, 1990); Bruce A. VanSledright, Assessing Historical Thinking and Understanding: Innovative Designs for New Standards (New York, NY: Routledge, 2014).
[9] Peter Lee, “History Education and Historical Literacy,” in Debates in History Teaching, ed. Ian Davies, 2011, 63–72; Tony Taylor and Carmel Young, Making History: A Guide for the Teaching and Learning of History in Australian Schools (Canberra: Department of Education, Science and Training, 2003).
[10] Peter Seixas, ed., Theorizing Historical Consciousness (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).
[11] Ken Osborne, “One Hundred Years of History,” Canadian Social Studies 34, no. 3 (2000): 36; Osborne, “‘To the Past’: Why We Need to Teach and Study History.”
[12] Wineburg, “The Psychology of Teaching and Learning History”; Bruce A. VanSledright and Margarita Limon, “Learning and Teaching Social Studies: A Review of Cognitive Research in History and Geography.,” ed. P. A. Alexander and P. H. Winne, Handbook of Educational Psychology (2nd Ed.) (Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 2006), 545–70; Chauncey Monte-Sano and Abby Reisman, “Studying Historical Understanding,” in Handbook of Educational Psychology, ed. Lyn Corno and Eric M. Anderman (New York: Routledge, 2015), 281–94.


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