What is historical thinking? Part II

Published on September 14, 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 three-part blog post, I defined historical thinking in terms of three characteristics. In Part II, I describe how the concept of historical thinking has changed over time. 

Part II: The Development of Historical Thinking over Time

Since the 1970s, there have been three major developments in the conceptualization of historical thinking. In England, the Schools Council History Project (SCHP) was established in 1972 to radically rethink the purpose and nature of school history and investigate new ways of assessing students’ historical understanding.[1] Foundational to the SCHP was the notion that the content-only focus of traditional history instruction provided students with a great deal of historical knowledge, but little understanding of how it was constructed. Lee and Ashby distinguished between first-order substantive concepts “what history is about” (e.g., enslavement, freedom, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Underground Railroad) and second-order procedural concepts (e.g., evidence, cause, consequence, perspective taking, historical significance, continuity and change) that shape “the way we go about doing history.”[2] Rather than define students’ progress in history by measuring how much factual knowledge they accumulated over time, progress is measured by the increasingly sophisticated ways that students understand and use the second-order concepts in dealing with historical problems.[3] This foundational conceptual breakthrough initiated a robust empirical research program in England focused on identifying levels for each second-order concept that could be used to assess students’ progression towards more sophisticated understanding.[4] By the early 2000s, English researchers’ assessment of student’s mastery of different second-order historical thinking concepts was the “gold standard of history education research.”[5]

Influenced by domain-specific approaches to teaching and learning popularized by Bruner,[6] Joseph Schwab,[7] and Lee Shulman,[8] American researchers made a significant contribution to the conceptualization of historical thinking. In his ground-breaking article “On the reading of historical texts” Wineburg [9] applied an expert-novice model from cognitive psychology to illustrate how historians differ from high school students when reading historical sources. Wineburg identified three heuristics that historians used when reading historical sources—sourcing, contextualization, and corroboration—that defined the distinctive disciplinary character of reading historical texts. The three heuristics (plus the fourth heuristic “close-reading”) provided teachers with practical tools for teaching and assessing students’ historical literacy, and formed the basis for curriculum projects created by Wineburg and his students in the Stanford History Education Group that have had massive uptake.[10] Wineburg’s approach has inspired historical literacy research that compares students’ reasoning to historians and assesses the impact that instructional techniques have on students’ ability to read, think, and write about historical text.[11] Although research has shown that students’ ability to read historical text can improve, the challenge in helping students think historically appears to be as much about shifting their epistemological beliefs about history as it is about teaching them specific historical literacy strategies.[12]

The other distinctive American contribution to the conceptualization of historical thinking was led by scholars who used sociocultural approaches to investigate the impact that students’ ethnicity, cultural, and gender identities have on their historical thinking.[13] Rather than conceptualize historical thinking in terms of second-order concepts drawn from academic disciplines, they envision historical thinking concepts as “cultural tools” that contribute to civic life and “the common good.”[14]

A third major development in the conceptualization of historical thinking emerged from Canadian scholarship. In 2006 Peter Seixas established the Benchmarks of Historical Thinking (renamed the Historical Thinking Project in 2011) and outlined a framework of six historical thinking concepts: historical significance, evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, historical perspectives, and the ethical dimension.[15] Seixas’ historical thinking framework is a hybrid model that draws from English, American, and German approaches to history education.[16] Like the English approach, Seixas defines students’ progress in learning to think historically by their competence in negotiating productive solutions to the problems posed by each second-order concept. The six historical thinking concepts closely resemble second-order concepts conceptualized by English scholars, but also function as generative problems, tensions, or difficulties inherent in doing history that require “comprehension, negotiation, and, ultimately, an accommodation that is never a complete solution.”[17]

Seixas designed his model to be “communicable and intelligible to teachers and students, and yet rich enough to invite investigations of fundamental epistemological and ontological problems of history.”[18] At the core of these problems is the relationship between knower and known, and the notion that historical narratives are created by people immersed in time who are shaped by particular lenses, questions, and methods. These draw the Canadian model closer to the issues of historical consciousness, a philosophical concept central to German history education since the 1970s.[19] Historical consciousness is defined as “a complex interaction of interpretations of the past, perceptions of the present and expectations towards the future.”[20] Thus, the Canadian model’s “ethical dimension,” which focuses on making ethical judgments about the past, deciding what should be memorialized, celebrated, or remembered, and judging how to respond to the past in the present, is an important part of historical consciousness. In German history education, historical thinking is not conceptualized as an educational goal in itself, but one of several “competencies,” which are defined as knowledge, skills, and dispositions that advance students’ historical consciousness and enable them to participate critically in the broader historical culture they are immersed in.[21]

In Part III of “What is historical thinking” I discuss common critiques of historical thinking and identify possible contributions that historical thinking could make to history education in the future.

[1] Denis Shemilt, Evaluation Study: Schools Council History 13-16 Project (Edinburgh: Holmes McDougall, 1980).
[2] Peter Lee and Rosalyn Ashby, “Progression in Historical Understanding among Students Ages 7-14,” in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History, ed. P. N. Stearns, P. Seixas, and S. S. Wineburg (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 199.
[3] Peter Seixas, “Historical Consciousness and Historical Thinking,” in Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, ed. Mario Carretero, Stefan Berger, and Maria Grever (London, UK: Palgave Macmillan, 2017), 59–72.
[4] A. K. Dickinson, P. J. Lee, and P. J. Rogers, Learning History (London: Heinemann Educational, 1984); Tim Lomas, Teaching and Assessing Historical Understanding (London: Historical Association, 1990).
[5] Peter Seixas, “A Model of Historical Thinking,” Educational Philosophy and Theory 49, no. 6 (2017): 593–605.
[6] Jerome S. Bruner, The Process of Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960).
[7] Joseph Schwab, “Education and the Structure of the Disciplines,” in Science, Curriculum and Liberal Education: Selected Essays, ed. I. Westbury and N. J. Wilkof (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 229–72.
[8] Lee S. Shulman, “Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform,” Harvard Educational Review 57, no. 1 (1987): 1–22.
[9] “On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach between the School and the Academy,” American Educational Research Journal 28, no. 3 (1991): 495–519.
[10] Joel Breakstone, Mark Smith, and Samuel S. Wineburg, “Beyond the Bubble in History/Social Studies Assessments,” Phi Delta Kappan 94, no. 5 (2013): 93–97; Samuel S. Wineburg, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018); Samuel S. Wineburg, Daisy Martin, and Chauncey Monte-Sano, Reading like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms (New York: Teachers College Press, 2013).
[11] Susan De La Paz et al., “Developing Historical Reading and Writing with Adolescent Readers: Effects on Student Learning,” Theory and Research in Social Education 42, no. 2 (2014): 228–74; Abby Reisman, “Reading like a Historian: A Document-Based History Curriculum Intervention in Urban High Schools,” Cognition and Instruction 31, no. 1 (2012): 86–112.
[12] 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; Bruce A. VanSledright, “Fifth Graders Investigating History in the Classroom: Results from a Research-Practitioner Design Experiment,” The Elementary School Journal 103, no. 2 (2002): 160.
[13] Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004); Terrie Epstein, Interpreting National History: Race, Identity, and Pedagogy in Classrooms and Communities, Book, Whole (New York: Routledge, 2008), https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203890967; Linda S. Levstik and Keith C. Barton, Researching History Education: Theory, Method and Context (New York: Routledge, 2008); Carla L. Peck, “‘It’s Not like [I’m] Chinese and Canadian. I Am in between’: Ethnicity and Students’ Conceptions of Historical Significance,” Theory & Research in Social Education 38, no. 4 (2010): 574–617.
[14] Barton and Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good.
[15] Peter Seixas, “A Modest Proposal for Change in Canadian History Education,” Teaching History 137 (2009): 26–30.
[16] Seixas, “Historical Consciousness and Historical Thinking.”
[17] Seixas, “A Model of Historical Thinking,” 597.
[18] Seixas, 597.
[19] C. Kölbl and L. Konrad, “Historical Consciousness in Germany: Concept, Implementation, Assessment,” in New Directions in Assessing Historical Thinking, ed. Kadriye Ercikan and Peter Seixas (New York: Routledge, 2015), 17–28.
[20] Sebastian Bracke et al., “History Education Research in Germany.,” in Researching History Education, ed. M. Köster, H. Thunemann, and M. Zulsdorf-Kersting (Schwalbach: Wochenschau Verlag, 2014), 23; paraphrasing K.-E. Jeismann, “Didaktik Der Geschichte. Die Wissenschaft von Zustand, Funktion Und Veränderung Geschichtlicher Vorstellungen Im Selbstverständnis Der Gegenwart,” in Geschichtswissenschaft. Didaktik, Forschung, Theorie, ed. E. Kosthorst and K. -. Jeismann (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977), 9–33.
[21] Andreas Körber and Johannes Meyer-Hamme, “Historical Thinking, Competencies, and Their Measurement: Challenges and Approaches,” in New Directions in Assessing Historical Thinking, ed. Kadriye Ercikan and Peter Seixas (New York: Routledge, 2015), 89–101.

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