What is historical thinking? Part III

Published on September 21, 2020

By Lindsay Gibson


Historical thinking is a lot like critical thinking. It’s a term that everyone has heard, seen, and used, yet people often have varied and conflicting understandings of what it is. In Part I of this this three-part blog post, I defined historical thinking and in Part II, I described how the concept of historical thinking has changed over time. In Part III I discuss common critiques of historical thinking and identify possible contributions that historical thinking could make to history education in the future.


Part III: Critiques of Historical Thinking

The widespread influence of historical thinking in the theory and practice of history education over the past fifty years should not be interpreted as consensus about its nature, relevance, or appropriateness for school history. History education is a contested space and controversies about its purpose, which events, topics, and perspectives should be learned about, and how it is best taught and assessed are ongoing in countries around the world.

 One of the longstanding critiques of historical thinking is that the academic discipline of history is an inadequate model for school history because academic historians aim to produce new knowledge about the past, whereas school history focuses on providing the knowledge and skills for active and engaged citizenship.[1] For some scholars, the purpose of history education is to promote active and reflective citizenship competencies necessary for improving social conditions, democratic life, and “the common good.”[2] The misalignment between academic and school history is further exacerbated in curricula where history is incorporated as one of several disciplines in the interdisciplinary subject of social studies, as it is in many American states and Canadian provinces.[3]

The discipline of history is characterized by eclecticism, hybridity, diversity, capaciousness, and a lack of overarching structure or definition.[4] Any attempt to reduce its complexity to a single model of historical thinking runs the risk of oversimplification and uncritical acceptance by teachers and students as “the” approach for teaching historical thinking. Several scholars have criticized the ways in which historical thinking has been reified as a static, apolitical, atheoretical, and immutable method for understanding the “truth” about the past.[5]

Historical thinking has been further criticized for being rooted in Western, European traditions of Enlightenment thought that restricts “what counts as knowledge and what counts as valid ways of assessing that knowledge.”[6] Although historians have challenged disciplinary norms for decades, the canons and conventions of Western historical scholarship have been largely shaped by European men, who speak European languages, come from industrialized and imperial nations, and are influenced by liberal and rational intellectual traditions.[7] In this view, using Western intellectual developments to define universal goals and standards for history education is yet another example of colonial imposition on cultures that have their own forms of temporal orientation, different ways of understanding the relationship between the past, present, and future, and different standards and methods for assessing knowledge claims. It would be naïve to expect that one universal approach to historical thinking can apply to all cultures, but accepting the relativity of all forms of historical consciousness including plural standards of truth and diverse understandings of the relationships between past, present, and future does not provide much help in dealing with competing historical narratives and controversial memory cultures. Lévesque and Clark ask whether it is possible for historical thinking approaches drawn from Western intellectual traditions to accommodate other ways of understanding the past.[8] In Canada, scholars have theorized diverse types of Indigenous historical consciousness and ways of knowing the past,[9] and have debated the degree to which historical thinking can accommodate Indigenous ways of knowing.[10] 

Image 1 - 21 septembre
Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Christopher Lund. A view from the back of the classroom looking towards the teacher and the blackboard. Broadview Elementary School, Ottawa, Ontario.

Another common criticism of historical thinking is that it does not adequately address key aspects of historical consciousness, including the various ways that students experience historical culture in their everyday lives, the interrelationship among the past, present, and future, and the impact that students’ identity has on their historical understandings and ability to construct and deconstruct historical narratives. Historical consciousness can be defined in terms of three interrelated aspects. Firstly, it focuses on the practical relationship between disciplinary knowledge and everyday life. Jorn Rüsen’s disciplinary matrix theorizes this relationship by illustrating how the questions that drive historians’ work arise from contemporary issues and needs, how historians use specialized theories and methodologies to create representations of the past in a variety of media, and how historians’ representations are used by the larger culture to reshape thinking about the past and contemporary issues.[11] Secondly, historical consciousness focuses on a person’s “orientation in time,” the mental operations used to make sense of temporal changes, orient practical life, and guide decision-making.[12] Thirdly, historical consciousness is expressed through narratives that have a moral orientation and provide people with a sense of orientation in time.[13]

Andreas Körber argues that school history should aim to teach students the competencies needed to participate “in the historical and memorial culture of their (pluralist) societies.”[14] In the last decade, history educators in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and other countries have operationalized historical consciousness in ways that inform school curriculum and assessments.[15] In the American context Monte-Sano and Reisman warn that researchers focused on historical literacy run the risk of closing themselves off from “important questions that concern how the past is used in the present.”[16] In the UK, Peter Lee called for more studies that investigate “how students construct meaningful accounts of long spans of history in ways that enable them to relate past, present and future,” and how students construct meaningful accounts out of the “raw material they receive from parents, media, and school.”[17]

Critical scholars have also challenged historical thinking approaches for not being sufficiently attentive to the ways that students’ cultural, ethnic, gender, religious, and disability identities shape their historical understandings. [18]

Image 2 - 21 septembre
Photo Credit:  Library and Archives Canada, Christopher Lund. A close-up of a young student seated at a desk in the classroom. Broadview Public School, Ottawa, Ontario  


Since Lord Acton mentioned “the gift of historical thinking” in his 1895 Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History, historical thinking has gone from an unknown term to a central concept for teaching, learning, and researching history education around the world.[19] Since the 1970s conceptual developments in historical thinking have been shaped by unique emphases, research findings, and pedagogical applications in various national contexts.

Despite these considerable achievements, students are currently facing a level of environmental, economic, political, social, and cultural complexity that demands a continued rethinking of the purposes and practices of school history. The COVID-19 pandemic; racial injustice; global climate crisis; rise of far-right parties; growing economic inequality; continued military conflicts; increased global migration; proliferation of fake news in social media; increasingly diverse societies; demands for rights, reconciliation, and decolonization from Indigenous peoples and minoritized groups; and inflamed debates about public commemorations of the past have escalated the demands for a critical understanding of the relationship among the past, present, and future.

Historical thinking can make an important contribution in terms of conceptualizing the historical tools, processes and ways of thinking that help students, make sense of who they are, where they stand, and what they can do—as individuals, as members of multiple, intersecting groups, and as citizens with roles and responsibilities in relation to nations and states in a complex, conflict-ridden, and rapidly changing world.[20] However, if these significant challenges are to be addressed, then further theoretical, empirical, and practical developments are necessary. More theoretical work is needed to articulate the purposes of history education that can be applied in multiple contexts, and can accommodate diverse forms of historical consciousness and ways of understanding the relationship between the past, present, and future. More empirical research is needed to better understand how students’ substantive and disciplinary knowledge, dispositions, and intersecting identities shape their historical understandings and how they see the world they live in.[21] Lastly, continued collaboration among scholars in different contexts is needed to develop strategies, to inform school practices, and to develop the technological, institutional and organizational supports needed for ongoing history education renewal.

[1] Stephen J. Thornton and Keith C. Barton, “Can History Stand Alone? Drawbacks and Blind Spots of a ‘Disciplinary’ Curriculum,” Teachers College Record 112, no. 9 (2010): 2471–95.
[2] Keith C. Barton and Linda S. Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004).
[3] Keith C. Barton, “Shared Principles in History and Social Science Education,” in Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, ed. Mario Carretero, Stefan Berger, and Maria Grever (London, UK: Palgave Macmillan, 2017), 449–68.
[4] Sarah C. Maza, Thinking about History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017).
[5] Samantha Cutrara, “To Placate or Provoke? A Critical Review of the Disciplines Approach to History Curriculum,” Journal of the Canadian Association of Curriculum Studies 7, no. 2 (2009): 86–109; Heather E. McGregor, “One Classroom, Two Teachers? Historical Thinking and Indigenous Education in Canada,” Critical Education 8, no. 14 (2017): 1–18; Robert J. Parkes, “Teaching History as Historiography: Engaging Narrative Diversity in the Curriculum. International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching, and Research, 8(2), 118–132.,” International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching, and Research 8, no. 2 (2009): 118–32; “What’s the Purpose of Teaching the Disciplines, Anyway? The Case of History,” in Social Studies—the next Generation: Re-Searching in the Postmodern, ed. Avner Segall, Elizabeth E. Heilman, and Cleo H. Cherryholmes (New York: Peter Lang, 2006), 125–39.
[6] McGregor, “One Classroom, Two Teachers? Historical Thinking and Indigenous Education in Canada,” 12.
[7] Maza, Thinking about History; Daniel R. Woolf, A Global History of History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
[8] Stéphane Lévesque and Penney Clark, “Historical Thinking: Definitions and Educational Applications,” in The Wiley International Handbook of History Teaching and Learning, ed. Scott A. Metzger and Lauren M. Harris (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2018), 119–48.
[9] Keith Thor Carlson, The Power of Place, the Problem of Time: Aboriginal Identity and Historical Consciousness in the Cauldron of Colonialism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010); Robin Jarvis Brownlie, “First Nations Perspectives and Historical Thinking in Canada,” in First Nations, First Thoughts: The Impact of Indigenous Thought in Canada, ed. A. M. Timpson (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2009), 21–50; Michael Marker, “Teaching History from an Indigenous Perspective: Four Winding Paths up the Mountain,” in New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada, ed. Penney Clark (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2011), 97–112.
[10] Samantha Cutrara, “The Settler Grammar of Canadian History Curriculum: Why Historical Thinking Is Unable to Respond to the TRC’s Calls to Action,” Canadian Journal of Education 41, no. 1 (2018): 250–75; Lindsay Gibson and Roland Case, “Reshaping Canadian History Education in Support of Reconciliation,” Canadian Journal of Education 42, no. 1 (2019): 251–84; McGregor, “One Classroom, Two Teachers? Historical Thinking and Indigenous Education in Canada”; Peter Seixas, “Indigenous Historical Consciousness: An Oxymoron or a Dialogue?,” in History Education and the Construction of National Identities, ed. Mario Carretero, Mikel Asensio, and María Rodríguez Moneo (Charlotte, NC : Information Age Publishing, 2012), 125–38.
[11] Allan Megill, “Jörn Rüsen’s Theory of Historiography between Modernism and Rhetoric of Inquiry,” History and Theory 33, no. 1 (1994): 39–60.
[12] Jörn Rüsen, “Historical Consciousness: Narrative Structure, Moral Function, and Ontogenetic Development,” in Theorizing Historical Consciousness, ed. Peter Seixas (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 63–85.
[13] Jörn Rüsen, History: Narration, Interpretation, Orientation (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2005).
[14] “German History Didactics,” in Historicizing the Uses of the Past: Scandinavian Perspectives on History, Culture, Historical Consciousness and Didactics of History Related to World War II, ed. H. Bjerg, C. Lenz, and E. Thorstensen (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2011), 148.
[15] Anna Clark and Carla L. Peck, eds., Contemplating Historical Consciousness: Notes from the Field, Book, Whole (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2019); Per Eliasson et al., “Historical Consciousness and Historical Thinking Reflected in Large-Scale Assessment in Sweden,” in New Directions in Assessing Historical Thinking, ed. Kadriye Ercikan and Peter Seixas (New York: Routledge, 2015), 171–82; 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; Carla van Boxtel, Maria Grever, and Stephan Klein, Sensitive Pasts: Questioning Heritage in Education (New York: Berghahn Books, 2016).
[16] 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), 282.
[17] “Fused Horizons? UK Research into Students’ Second-Order Ideas in History–a Perspective from London,” in Researching History Education: International Perspectives and Disciplinary Traditions, ed. M. Koster, H. Thunemann, and M. Zulsdorf-Kersting (Schwalbach: Wochen Schau, 2014), 189–90.
[18] Margaret Smith Crocco, “Gender and Sexuality in History Education,” ed. Scott A. Metzger and Lauren McArthur Harris, The Wiley International Handbook of History Teaching and Learning (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2018), 335–64; Terrie Epstein, Interpreting National History: Race, Identity, and Pedagogy in Classrooms and Communities, Book, Whole (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; Avner Segall, Brenda M Trofanenko, and Adam J. Schmitt, “Critical Theory and History Education,” in The Wiley International Handbook of History Teaching and Learning, ed. Lauren McArthur Harris and Scott Alan Metzger, 1st ed., Wiley Handbooks in Education (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018), 281–309.
[19] Lord Acton, Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History, ed. J. N. Figgis and R. V. Laurence, Lecturer on Modern History (London: Macmillan, 1906), 16, http://files.libertyfund.org/files/209/Acton_0028_EBk_v5.pdf
[20] Peter Seixas, “Heavy Baggage En Route to Winnipeg: A Review Essay,” The Canadian Historical Review 83, no. 3 (2002): 416.
[21] Lis Cercadillo, Arthur Chapman, and Peter Lee, “Organizing the Past: Historical Accounts, Significance and Unknown Ontologies,” Palgrave Handbook of Research in Historical Culture and Education, 2016, 529.

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