Historical Thinking: Key Concepts

In this blog, I pose three questions that I hope to answer in Teaching and Learning History in the Digital Age. These are questions that I grapple with every year when I teach the U.S. survey to non-history majors, many of whom will never take another history class. Below, I discuss several key concepts about historical thinking that may help answer these questions.

1. Why do we teach history to undergraduates as general education? What do we hope they will get out of it?

2. What are the barriers to learning in gen ed survey classes?

3. How should instructors approach textbooks? 

1. Why do we teach history to undergraduates as general education?

I want students to be able to do historical thinking. This means teaching students to do the reading, analysis, and writing necessary to tell historical stories. That means explaining what happened in the past and why it matters.[1]

Most Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) expresses some version of using primary sources with students to achieve historical thinking. These are what Stephane Lévesque calls the procedural concepts (evidence, continuity and change, historical empathy). (They are distinct from “substantive knowledge” or a timeline of events.) Historical thinking education requires some mixture of identifying sources or clarifying their nature (What type of source is it? What is its physical appearance? When was it created? Has the source changed over time?”); considering the author and the purpose (was it made for posterity and what interests does it represent?); contextualizing (looking at sources and events in their specific time and place); and assessing its reliability (corroborating).[2]

University of the Pacific student working with primary sources in the Holt-Atherton Special Collections.

But for what purpose do we need our students to do historical thinking, especially when most of our students will not become historians? Although it is, perhaps, cliched, I’ll offer that historical thinking helps us do the critical thinking required of citizens. Lendol Calder calls for “uncoverage” (to get away from the demands of covering everything in the textbook) in order to make history a “form of moral inquiry” again, a thought that resonates with Daren Staloff’s argument that history is “moral philosophy told through stories.”[3] Both of these connect history to the meanings humans make through stories.

2. What are the barriers to learning in gen ed survey classes?

According to Sam Weinburg, one of the biggest barriers to student learning is that historical thinking is not a “natural act.”  In other words, when studying the past, people look for familiarity in the past and ascribe characteristics that fit their understanding of their own time (presentism). For example, a high achieving student, when confronted with the contradictions of Lincoln’s thoughts on race and slavery, decides that Lincoln is simply a politician telling the story two ways to get votes.  A seasoned historian, however, will start with what she does not know–calling attention to the contradictions, not dissolving them. She will keep asking questions, bringing primary documents into dialogue with one another until she has some understanding of Lincoln’s words in his time and place.[4] The difficulty lies in getting students to recognize both their propensity to confirm their prior beliefs and to begin to acknowledge our “inability to perceive the experience of others.”[5]

This level of contextualization is, for history, one of the “threshold concepts,” the complex ideas in disciplines that students need to understand to be able to “get” the discipline.  Threshold concepts can be barriers to learning, and faculty, as experts in the field, tend to forget what is hard about the field. The intellectual procedures become invisible to them.[6]

3. How should instructors approach textbooks? 

SOTL tells us that textbooks are problematic.  Wineburg explains that textbooks present material through an omniscient third-person narrator that speaks as if the interpretations about the past are settled. Moreover, as Lévesque argues, procedural knowledge is hidden in texts and documentaries, so students do not learn how historical thinking happens.  Students end up thinking of history as a line of unconnected events.[7]

Adobe Stock, 2023.

Still, every time I have ditched the textbook entirely, I have regretted it.  For my students, it provides an anchor.  This makes sense, given the “substantive content knowledge” they provide. When my students do not have one, they turn to the internet for answers and end up with material that has not undergone review by historians.  Lévesque explains that instructors who “make students inquire, interrogate, and go into depth, so as to find defensible answers to meaningful questions” can help students study and uncover answers using textbooks and primary sources.[8]

[1] TeachingHistory.Org, “What is Historical Thinking?” (2010) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSJLmWnxrPg&t=179s.

[2] TeachingHistory.org and  Stéphane Lévesque, Thinking Historically (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 118.

[3] InterVarsity Alum: Dr. Lendol Calder on “Uncoverage” (2011) at https://vimeo.com/22363437.

[4] Sam Wineburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” The Phi Delta Kappan 80, no. 7. (March 1999): 496.

[5] Levi quoted in Wineburg, 498.

[6] For a discussion of threshold concepts, see ELON Center for Engaged Learning, “Decoding the Disciplines,” 2013, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wqe_kKFoOq4.

[7]  Wineburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” 493; Stephane Levesque, What Does It Mean to Understand History?” (2022) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myc_VN7VzMA.

[8] Lévesque, Thinking Historically, 36.

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