Historical Thinking

The literature on historical thinking highlights the needs for both history teachers and students to develop a better understanding of the difference between “learning about the past” and “knowing the past.” While the first one can be achieved simply by reading historical literature, and watching movies or documentaries; the second requires some understanding that the past is the product of a particular process of inquiry which can be called historical thinking.

Some important aspects to this literature speak of the necessity to “decode” or “deconstruct” the discipline of history. That is, identify the multiple mental operations or habits that historians perform when they read, research, and write. For example, Sam Wineburg’s research on how historians read primary sources (by asking them to describe their thoughts as they read a document) has shown that historians engage in a kind of reading that largely relies on their habit of interrogating not only the content, but also the context and subtext of the source. This decoding, can enable teachers to break down the mental operations that historians use, and teach students the different practices and habits that will lead them to be better historical thinkers.

Another important insight points to the fact that, is the case with other mental habits, historical thinking is something that is better learned through observation and practice, and even though it may seem solitary (as a mental process) it has an important collaborative element. The dialogue that historians learn to hold in their heads as they read, is similar to discussions they have read in the writings of other historians. We learn to think historically when we see other historians do it. We learn to to read and write as historian when we learn that historiography is not just a collection of writings, but a conversation among historians, a conversations we can join if we learn to rules of the game.

The last point that I found interesting about historical thinking is that It has both an epistemological and an ethical dimension. Understanding the past means not only learning what may have happened, but also that our present questions and values affect the meaning of the past. Learning to think historically requires a clear understanding of how these two aspects of the discipline affect one another.

These insights leave me with three questions which I would like to explore during this class: First, what are some of the operations or mental habits that have been identified as constituting historical thinking? And, what techniques and/ or assignments have been used to teach this operations?

Second, to what extent have historians been able to leverage the use of digital tools to teach the habits of historical thinking?

Third, most of the literature emphasizes the importance of using primary sources to teach historical thinking. Even though I completely agree with this, I feel like not enough attention is given to teaching students to read secondary sources, and to learn about historiography and historiographical analysis. I would like to learn if more has been done on this question. 

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