Teaching Historical Thinking: What I’ve Learned and Hope to Learn

In the roughly fifteen years between being an undergraduate and earning my PhD, how history is taught at the college level has changed dramatically. Gone are the days when courses were simply a professor lecturing every class period, narrating historical events and their causes (or at least lectures are much less common). The emphasis has shifted, instead, to having students do history, to having them learn and practice what historians actually do.

The goal is for students to learn “historical thinking.” According to Stéphane Lévesque, historical thinking revolves around five essential concepts: evidence, historical significance, continuity and change, progress and decline, and historical empathy. Essentially, we want students to learn how to take sources from the past to learn about the past, understand it’s significance, see what has changed and hasn’t changed (for better or worse), and ultimately make sense of a past world where people lived and thought in a very different way than we do today.

Teaching students historical thinking, then, relies on having them start with evidence and using it to practice these skills. Many of the examples I’ve seen include having students compare different sources about the same event to encourage them to consider what elements of sources are trustworthy and why. I, for instance, have used competing narratives of Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever outbreak to push students to consider the historical meanings of citizenship and race and their interplay with ideas of health and medicine. It seems like the more students are pushed out of their comfort zone, the more they’re forced to engage with very different historical conception of the world and are forced to engage in historical empathy, the more they learn just how different the past was and the work needed to understand it.

Going forward, I’m hoping to learn more methods for teaching historical thinking, especially with digital tools that could be used across a range of educational venues from the classroom to the internet to museums. I see how the internet and the digitization of sources gives students easier and expanded access to primary source materials that they can use to practice historical thinking skills, but I’m still working through how much freedom to give them and when. I think it makes sense to start with shorter documents in the classroom, then have students compare longer and more complex documents in short essays, before eventually turning them loose on more open-ended research projects. But I’m still thinking about how to access and give feedback through this process so that students continue to expand their skills.

Learning about public history has also made me very conscious of audience, and I’m wondering about how to teach historical thinking to a range of audiences. Essentially, can tools built for a classroom work in other contexts? How different is having university students play a digital game versus any person running across one on the internet or in a museum? These are questions I don’t have answers to yet but plan to explore with my summer project. My inclination is that a well-constructed tool or game can serve these various audiences as long as it includes all the necessary context and is built around the concepts of historical thinking by encouraging users to develop historical empathy through engaging with historical sources and ways of thinking. But this may be easier said than done.