Historical thinking

From Academic Kids

Historical thinking is defined by many education resources as a set of reasoning skills that students of history should learn as a result of studying history. Sometimes called historical reasoning skills, historical thinking skills are frequently described in contrast to history content such as names, dates, and places. This dichotomous presentation is often misinterpreted as a claim for superiority of one form of knowing over the other. In fact, the distinction is generally made to underscore the importance of developing thinking skills that can be applied when individuals encounter any history content. Most educators agree that together, history content--or facts about the past--and historical thinking skills enable students to interpret, analyze and use information about past events.

U.S. Standards for Historical Thinking in Schools

In the United States, the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles has developed history standards that include benchmarks for both content in U.S. and world history and historical thinking skills in grades Kindergarten-4 and 5-12. In both of these age ranges, the Center defines historical thinking in five parts:

  1. Chronological Thinking
  2. Historical Comprehension
  3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation
  4. Historical Research Capabilities
  5. Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making

As part of the national assessment effort called “The Nation’s Report Card, ” the United States Department of Education has also developed benchmarks for student achievement in U.S. history. Their rubric divides history learning into three basic dimensions: major historical themes, chronological periods, and ways of knowing and thinking about history. The third dimension is further divided into two parts: historical knowledge and perspective, and historical analysis and interpretation.

The Role of the History Textbook in Learning to Think Historically

History textbooks draw much attention from history educators and educational researchers. The use of textbooks is nearly universal in history, government, and other social studies courses at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels in the U.S.; however, the role of textbooks remains controversial.

Arguments against reliance on textbooks have ranged from ideological to pragmatic. In the past, textbooks received criticism for under-representing the roles of women and minorities throughout history. Although modern textbook writers strive to include minority voices and great breadth of perspective in describing the course of past events, vigilant critics continue to identify examples of skewed or misinformation.

Others object to textbooks on epistemological grounds. Such critics point out that textbooks written in an omniscient, third person voice that claim to present “objective facts” are misleading. Such texts encourage students to believe that one interpretation of events is sufficient and correct. In addition, critics contend that textbooks written in this manner are perceived by students as dry and uninteresting and discourage students from reading history.

Still other critics believe that using textbooks undermines the process of learning history by sacrificing thinking skills for content—that textbooks allow teachers to cover vast amounts of names, dates and places, while encouraging students to simply memorize instead of question or analyze.

Most textbook critics concede that textbooks are a necessary tool in history education. Arguments for textbook-based curricula point out that history teachers require resources to support the broad scope of topics covered in the typical history classroom. Well-designed textbooks can provide a foundation on which enterprising educators can build other classroom activities.


  • Kobrin, David. Beyond the Textbook: Teaching History Using Primary Sources. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996.
  • Loewen, James. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone, 1995.
  • National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress: Nation’s Report Card. 2003. <[1] (http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ushistory/)> (last accessed 29 June 04).
  • National Center for History in the Schools. National Standards for History. 1996. <[2] (http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/nchs/standards/)> (last accessed 29 June 04).
  • Stearns, P., Seixas, P, Wineburg, S (Eds.). Knowing, Teaching and Learning History: National and International Perspectives. New York: NYU Press, 2000.
  • Wineburg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001.

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