Module A: Thinking like a Historian*

Much like with any craft, historians today need a toolbox full of methods and skills to help us create the historical narratives that allow us to understand the past and offer meaningful interpretations. But what is in the historian’s toolbox? What are the methods and skills one needs to develop to be a historian? And are these tools that we use to study the past useful in our rapidly changing modern world? The truth is that aside from those who dedicate the time and effort to explore the discipline known as history, not many actually know what a historian does to “do” history. In order to make full use of this teaching module, it is necessary that we explore the process that is at the center of the work the work that historian’s do, a process that encompasses these tools and skills. This is the process known as historical thinking.

Understanding how historians think about the past.

Historians are not mere repositories of facts that comprise the being of human existence. Historians are members of the community that seek to understand the past in ways relevant to their audiences so as to expand on the human experience. To put it frankly: historical thinking is a heuristic process. Historians seek to dive into the past to make it understandable and, more importantly, allow for the creation of accurate interpretations of what once was. Historians have developed several means of increasing this accuracy so as to impart knowledge in good faith. Typically referred to as the “Historical Method,” historians engage in an active process of investigating sources and constructing pictures of different periods of time, “searching for evidence among primary sources to a mystery that can never be completely solved.” Key to this historical method is the concept of historical thinking, the framework and tools one uses to think about the past and critically engage with source materials.

The Tools of Historical Thinking

Sam Wineburg describes historical thinking as a strategy for engaging with evidence of the past to support our claims and narrative interpretations. This typically involves:

  • Sourcing – Thinking about the author(s), their background, and why was the document/item created
  • Contextualization – Situating the document in its relative time/place position
  • Close reading – Considering the language of the item and reading it carefully, slowly, and multiple times
  • Using background knowledge – As part of contextualization, using other sources of information to further understand the item under study
  • Reading the silences – Recognizing what is not being said or even who is not talking
  • Corroborating – Locating where this item agrees/disagrees with other contemporary items

An explanation of historical thinking and the skills historians use to study the past.

With each of these steps, we can dive further and further into researching a document or item. Context, the placing of the source into a wider fabric of understanding, is the key to thinking historically. We must not only recognize that everything has a context, but we must be cognizant of searching it out when studying the past. When learning about the context, we are supporting narratives with evidence. If we boil it down even more, we can consider historical thinking to be the process of understanding how people thought in the past.

The Elements of Historical Thinking

In 1917, J. Carlton Bell and David McCollum outlined five aspects in a study of the “historical sense.” Though this was geared more towards the development of assessing a student’s capability for historical work, it does provide us with the expectations to be met when it came to the study of history and the desired outcomes:

  1. “The ability to understand present events in light of the past.”
  2. The ability to sift through the documentary record–newspaper articles, hearsay, partisan attacks, contemporary accounts–and construct “from this confused tangle a straightforward and probably account” of what happened.
  3. The ability to appreciate a historical narrative.
  4. “Reflective and discriminating replies to ‘thought questions’ on a given historical situation.”
  5. The ability to answer factual questions about historical personalities and events.

Many of these items can be analyzed to see that they do not strictly focus on learning hard dates, names, and events. Rather, getting the “sense” of history depends on one’s ability to engage with the material in a meaningful way that involves heuristic interpretation.

Bringing this up to more recent times, the American Historical Associate’s (AHA) “History Tuning Project” demonstrates how the characteristics of the interpretive nature of doing history has continued. By collaboratively outlining core concepts and competencies for studies in history, we can better see what historians and teachers of history think students need to learn in terms of “the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind.” The 2016 iteration of the project displays the following core competencies and learning outcomes to reflect what participating institutions felt was a more accurate way of assessing students’ historical skills. These involve:

  1. Building historical knowledge;
  2. Developing historical methods;
  3. Recognizing the provisional nature of knowledge, the disciplinary preference for complexity, and the comfort with ambiguity that history requires;
  4. Applying the range of skills it takes to decode the historical record because of its incomplete, complex, and contradictory nature;
  5. Create historical arguments and narratives; and
  6. Using historical perspective in a central way for an active citizenry.

Not included in this list but probably the most important element of developing historical thinking (and that can be a skill on its own) is: empathy. Historians need to cultivate empathy when engaging in research and interpreting the past. We speak for those who are longer with us–but we must we call that they once were. We should consider empathy to be the central skill of the historian and use this as the foundation for our ethical approach to our work. This will inform not only the way we think about the past, but how we choose to study the past.

These methods frame history as being intrinsically interpretive work, fostering an inquiry-based learning pedagogy and relying on practices to evaluate interpretations and arguments. Historical thinking is multifaceted. This inquiry-based approach not only embodies the seemingly enduring characteristics of thinking historically, but becomes molded to those who engage with it. For example, T. Mills Kelly notes in his book Teaching History in the Digital Age that for students, historical thinking “is often framed as a set of questions, which the answers will provide them with greater certainty.” These questions are:

  1. What happened?
  2. When did it happen?
  3. Why did it happen?
  4. Who was responsible?
  5. Will that be on the exam?

These questions get to the very core of what is involved in historical thinking, that of critical analysis and interpretation of the narratives to build arguments and construct meaningful and accurate stories of the past.

* This section was adapted from previous blog posts of mine, which can be found here and here.