The Dynamic Elements of Historical Thinking and Teaching

When taking an overview of a particular field, subject, or area of work, it can sometimes amaze the reviewer how close some come to the positions and conclusions we have now, despite being so distant from them in a chronological sense. Of course, sometimes what we review are the foundations of the said positions and conclusions we now hold, the early forms and preliminary ideas now entrenched or altered to meet the needs of our world (or discipline) today.

This is why I was amazed to see how even in 1898, the idea that teaching history should focus on the accumulation of historical facts was questioned by the American Historical Association, recognizing that this might not be the sole purpose of studying history.¹ This is reinforced even more in 1931 when Carl Becker articulated his view of the utility of our discipline for the “Mr. Everyman,” highlighting how we all, at some level, engage in historical thinking in our everyday lives and that when we analyze this, the mental method to our discipline doesn’t rest squarely on the recall ability of our memories to devise the answers we need to questions relevant to ourselves. It would seem that historical thinking has, in reference to the teaching of history and practicing of it as a discipline, always been a present focus for historians and history teachers where historical content, though largely being the centerpiece for teaching history, has not replaced the skills we see as necessary to make sense of those historical facts.

But this does beg the question: have we always thought of “historical thinking” in the same way? Were the proponents of this in the late 19th Century conceiving of its elements in the same way many of us conceive of them now? To keep you from feeling like you’re on the edge of a cliff: it is a resounding “kinda.”

The elements

If you’ve spent anytime in the field of history…or anytime on the internet…it becomes readily apparent that people aren’t always saying the same thing even if they’re on the same side.

Teachers of history have sought to define the key components that make up this ability to think historically. The purpose behind this is to flesh out the skills and abilities of those engaging with history, to demonstrate the value of history as a discipline, to provide structure for developing core concepts and competencies, and (more modernly) to provide something that allows for more standardized assessment in an institutionalized setting.²

While this might seem straight forward at first, the reality is that nailing down these elements like trying to nail down a piece of paper in a windstorm–you can do it, but there is no guarantee that the wind won’t rip the paper away (either whole or in shreds). The elements that comprise historical thinking typically stay in the same ballpark of ideas and practices, but have changed depending on the circumstances of those engaging with historical thinking as a concept and those putting it into practice. Whereas some might focus on constructing a complex and layered understanding, some might desire to boil it down to more abstract or ambiguous items. Some might find that for their particular situation and the students they teach, it behooves them to highlight some elements more than others. The simple passage of time is enough to alter how we perceive of historical thinking since history shows itself to largely adapted to the changing climate of world affairs, if not being forced to change due to external influence.

For example, 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.³

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.” Yet, even here, there is an interesting point for reflection on what these elements are and how they change. In the 2013 version of the project, the outline contains what was thought of as core competencies and learning outcomes at the time:

  1. Engage in historical inquiry, research, and analysis.
  2. Practice historical empathy.
  3. Understand the complex nature of the historical record.
  4. Generate significant, open-ended questions about the past and devise research strategies to answer them.
  5. Craft historical narrative and argument.
  6. Practice historical thinking as central to engaged citizenship

By the 2016 iteration of the project, this list was altered for the core competencies and learning outcomes to reflect what participating institutions felt was a more accurate way of assessing students. 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;
  6. And using historical perspective in a central way for an active citizenry.

These methods frame history as being intrinsically interpretive work, fostering an inquiry-based learning pedagogy and relying on practices to evaluate interpretations and arguments. In fact, studies have demonstrated that for history to be taught effectively, it is important that students are engaged in an enthusiastic manner. This is done by allowing them to do history work in a creative and relevant way, a manner that is counter to many modern perceptions of learning about history, and is cultivated with an inquiry-based model. This type of approach centers the asking of questions that mean something to the student (or researcher) generates authenticity to the project and motivates them to move beyond the prompts they might be given to complete assignments, providing a “scaffolding” of guidance that spurs onto further inquiry and empowers them to “construct their own learning” that is all based around the elements of historical thinking.4

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 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?5

These very 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.

Though these elements will likely continue to evolve as our engagement with history as a discipline will change according to the context around it, it seems that there is a clear set of notions that what comprises historical thinking: inquiry, interpretation, engagement, and reflection.


1. Calder, Lendol and Tracy Steffes. “Measuring College Learning in History.” Social Science Research Council. May 2016.

2. Ibid.

3. Wineburg, Sam. “Crazy for History” The Journal of American History 90, no. 4. March 2004.

4. Sleeter, N., Schrum, K., Swan, A., & Broubalow, J. (2019). “Reflective of my best work”: Promoting inquiry-based learning in a hybrid graduate history course. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education.

5. Kelly, T. Mills. “Thinking: How Students Learn About the Past” in Teaching History in the Digital Age 2013.

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