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  • VanSledright's article entitled "What Does it Mean to Think Historically...and How Do You Teach It?" raisied some excellent points for me as a librarian.  The discussion of finding sources, engaging in critical inquiry and assessing sources is especailly resonate. I think that I can help students with these "tasks".  However, I admit that I am troubled by the phrase "thinking historically" because I don't really know what people mean when they use it. I don't know if they mean acting like a some German trained 20th century historian--applying a model or theory to a linear swath of time and looking at print residue and then pruning "sources" that do not fit or substantuate the model.  I mean Marxist historians disregarding anything that does not support dialetical materialism or conflict theory of revolution.  I am guessing that the shift has been to folks saying that young students are considered "historians" just because they are going beyond a text ("fact") book and examining teacher-selected sources with tools that are selected and taught by their teachers. The bottom line is that I have to think more about the article --it is too short and meaty to be dismissed.


    On the other hand, Andrews and Burke in their article, "What Does it Mean to Think Historically?" (are there really only a few titles floating in the world? this shows a lack of creativity), are helpful in giving the reader a well-reasoned approach to the 5 C's of historical thinking.   I enjoyed thinking of the process of learning to think (professionally) historically as a craft/guild model because made the study and manufacture of history seemed so medieval. The authors attempt to move us from the model to another one based upon the 5 C approach.  Change over time; Context; Causality; Contingency; Complexity; and Conclusion--oh, wait that is 6.  The conclusion is that this is not easy to change the way people think and therefore teach history. It seems that any attempt to open up the discussion  is both helpful and productive to creating a generation that can actively engage the "text" and isn't that what we are are hoping to produce? 

  • See my post below.

  • Reflections

    P. Pugh

    May 23, 2012

    What Does It Mean to Think Historically…and How Do you Teach It?

    Having read both articles, I view them as valuable information especially for teachers of history.   Each identified steps that teachers should be take to help students have a better understanding of the historical events or sources they are studying.  Most helpful were the suggestions that approaching the teaching of history in the former traditions, such as re-enactments,  memorization of dates, and constructing a replica/model do not give students a comprehensive understanding of what has occurred in history and how it affects the world. Working with primary sources, plus the text, I am hoping to engage my students in higher order thinking processes that will help them have a better understanding of history.

    For me, this way of thinking and teaching will allow more investigation into the how and whys of our past.  It will also enable my students to assess sources, ask questions, and justify their arguments and interpretations.  With the primary sources, I am hoping to squelch the fear and uncertainty students face when they have a question that asks, “What do you think…? Explain why you agree or disagree.”   Students can move from being just receivers to engaged inquisitive learners. Given ample practice in my history/social studies class, other subject areas will benefit as they learn to examine primary sources thoroughly.

  • I definitely think differently about history after reading the two articles given for homework.  I teach my kids all the time about fiction and nonfiction.  Then I read the articles and it made me think well, what about two different perspectives on the same event.  Is a person lying or truly because of their viewpoint they saw things in a different light. 

    I also had to think about how historians truly have to make intellectual guesses about what occurred in history, collaborate their facts, and then fill in the holes to tell the story and make history.  I see historians in a different light that they are talented story tellers, hopefully of truth. 

    While thinking of the 5 C’s, it made me realize that as teachers we are better at teaching some of these aspects and not others.  I liked it how the article mentioned how students can act out history and discuss varying perspectives to better understand the primary source.

  • Reflections on History and How to Teach It

    In highschool I had a history teacher named Mr. Edmonds.  We all made fun of him behind his back because he would pace incessantly during each lesson, would get really fired up about what he was talking about, and would act as if every history lesson included him personally (i.e. "So Lee looked at Grant and said...").  What I didn't realize was that he was making history come alive for us in the best way that he knew how.  On a side note, perhaps he WAS really there...no, just kidding. 

    What he inspired in me was a love of history, so my reading of these articles dovetails with my own personal ideas about teaching and learning.  In "What Does it Mean...Teach It?" I appreciated the author's emphasis on assessing sources and avoiding bias.  I also enjoyed how he highlighted that the past is not "either given, or inaccessible, or both."  The past is something that must be determined using several sources, not just the textbook in front of us.  I hope that as the generations continue we will learn more and more about the past, which will in turn educate our future.

    In the article "What Does it Mean to Think Historically?" the authors use the 5 C's, which, in my opinion, are an incredibly useful tool.  I do think that the savvy teacher begins using primary sources with children at a very young age, and defines in easy terms what primary sources are.  For example, a teacher friend of mine goes over the differences between sites such as Wikipedia and the Library of Congress with her first graders--she states that they are not too young to learn that you can't trust every site on the internet.  Andrews and Burke back this up in their article, furthering it by discussing imaginative play.  As always, "that an idea might require more thought or more research is a valuable lesson at any age."

  • Most of my teaching is directed to my own three children as I homeschool a first, fourth and six grader.  I was struck as my children and I were learning about the Protestant Reformation, Columbus’ exploration, early industrialization and the effect of it on child labor and now as we are beginning to learn about western expansion and “Manifest Destiny” that perspective matters!

     I grew up just learning facts, yet I still had a love of the story of history.  As time goes on though I am beginning to realize I was not challenged beyond the textbook’s perspective of history.  The two articles “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” and “What Does It Mean to Think Historically. . . and How Do You Teach It?” confirm the nagging question I have had of late.  How can I really understand (and help my children value and understand) what has happened in the past, not just the dates and names.  But why and how did others truly think and feel about the events and circumstances that were occurring during their lives.  I want my children to not just accept what they are told but to think critically.  I feel that it in the article by Bruce A VanSedright, What does It Meant to Think Historically . . . and How Do You Teach It? answers the question why we should teach our students to use primary sources. It is vital in our teaching.  The article says,  “Historical thinking is a very close relative to active, thoughtful, critical participation in text and image-rich democratic cultures.”  “ In short, they are informed, educated, thoughtful, critical readers, who appreciate investigating enterprises, know good arguments when they hear them, and who engage their world with a host of strategies for understanding it.”

     I want my students, whether they are my own children or not, to be critical thinkers, able to use information from a variety of sources to draw conclusions; not duped into believing whatever they are told by others.  This may begin, as we introduce our students to the use of primary sources and the skill of analyzing them

  • "Because holes can exist in the evidence trails, historians need to use their imaginations to fill in those holes." (VanSledright, 2004) This statement took my breath away.  Since the historian also judges the perspective of the evidence's originators, and the historian is working through his own perspectives, I wonder how much history is "real" and how much has been imagined, misinterpreted or misrepresented. Given the slippery nature of “history”, it becomes more imperative to teach students the parameters that “real” historians use when working with primary sources and allowing students the opportunity to see how multiple people may interpret the evidence differently. Given the tools to be discriminate users of primary sources, these novice historians will become more attuned to the ring of truth when they read history. It would be interesting to give small groups the same primary source with the same analysis tool and compare how each group interprets what they are seeing.

    Andrews and Burke assert that of the five Cs, contingency may be the most difficult to teach. I disagree. Children are taught at an early age that their actions, inactions, and words have consequences or contingencies.  They hear things such as, “If you finish your homework by 7 p.m. you may watch 30 minutes of TV.” Contingency. There is even a series of commercials on TV now for a cable or dish satellite company that capitalizes on the “if this, than that” formula.  Most kids can say something like, “If I had worn my helmet, I wouldn’t need stitches in my head right now.” Movies such as “Groundhog Day”, “Sliding Doors”, “Men in Black” and others all explore alternate “endings”. Granted, it’s difficult for young students to follow the web of events leading up to an historical crescendo, but they can follow simple “What if…” questions.

    It was interesting that both articles recognized the powerful role interpretation plays in history. For example, my high school history teacher (who taught me to dislike history) insisted that it was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But Andrews and Burke point out historians have not been able to reach a consensus on the topic. When history scholars cannot agree, how can we continue asking students to “read the chapter, answer the questions at the end, and prepare for a quiz in the morning”?

  • I really enjoyed reading the article, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically...and How Do You Teach It?”  I have always been fascinated with American history.  This article emphasizes the importance of creating “historical thinkers” instead of students who merely ingest the information textbooks and teachers give them.  This appears to be a paradigm shift from the way educators have approached history in the past.  I like the direction that teachers are now going.


    This new approach teaches the importance of investigating the past.  I have often wondered exactly what it meant when researchers have discovered “new information” about a particular historical event.  I would think, “What NEW information is there about history that has already happened?”  This article, as well as this class, has answered that question for me.  The new information is probably the discovery of new primary sources.  From that, historical thinkers can assess those sources and help to create a different perspective of an event.

    I love the idea of teaching our students the skills to become historical thinkers.  I believe this will help to invest them in what they are learning.  When a person has ownership to their education, they are more apt to be a lifelong learner.

  • Oops - Stephanie is still logged in on my computer. Since I can't delete the comment I already made, et me say - Thank you for the comments posted so far. I am glad so many of you enjoyed these articles!


  • I really appreciate articles that build on each other, so often in educational theory and practice we are inundated with pedagogy and miss best practice.  These two articles worked together in concert to provide a well defined plan for leading students into the all important area of critical thinking. 

    Andrews and Burke clearly laid out examples for us as educators regarding what it is to think historically even to the level of building this type of thinking from the early primary grades.  The five "C's" provides us with a memorable and practical list that will promote scaffolding for even the newest teacher to this practice.  The examples provided give a guide that will help us lead our students into the ability to interpret and analyze primary and secondary sources while considering their perceptions of the world around them.  As our students delve into the information highway these analytical skills are critical.  Leading students through the historical thinking process will provide a practical and interesting way for our future leaders to navigate their world. 

    VanSledright expands on this thought process by laying out the basics of primary source work and analysis: identification, questioning, and interpreting context.  He encourages teaching students to read between the lines and work together to assess and reflect on primary sources.  I especially enjoyed the real life application he cites at the end of his article addressing students' need to be critical thinkers and analytical readers.  As teachers there is no greater gift we can give a student than that of the ability to perceive agendas and come to their own conclusions and eventually their own decisions.  Hopefully by striving to help students think historically, we are providing scaffolding for the enlightened development of their future world view. 

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