Education Blog Posts

Thinking About Historical Thinking

Throughout our readings for the first week of class, we evaluated the difficulties in teaching History to students. The readings have taught me that it has been difficult to measure the level of learning completed by students in their history courses. According to Sam Wineburg, Mark Smith, and Joel Breakstone, authors of the article “What Is Learned in College History Classes?”, professors struggled with connecting their classes to produce a whole picture.[1] Individual professors could excel in their classroom, but as a whole, they only made fragments of a collective understanding. Seeing this occur in many classrooms across the United States, the American Historical Association has introduced the concept of historical thinking into classrooms. Historical thinking includes reading, questioning, contextualization, and analysis. All these skills work together to produce different narratives when addressing a primary document or object. These concepts push students to engage deeper with the material. Within Wineburg’s article, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts”, he provided examples of historians who research and think about history differently. An example he used was Carl Ginzburg, author of The Cheese and the Worms. This book is a micro-history produced by Ginzburg that reflects how historians should approach the study of history. “If Ginzburg and others are right, the goal of historical study should be to teach us what we cannot see, to acquaint us with the congenital blurriness of our vision.”[2]  The perception of the people who are being discussed within history classes should be a priority. As historians, we analyze how and why their perception of reality was created. Discussing events in the context that they occurred, provides excellent insight into the minds of the people who endured those events.

To entice students to participate in these intense discussions can be difficult. Most likely, you may find yourself in a position where you are teaching material to a student who has no previous knowledge or background on a certain historic topic. Therefore, it is more difficult to provide them with a deeper understanding of historical significance. The three questions I have developed throughout the course of these readings are:

  1. How do you introduce and have meaningful discussions of difficult topics, such as slavery and genocide, within History?
  2. How is “historical empathy” created and maintained?
  3. How to engage with the past without the present/ our own experiences dominating the narrative?

I cannot produce a possible answer for the first question, but I believe I have some ideas for the other two. My answers to the other two questions are connected.

Historical empathy is created when we place ourselves inside the minds of the people who endured a certain period. Through this model, we analyze these people and events through a humanistic approach. Wineburg used the example of a student named Derek who was examining primary sources about the American Revolution. In his response, Derek attempted to reconstruct the mentalities of the colonists and to view them as people. However, Derek failed to separate his own notions of war and behavior from those established in the context of the reading. This is related to my third question. Wineburg provided another example that portrayed this question. A professor, Bob Alston, analyzed documents from Abraham Lincoln and his contemporaries. The main idea presented in this example was that we cannot rush to determine meanings or judgments when discussing historical figures and events. we need to approach the past and learn from it, instead of using it to confirm our own beliefs.

[1], Joel Breakstone Mark Smith, Sam Wineburg, “What Is Learned in College History Classes?”, Journal of American History, Mar. 2018, Vol. 104, p. 983-993.

[2] Sam Wineburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.” The Phi Delta Kappan 80, no. 7 (1999): 488–99.


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