Historical thinking is a mix of knowledge and actions (skills) that are not easily disentangled. As educators, it makes sense that we look to identify and isolate the parts of this complex mix of knowledge and skills. It makes teaching them easier. At the same time, if our goal is for students to truly exercise the habits of mind of the historian, this process of isolating and teaching discrete mindsets and skills is a delicate process that requires careful planning and a true grasp of what historians do and do not do.
The Default= Ahistorical Thinking
Sam Wineburg has repeatedly reminded us that historical thinking is neither natural nor easy. Ahistorical, or non historical, thinking is thinking that focuses solely or narrowly on a single moment in time. From a distance, it may seem a paradox to think that a history class might not engage regularly in historical thinking. But, I suspect, ahistorical thinking in history class is the norm rather than the exception. It is important for us to think about why this may be the case.
When engaged in ahistorical thinking, little or no attempt is made to connect the topics and issues under discussion to a larger context, to other events, peoples, and related contexts.
Many history classes discuss the past untethered from historical thinking because doing so is easy to plan, control, and get students to do. When information about the past is disseminated, regardless of the medium used to deliver that content, there is a strong likelihood that minimal attention is being paid to the nature of this information: where it comes from, what evidence it is based on, and what it tells us about the past as well as the present.
So regardless of how our students learn about the past- whether it’s via textbooks, lectures, videos, primary sources, or, more likely, some combination of these- we need to remember that how we structure our units and lessons determines the degree to which our students will think historically or ahistorically.
We can start with a simple idea: all information in a history class comes from sources. Too often, sources are treated differently. Some sources are questioned, others are not. Is it ever justified to treat sources differently? That is, should some sources be presented to students with the explicit or implicit message of ‘trust this’ or treat this as fact because I say so?
Some seem to think that background information must be front loaded to students and that this background information needs to be treated differently than the rest of the lesson’s content.
I do not think this approach is helpful for a few reasons.
More to come….