The Usurpation of Historical Thinking Skills

This may upset many because it challenges a traditional approach but I think the pairing of history and literature is one of the biggest mistakes in academics. There are many aspects of the pair that do work together but in recent years, reading advocates and language teachers have dominated the discussion about how to teach the two together and it has hurt the study of history.

What Are Thinking Skills

The term thinking skills is really more about how one approaches a subject rather than how your brain actually works. Reading thinking skills are probably the most well-known: main point, point of view, interpretation.

Those skills are not useless in the study of history but historians have their own set of thinking skills that aid the study of history. Historians are less concerned about the main point and literature interpretation than they are chronology, primary/secondary sources, contextualization or corroboration. When students are exposed to historical documents the historical thinking skills are not emphasized and instead teachers are relying on literature thinking skills which diminishes the importance and impact of the documents.

For example, if students are reading the Gettysburg Address, the teacher shouldn’t be asking, “what is the main idea?” Students are not interpreting what Lincoln meant because we know the answer. There are more important questions such as, “what influenced Lincoln’s opinion?” or “what impact was Lincoln hoping for?” The subtle differences make a difference.

Students should be considering how the speech was received in New York versus Atlanta. The history is already known just as the main idea is already known. Students have a foundation of information (or should have) and therefore need to move on to different skills to understand the material.

What are the Historical Thinking Skills

There are variations throughout social studies groups and foundations but generally breakdown to the following:

  1. Chronological thinking (thinking about the time period)
  2. Comprehension or understanding (basically, a combination of who, what, where, when, and why)
  3. Sources (skills related to primary and secondary sources)
  4. Analysis (thinking based around the idea of fact and opinion – any true historian would never claim that history is a collection of facts)
  5. Decision-making (this skill is multi-faceted and revolves around the other skills)

Why Does This Matter

As educators (and unfortunately politicians) discuss 21st century skills and jobs of the future, fields of study are going to be forced to confront their importance and purpose. History is not a dead field as many like to claim but is a living field that grows continuously. It is in fact, the only field that can guarantee growth since history happens every second. Now is the time to remind the general public of the value of studying history and how it prepares students for the future.

One trend to examine is law school admissions and graduation rates. (Just what the world needs – more lawyers, right? The answer is maybe!) History is always a top contender for majors of law students. Law students major in history for their undergraduate degree because the skills necessary to succeed are strikingly similar to those needed in law school.

They need extensive experience in reading historical accounts because they will be reading TONS of historical court cases. They will need a background in how to analyze why cases happened and why particular arguments were used. Law students need research skills and experience using primary and secondary sources. They need experience with topics with open-ended or unknown answers. They need to discern fact and opinion and how to gather materials that support their hypothesis.

Law students go on to do work in many fields that have nothing to do with government or the law. This is a testament to how universal the skills of history are.

The skills mentioned above, would benefit any discipline. They also enhance the civic pride of citizens and make them more likely to be involved in their community. This is why the study of history is essential for students who are not going to further their education. Career oriented students still need analytical and research skills. They need to be able to identify problems and solutions, to trace the origins of things and to identify opinions and facts and have experiences researching using primary and secondary sources.

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1 Comment

  1. Before you leave a comment informing me that I am all wrong, please reference the National Council of Social Studies and the entire AP history website for “Historical Thinking Skills.” You are also able to Google this term and most states will come up with their DOE’s and their take on the historical thinking skills. It’s clear you have no idea what I am talking about or you wouldn’t have left the misguided information nor would you tell me to read more scholarly work on the subject. Hope this helps!

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