Key Concepts of Historical Thinking

Historical thinking is a way of thinking that is learned, “unnatural art”. It is not a natural process or something that springs automatically from the psychology. It is the reading, analysis and writing that’s necessary to tell stories. It’s not only what we know about the past but how we know it. It gives people the ability to perceive the experience of others. Coming to know others, whether they live on the other side of the tracks or the other side of millennium, requires the education of sensibilities. This is what history, when taught well, gives us practice in doing. It makes us go beyond our own image, our brief life, and the fleeting moment into human history into which we were born. The goal of historical thinking/understanding is situating ourselves in the time and space, we cultivate the empathy for logics we do not possess or share.

There are five aspects of historical thinking: multiple accounts and perspectives, analysis of primary sources, sourcing, understanding historical context, claim-evidence connection.

There are two types of historical knowledge: substantive and procedural knowledge. Substantive knowledge is what historical knowledge is about—the content of history. It usually takes the form of narrative. The procedural knowledge structural basis for the discipline. The concepts such as evidence and empathy are conceptual tools needed for the study of the past as a discipline and the construction of the content of historical knowledge.┬áIt is the knowledge of how we research and make an interpretation of the past. The procedural understanding of the concepts which are the tools to understand history is

  1. What is important in the past? —historical significance
  2. What changed and what remained the same? — Continuity and change
  3. Did things change for better or worse?—Progress and decline
  4. How do we make sense pf raw materials of the past?—Evidence
  5. How can we understand predecessors who had different moral frameworks?—Historical empathy.

To examine the evidence, which is the major work of history research and learning, is made up of external criticism and internal criticism. External criticism is to examine carefully the nature and origin of the sources, not the content. Internal criticism is to examine the content of the source to establish its internal validity and reliability.

Three questions about history teaching:

  1. I agree that historical thinking is very important in students’ history learning. It is the method to read, analyze and write history. History is not only about facts. The question: how can I train students with historical thinking while teaching history each week. Now the history teaching is one-direction flow. I talk and they listen and one section of discussion each week. The class schedule is so full that I don’t find the time slot to talk about historical thinking. Now sometimes with online teaching, it’s more challenging. I am thinking if I should use one class to talk on historical thinking or I teach this way of thinking a bit week by week. It’s not only a methodology but students need to practice.
  2. The second question is for low-level history classes such as history 101, students are from various majors and history may not be their strong point. How can I attract these students to history and help them succeed in the class? My current practice is to spark their interest by linking the past to the present so that they can talk. I write long comment on their papers to advise them on how to write an academic paper. But I wonder if there are more ways to help them learn history effectively.
  3. Online teaching gets more and more popular. Besides uploading PDF files and videos, I wonder if there are some other ways that can improve teaching. I think of collaborative learning or crowdsourcing a project so that the students do not feel they learn history all alone in the class. But are there other ways?

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