Who are the experts in historical thinking?

Myself and another teacher, lets call him Mike, enjoy reading and discussing whatever we could find from experts on historical thinking skills. It provided a lot of material to talk about between classes, during the “adult time” that is so important to mental health. We often spoke of our favorites as part of the historical thinking “canon.” Alas, the official rite for admittance into the canon never happened, and the ceremonial robes got lost in the mail.

Below are two of my absolute favorites. If you have not looked into them, they are well worth a read. I know I am not the only teacher that loves the feeling of inspiration and excitement when you see or read a new idea that you want to immediately put into practice in your classroom.

The Big Six: Historical Thinking Concepts – Peter C. Seixas and Tom Morton

This one was Mike’s selection for the canon and, after I read it, I appreciated both its philosophical approach and the ease with which it can be integrated into any grading system. Seixas, a professor out of Canada, simplifies historical thinking to six major skills, each with a chapter filled with insight. Each skill is also accompanied by guideposts that he identifies as critical to student understanding and practice. These guideposts make outstanding skill-based enduring understandings. Maybe best of all, the book includes practical classroom activities and applications.

Although the chapters are bursting with excellent theory, it is packaged in a way that teachers will appreciate. Everything is explained and handed to you ready to be put into practice in your next lesson. My colleague Mike maintains that if he was redesigning a standards-based curriculum he would do it based on the simple but effective framework in this book. Ive been told that this book is a common read for teachers who study in Canada. It was new for me and I wish I had come across it earlier.

Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts – Sam Wineburg

Honestly, everything by Sam Wineburg deserves to be in the canon. I first came across Sam Wineburg research when I was on JSTOR looking for some good reading material on historical thinking. The article was based on a chapter of this book. After finishing it, I immediately bought the digital version of his book.

One of his more convincing arguments is related to how schools have failed for decades to teach historical facts despite the fallacy that knowledge of history is necessary to produce competent and qualified adults and citizens. With this in mind, he argues that what is most beneficial for students is to acquire the skill set that historians work with. He compares the ability of high school students who recently completed a DBQ for their AP US History course with professional historians. These historians research, write, and teach in fields other than American history, some of them not having dealt with the content of the selected DBQ in decades. Not surprisingly, the questioning and analysis skills of the historians lead them to stronger analysis and insight.

Wineburg is a strong proponent of skills-based historical education and breaking the “content trap” that so many teachers fall into. He spends a lot of time in the book exploring the how teachers should approach instructing historical inquiry and how there are many approaches to skills-based education that can yield better results than traditional content-based lessons. However, instruction is only part of the equation. A change in history instruction necessitates a change in assessment. Wineburg devotes ample time in this book, and in other publications, to unpacking what historical thinking skill assessment can look like in a classroom.

Combined, these two books are filled with practical theory and application that changed my teaching. I enjoy being able to discuss the philosophical and practical with colleagues. Sometimes it takes us a little longer to stumble onto insights, but the reward is in how we get better at our jobs. I had a mentor early on in my teaching career who, thankfully, imparted on me the recognition that teachers need to grow and keep abreast of their fields. As I write this I am almost done with The Landscape of History by John Lewis Gaddis. I don’t want to jump the gun, but I think it might be added to the canon soon.

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