Scaffolding Historical Thinking Skills

In the race to cover content it is easy to overlook the importance of scaffolding historical thinking during instruction. It is easy to ask students to analyze causes and effects, make comparisons, or effectively source documents; but harder to make sure students have a clear path to showing proficiency.

Without clear scaffolding, without a system for teaching historical thinking, students are more likely to fall into “kitchen-sinkism.” That is, they are more likely to think that copious amounts of detail and content, regardless of its relative significance, constitutes good history. Some students will always get to the goal on their own, but scaffolding helps all students have a clear path forward.

This is not an argument about teaching historical thinking skills in general; Sam Wineburg and many others have made those arguments far better than I can. Neither is this an argument about emphasizing skills over content as they are each important to each other. This post is about my strategies and tips for scaffolding historical thinking so that students and teachers can see the path forward as clearly as possible.

Know the Final Product

By final product I don’t mean just the type of assessment that will be used, for example an essay, poster, traditional assessment, etc. Teachers need to spend time making sure they know the quality of the thinking they want their students to produce. Analytical rubrics often ignore historical thinking skills and limit these final goals to phrases like “demonstrates detailed knowledge of content,” “effectively analyzes facts and evidence,” or “claims are supported with multiple pieces of evidence.” These are vague and offer students no clarity on the final goal. How are students supposed to know what an “effective analysis” is?

“Analysis” is a massive catch-all that changes shape depending on the exact thinking process being applied. Asking students to use multiple pieces of evidence offers no insight on how to define significance or the gradations of quality that evidence comes in. In short, teachers do a disservice when they cannot clearly explain the quality of a student exemplar against a standard. Students deserve clarity regarding the final product they are expected to produce.

Before I get into a lesson I like to clarify the skill and the selected content. After I design my formative and summative assessments, I do them myself. The act of producing written examples helps me fine-tune the assessment and create a scoring guide that gets released to students after the assessment. Scoring guides take time to create, but they are worth it.

Pre-Teach Necessary Content

A common mistake I made when moving to a standards-based model that prioritized skills was pre-teaching all content before getting into the historical thinking skills. This takes a significant amount of time and gives students less opportunity for skill practice.

I found greater success when I used a flipped classroom model, having students do reading or watch a video on the most essential content they would need to know at the start of an individual lesson or series of lessons. After starting class with a brief review or content check I had more time to jump into skills based activities. Additional content can be woven in strategically through the activities. This was a hard shift to make as it required me to avoid the content trap that so many history teachers get stuck inside. Content is always necessary, but skillful selection of key vocabulary and illustrative examples for pre-teaching helps make better use of class time. This is easier said than done. In order for a flipped classroom to work, there still need to be small ways that students are held accountable for content. This can be done with reading quizzes, content reviews, work exemplars that model content use, and constant formative feedback.

Unpack the Skill into Levels of Proficiency

The process of breaking down a historical thinking skill into components or levels of proficiency is as valuable for the teacher as the student. It forces teachers to engage in reflection on their practice and pedagogy and was, in my experience, some of the most valuable PD I’ve experienced. This process allowed me to improve the quality of feedback I give to students and made its way into my lesson planning process. No matter what content I am teaching, I am able to find a clear way to weave historical thinking skill instruction and practice alongside.

This process benefits students by giving them a clear path to the target goal instead of just asking them to “analyze causes of…” It makes it easier for teachers to differentiate according to their needs or their academic level. Regardless of whether a school uses traditional or standards-based grading, students get better instruction when their teachers take the time to unpack and scaffold historical thinking skills.

Design Activities for each Proficiency Level

Strong lessons begin with foundational content and skill and build to more complex concepts, eventually offering enrichment. After unpacking historical skill standards, lessons can be planned with these proficiency levels in mind. As students improve, it will become easier for teachers to forgo review of what is foundational and make more time for enrichment. Ultimately, this is about the teacher becoming more of a facilitator of learning and pushing the classroom to become more student centered.

I also like to use these activities to introduce additional content. In AP World, I frequently use DBQs or other primary source activities to teach content. Likewise, skill-based activities allow for exploring already previewed content in greater depth as students generate questions and seek out answers.

Causation Activity Examples

Formatively Assess each Level

Formative feedback is critical for student improvement. Providing them with skill-based feedback at each scaffolding level helps them avoid common mistakes and reach proficiency quicker. Formative assessments provide this opportunity. My favorite formative assessments are quick writes after an activity. For example, asking student to contextualize a thesis, develop an argument that prioritizes causes, HIPP a source, etc. Earlier in a lesson MCQs provide an easy assessment to track content acquisition. Organizing and tracking this data helps provide big picture feedback for student and parents as well as drive planning for future instruction. Frequent formative practice also leads to better and more consistent achievement on summative assessments.

Pull Things Together for the Summative

A summative assessment will need to have all the pieces put together. I like using smaller summative assessments that test proficiency on a single skill, for example primary source analysis, within a unit. At the end of a unit, larger tasks that ask students to use multiple skills, such as writing a complete DBQ, can help students see how skills are interconnected.

The most important thing is making sure the summative task assesses a student’s skills as well as content. Scaffolding the summative along the same lines as the proficiency scale can be a helpful strategy for ensuring this. My assessments often went through a few iterations before I was happy with how they assessed both skill and assessment. Assessment design that weaves content and skill together deserves as much attention as instruction.

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