Teaching The Process of Historical Thinking


For years I have heard how learning history prepares students for a variety of jobs and tasks that require critical thinking, creativity, and an organized mind, and it is true! Learning the methods of historians does prepare people to become curators of information, critical thinkers, and excellent presenters. Yet, why do students believe history is the rote memorization of dates and facts, and instructors teach history as such? Unfortunately, teaching the dates and facts is simpler and easier to assess, whereas preparing on how to do history takes time, energy, and a comfort with flexibility. One way to promote the skills of an historian is teaching history as a process, not as a final result. History is not final, as any trained historian knows. The people who grow to love history generally do because of its messiness. Multiple perspectives, access to and quality of primary sources, and causation make history confusing and fascinating. One way to make history more engaging and productive is to teach the historian’s process.

Research method is more important than the final product. Teaching students how to conduct and present research is extremely important and arguably the most valuable skill historians possess. Yet, most history projects focus too much on the final product, something abstract to a young mind. If an instructor expects their students to write a 5, 8, 10, 25 page paper by the end of the course, and the students have never done so, how can the students expect to create a final product they are unfamiliar with? Teaching to the process allows instructors to find the weaknesses of their students earlier, thereby allowing mistakes to be corrected long before the final product is due.

Students have more chances to make mistakes and learn from them. Teachers will have more opportunities to catch the small blunders that together result into lackluster final products. Most human beings will fix what they know is wrong, it is our nature. If students know they are being assessed on their ability to fix their mistakes, then they will invest more time into learning what those mistakes are and how to correct them. Focusing on the process allows teachers to see mistakes early. Detecting mistakes in the beginning is crucial for large scale projects, which do not allow people to go back and dismantle large sections because of an early mistake.

Projects are difficult and represent life. Whether individual or group, projects present a multitude of problems that both students and instructors would rather avoid. Despite their difficulty, projects are the best way teachers can demonstrate how life works. Outside of the school walls, life is a collection of major projects. Students need to learn how to collaborate with others, organize themselves over the course of a series of deadlines, and enjoy the process of critical thinking.

The amount of assessment and critical evaluation goes up, and outside classroom evaluation goes down. I have heard several teachers state that they spent 5 to 10 hours grading papers or assignments over a weeknight or weekend. Getting into education is a sacrifice, but grading for several hours after work is ridiculous. Worse yet, most of the students will not spend time improving their next project on the assessment given. Students become overloaded and confused if they have too many corrections to make. Furthermore, they will not improve an assignment that no longer has meaning. Focusing on the process allows the teacher several more opportunities to make informal evaluations that can have positive effects over the entire project. If students understand an instructor will be looking for a certain mistake, then they will try not to repeat it.

When teaching to the process, assessments will become organic, informal, something more like real life. For example, when my boss notes that I have made a mistake, they do not wait on my monthly teaching report to tell me. They will generally tell me in passing or when we are casually talking. I go back to my classroom and do my best to fix my mistake. If I did not fix the mistake, that alludes to a serious problem that I do not understand. Student assessment should be similar and curriculum should be flexibly delivered to best benefit the individual student.

Peer assessment is easier to implement when instructors focus on the process. Peer assessment is an excellent tool to both teach students how to be critical of each other and to save teacher time. In a future Peer Assessment article, I will write about the benefits and ways to implement peer assessment. For this section's purpose, just know that peer assessment gives more opportunities for students to receive critical evaluation faster and obtain multiple points-of-view.

An important comment to make is that teaching to the process leads to better final products. One of the most crucial methods I implement to help students grow is I tell them from the beginning of the school year, “your next project will be better than your last. In fact, it is part of your grade.” I grade improvement on how well they analyzed a primary source to how many words they have in their essay. Students learn how to think critically, how to dig deeper, and how to really flesh out an idea. Do all of my students write brilliant essays? No. But, the student who could not write a paragraph can write a two-page paper by the end of the school year. The student who could write a 600 word five paragraph essay, can now write eight pages with complete Chicago style citations (and get qualified to go to nationals for National History Day). My students all came into my room at a certain level and grow to the next one. I ensure that because I focus on their process of how they learn and create.