What Does It Mean to Master Historical Thinking, Part II

The first part of this article can be found at What Does It Mean To Mastery Historical Thinking

In order to truly show cognition in historical thinking, students must connect their answers to the prompt, and then again to their observations of the source. While completing these connections, students would have to explain each connection in detail. Each individual skill would need to have its own explanation. Below I give what could be considered a more complete mastery of each of the sourcing skills that I have written.

Skill 1: Identify the category of the source. The source is a painting, and it looks to be professional. Many paintings are not accurate representations because they were made for a purpose other than historical accuracy. This painting also has romanticized elements, such as Native Americans, soldiers, and Pilgrims sharing a peaceful meal. Interestingly, Ferris died in 1930 and the painting is said to be from 1932. Most likely the image being looked at is a print made of Ferris’s original painting which dates back to 1932. Ferris’s paintings must have been popular if they were being made into prints.

The First Thanksgiving 1621 (1932)

John Leon Gerome Ferris, as American painter

Skill 2: Identify the date and creator of the source. Below the painting there is information that says The First Thanksgiving 1621 was made in 1932. I checked the Library of Congress for this painting and found that the date is accurate. Additionally, the painting was made by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, who was a professional painter. The difference between the date of the event and the painting’s creation lead me to believe that the painting would not be accurate. This finding is reinforced because Ferris was a professional painter who most likely painted The First Thanksgiving 1621 as a commission in order to sell. Historical accuracy would not have been his primary concern.

Skill 3: Identify if the source is primary or secondary. The painting is secondary because it was not made by someone who had first hand experience of any event in 1621. This does not necessarily mean the source is useless because the painter could have attempted to make it historically accurate. However, based on the previous two answers, I believe Ferris’s source should not be trusted.

Skill 4: Describe the audience of the source. After doing some reading about Ferris on Wikipedia, and checking the sources that Wikipedia used, he did not sell many of his paintings and kept The First Thanksgiving 1621 with the other paintings that showed American historical moments. The paintings were meant to be seen together by large groups of people, because while Ferris was alive they were shown at Independence Hall in Philadelphia and Congress Hall in Washington, D. C. Having such large audiences at important American places would have encouraged Ferris to paint scenes that would make Americans proud of their heritage. This appears to be accurate because Ferris’s work was so popular that they were made into prints and postcards, along with being hosted in important American places. All of this considered, this painting is most likely not an accurate representation of the event.

Skill 5: Describe the purpose of the source. The purpose of this source is directly tied to the audience because Ferris was making his paintings as a way to show people a romanticised American past. Based on how Ferris positively depicts American colonists and where he knew these paintings would be placed, it is likely that Ferris created these paintings for entertainment and national pride, not historical accuracy.

Skill 6: Describe the characteristics, bias, and/or perspectives of the sources creator. By now I have alluded to the overall bias of the painter, but to summarize; Ferris was a professional painter who created highly popular paintings that likely made him a great deal of money. Ferris had little reason to rely on historical accuracy because people would want to see a more positive image of American events. Based on this information, I can assume that Ferris was a highly patriotic American who wanted to share his patriotism with other Americans. At the very least, Ferris had little issue with creating images that instill pride, not an accurate vision of the past. Ferris was an artist entertainer, not a historian.

Did These Answers Show Mastery of Historical Thinking?

These answers were obviously more detailed than the last and contain a much greater deal of analysis. These answers show how I sought out additional information in order to properly source the painting. Additionally, I directly connect my sourcing observations to the question of using the painting as a source to understand the first Thanksgiving. Throughout my answers, a connection between observation and analysis can be seen, which demonstrates that I placed myself in the perspective of the painter.

How do you manage time in your classroom to allow for projects and enrichment activities?

If someone were going to ask, which answers show the most mastery of the inquiry “sourcing,” I would argue that the last answers in Part II are superior. However, these last answers were written by me, someone who is trained in historical thinking, received a MA in History, and who teaches social studies teachers. So the question is, how much mastery can we expect from students? Also, how much time do we really have to teach such deep historical reasoning? The last set of answers took me about 30 minutes to do. I had to examine the painting, do some external research, and then develop reasoning that I thought successfully answered the prompt.

I believe this exercise in showing different levels of mastery demonstrates that applying historical thinking skills to curriculum will not automatically make students think more historically.

First, teachers need to have a rubric that shows how students can progress in the mastery of historical thinking. Next, students would need to understand how they can grow in cognitive ability, which means receiving feedback from teachers and spending time reflecting on their mistakes and successes. Finally, students need to be given several opportunities to show mastery over specific skills. Expecting them to use each skill to source a document would result in class times being completely dedicated to the analysis. On some days for summative assessments this may be allowable, but more generally, students need more time to dive into each individual skill.

Make a list of ways you can do these things in your classroom and work on obtaining them throughout the year


The wider consequence of this analysis is social studies classes need to be better at vertically aligning themselves and stop pretending they are separate from one another. Students can apply the same skills in their history classes, and there are several skills that can carry over into civics, geography, and economics. Only when classes align with each other, and base their grading on formative assessments that build to mastery, can history teachers have a hope in imparting historical thinking skills.

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