What Does It Mean To Master Historical Thinking

I will explain why measuring historical thinking is a challenge to the classroom teacher. In addition, I will connect this challenge to what the social studies teachers must do in order for pedagogy/curriculum like historical thinking to take effect.

Sam Wineburg’s 2001 book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past took the musing and ideas of researchers and turned historical thinking into a movement for pedagogical and curriculum change.

Other researchers have also examined historical thinking, often times under a different name (historical consciousness, historical reasoning, historical inquiry), and have continued to push teachers, schools, and institutions to incorporate an approach that promotes bettering the cognition of historical thought. As of today, the popularity has reached a point where educators can receive weekly updates from the Library of Congress on how to incorporate primary sources and critical of them into the curriculum.

Historical thinking has the potential for improving social studies classes; however, there are some major hurdles to be overcome. One of them is defining exactly what it is to master historical thinking. There are many institutions and organizations that use their own models for measuring the cognition of historical thought, but they have important differences. If you are a single teacher in a district/school, you may feel overburdened with choosing which format to use. If you are an educational planner in a district, you may be challenged by others ideas of which method to use.

Below, I will outline my point with an example of measuring historical thinking and then provide some ideas for solutions.

First Attempt At Mastering Historical Thinking

Here is an example; students have to source a document in order to explain its validity as a beneficial reference. Sourcing an artifact means to determine how useful it can be as evidence in answering a historical question, challenging an idea, or supporting an argument. 

For an example of sourcing, click on this History Forge video.

Prompts that call upon students to do this are common in Stanford History Education Group’s (SHEG) Beyond the Bubble assessments. For example, one of their original assessment activities asks students to examine a painting titled The First Thanksgiving 1621 (1932). The following prompt is part of the assessment.

“The painting The First Thanksgiving 1621 (1932) helps historians understand the relationship between the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrim settlers in 1621. Do you agree or disagree? Briefly support your answer.”

According to the grading rubric of this assessment, students have reached a “proficient” level by explaining that the time between the creation of the painting and the actual event is over 300 years a part and therefore not a good source of information.

According to the SHEG rubric, all students have to do in order to be “proficient” at this sourcing analysis is to identify the differences in the two dates. I do not believe this would warrant a proficient deduction of sourcing the artifact, nor do I believe that a difference in an artifacts date and the time of the event will immediately discredit a source. For example, historians often use contemporary manuscripts to help them understand past events, people, and ideas. When I wanted to know more about President Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals (2005). Just because there was a 140 years difference between the Goodwin’s book and its topic does not mean I cannot use it as a source for information. I believe SHEG is trying to show students the importance of primary sources being from the time period of the event; however, sourcing is far more complicated than that.

Second Attempt At Mastery of Historical Thinking

What I believe SHEG assessments are missing is a breakdown of the skills. In fact, I would not call “sourcing” a skill, but a type of thinking, reasoning or inquiry.

Based on an analysis of what is called “sourcing,” there are at least the following actions that could be called skills:

  1. Identify the category of the source.
  2. Identify the date and creator of the source.
  3. Identify if the source is primary or secondary.
  4. Describe the audience of the source.
  5. Describe the purpose of the source.
  6. Describe the characteristics, bias, or perspectives of the source’s creator.

For more information on the breakdown of historical thinking skills, visit the History Forge page Skills Based Grading and Grading for Mastery

So, if students performed all of these actions would that warrant a grade of mastery? Below I have written what I believe could be students’ answers, especially if they had access to an encyclopedia, textbook, or some online articles. For example, students can list the following as their answers to the six skills:

  1. This is a painting.
  2. The painting was made in 1932 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.
  3. The painting is a secondary source.
  4. Ferris 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 by large groups of people because they were shown at Independence Hall in Philadelphia and Congress Hall in Washington, D. C.
  5. Ferris made the paintings to be a part of a series that showed American events.
  6. Ferris was a professional painter who relied on his paintings to make money. It would be important for Ferris to paint images that the general public enjoyed, and painting historical American moments would have made him more popular. Ferris created The First Thanksgiving in 1621 to tell a triumphant story of the United States in order to please his American audience.

How do you let your students use encyclopedias like Wikipedia?

Do these answers warrant mastery? They certainly do give more information about the painting, but I would not really describe these answers as analytical. When using the skills, I did not know many of the answers to these questions; I found most of the information on Wikipedia (something the students would do as well). I do not believe this represents historical thinking and it needs to go deeper.


The second part of this article will show a third attempt in mastering the sourcing skill, as well as some thoughts on what social studies teachers will need to do in order to make historical thinking happen in the classroom. The second part of this article can be found at What Does It Mean to Master Historical Thinking, Part II

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