Tona Hangen

Historical Thinking

I piloted this as an ungraded Blackboard online module in my Spring 2014 US History II course (Worcester State University HI 112). Cross-posted here to archive it/make it more widely available.


As we discussed on the first day of class, history is not the same as “the past.” History tells a particular story about the past, and this implies there are always other possible stories to tell, even using the same evidence. So: history is an argument about the past. The past never changes. In contrast, history changes all the time because we might find new evidence or interpret old evidence in new ways, ask different questions, use different methodologies, or discredit former interpretations.

As I’ve written on page 4 of our syllabus: “Historians use evidence to construct a story or interpretation about the past, and often that evidence is fragmentary, partial or conflicting. A careful historian asks critical questions about his or her evidence and acknowledges the potential strengths and weaknesses of those sources for constructing plausible stories (histories) about the past. Historians make knowledge rather than just consume it.”

Trained historians, therefore, learn to approach historical evidence (“the past”) with certain distinct ingrained habits including skepticism and resisting the first answer that comes to mind. Part of the discipline of history is learning to think like a historian.

If you are new to college-level history courses, this may be unfamiliar. It might differ from your prior understanding of what “learning history” is. This online module is designed to help you grasp the main concepts of historical thinking and apply them for success in this course. Although ungraded, the exercises and resources in this module should help you improve in the basic course outcomes.*

Part 1. What is Historical Thinking?

Begin by opening the link below in a new tab. It will take you to the National History Education Clearinghouse’s page “What is Historical Thinking?” – designed to introduce K-12 teachers to the basic concepts of historical thinking so they can change their mode of teaching from memorized facts to student-constructed knowledge. For our purposes, use the short video to teach yourself five starting ideas in historical thinking: Using Multiple Accounts, Analyzing Primary Sources, Sourcing, Understanding Historical Context, and Establishing Claim-Evidence Connections.

What Is Historical Thinking? (National History Education Clearinghouse)

After viewing the video, read this article by Sam Wineburg, a history education scholar at Stanford University, director of the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Wineburg, “Thinking Like a Historian,” TPS Quarterly

Optional bonus link: If you want more information on how historical thinking can inform history teaching (and how it has, in fact, informed my design of this class), you might also appreciate this article: Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, “What Does it Mean to Think Historically?” AHA Perspectives January 2007.

Part 2. What Do Historians “Do” With Primary Source Evidence?

Now that you have a basic understanding of what is involved in historical thinking, let’s go a little deeper into the “how to” of primary source analysis.

Remember: a primary source is a piece of historical evidence created at a specific time in the past. Primary sources are the “raw ingredients” of history. Posters, pamphlets, newspaper articles, photographs, letters, diaries, and speeches are all examples of primary sources. Primary sources do not speak for themselves; they must be analyzed and interpreted for what they can tell us about the past. Here are two different online tutorials explaining how to do this, which will give you some starting questions and approaches for working with primary source evidence. Choose one, or look at both, and pay special attention to the questions and methods of analysis used.

How to #1 Canada’s Historical Thinking Project “Primary Source Evidence”

Note: this resource has two useful downloadable handouts: Working with Individual Primary Sources and a Primary Source Evidence template. You could use both with any primary source to guide your inquiry.

How to #2 Wisconsin Historical Society “How to Read Primary Sources”

This resource, also, has several downloadable worksheets for analyzing primary sources, found by scrolling to the bottom of the page.

Part 3. Practice Historical Thinking – 3 Case Studies

Each of these is a structured exercise to give you practice with applying “historical thinking” concepts to a specific piece of historical evidence. You might benefit from trying out one or more of them.

1) History Matters Sample Analysis (a daguerreotype) by the photographs curator at Smithsonian

2) Bringing an NCLC Photo into Focus (a Lewis Hine photograph), from the Library of Congress

3) The Homestead Strike (lesson plan using documents), from SHEG



*The course outcomes of US History II (HI 112) include:

Apply key basic concepts and skills of historical thinking to selected topics in the period 1877-now, including chronology, contingency, causality, and “pastness.”

Distinguish between primary and secondary sources and apply appropriate analytical questions to each to demonstrate understanding of their scholarly uses in history.

Self-assess and extend one’s own foundational skills in historical thinking and analysis

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