Historical Thinking = Critical Thinking about Historical Stuff

FCTWelcome to the end of August!!  I am just coming back from a cross-country trip to visit far-flung offspring, so I am still very much in summer mode.  I remember when I was little how the summer seemed to stretch on forever and was filled with days of endless outdoor activity: climbing trees, digging in the dirt, catching crayfish in the “crick”, playing kick the can and eating drippy popsicles outside so we wouldn’t get the kitchen floor all sticky.  (Can you tell I was a bit of a tomboy?)  Before we know it, we will be deep into the beginning routines of school.  Try to savor these last few days of summer!

To entertain you for a minute or two, I’d like to do a magic trick.  First, check out this excerpt on historical thinking from Student Guide to Historical Thinking by Linda Elder, Meg Gorzycki, & Richard Paul published by the Foundation for Critical Thinking.  (Click here to get a sample.)

To study history well, and learn to think critically about history, is to learn how to think in a disciplined way about history.  It is to learn to think within the logic of history, to:

  • raise vital historical questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gather and assess historical information, using historical ideas to interpret that information insightfully;
  • come to well-reasoned historical conclusions and interpretations, checking them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • adopt the point of view of the skilled historian, recognizing and assessing, as need be, historical assumptions, implications, and practical consequences;
  • communicate effectively with others using the language of history and the language of educated public discourse; and
  • relate what one is learning in history to other subjects and to what is significant in human life.

To become a skilled historical thinker is to become a self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective historical thinker, who assents to rigorous standards of thought and mindful command of their use.

StatueOfLibertyThis is an excellent summary of what we want our students to do when they learn and think about history.  Now here’s the magic part.  Substitute the name of another discipline for the italicized words (history, historical, historian).  Let’s try science, scientific, scientist; or art, artistic, artist; or automotive mechanics, mechanical, mechanic.  What do you notice?  You should see that what we want students to do when they think historically is what we want them to do when they think, period!  Okay, so it’s not exactly as magical as making the Statue of Liberty disappear, but it strikes me that when we talk about developing historical thinking in our students, it’s important to remember that these skills of asking questions, gathering and evaluating information, communicating our ideas and connecting our learning to our lives is what all learning is about, not just learning about history.  We want students to think historically and scientifically and artistically and mechanically.  It is crucial for teachers in every discipline to be developing critical thinking skills as part of their teaching.  It is what the 21st century demands of our students!

Let me know how you’ll be developing historical thinking skills (or critical thinking skills in another discipline) in your students this year and I’ll start working on my next historical thinking magic trick!

Project Director, Teaching American History

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