Teaching Social Studies = Do Do That (Historical Thinking) Voodoo You Do So Well*

I recently had the opportunity to spend a day learning from Dr. Sam Wineburg from Stanford University and his work with historical thinking and the Reading Like a Historian curriculum materials from the Stanford History Education Group. I was first introduced to his research and these materials when I began as Project Director for the Teaching American History Grant. We used his book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Wineburg 2001) as an introduction to the idea that understanding history is more than just knowing “stuff” (as my youngest son so eloquently labeled it). Historical thinking involves…well, involvement! It means involving ourselves and our students in the type of thinking that historians routinely do around primary and secondary sources; involving ourselves and our students in questioning and writing and debating and sharing information and basing their interpretations on evidence from the sources; and involving ourselves and our students in the messy work of understanding history which leads to the messy but critical work of being a citizen.

Dr. Wineburg involved us in this work by having us question what we think we know about Pocahontas and John Smith, Lexington and Concord, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and even Thanksgiving. For me and my “history nerd” friends (you know who you are!), it was both confirming (yes, this is what we should be doing!) and thought-provoking (how do we get people to implement these historical thinking strategies in high stakes testing land?)

I won’t recount the day minute by minute (I could but I won’t!) Instead I offer some idea highlights that resonated for me:

Lack of historical thinking is like knowing all the words and characters of Hamlet and not knowing what a play is.

We feel like students need to know all of the details before they can think about a topic. Certainly students need background knowledge, but if we wait until they know everything, then we will be waiting for a looooooong time to get to the thinking part! At best, for kids who are able to memorize and recall easily, it creates students who can parrot back what they have read or been told without necessarily understanding what it all means or how it is connected. At worst, it creates students who hate history because it is boring and requires no actual thinking.

Attic theory of mind

This is a related idea which assumes that only after learning lots of names and dates, will students be able to “think historically.” The idea is that we can fill up students’ minds with “stuff” and the mind will store it until at some point the students will get it out and use it. Not only does this fly in the face of most learning theory, it contradicts my mother’s “Use it or lose it” law about everything. Again, students need some information and background to be able to think historically, but the two processes, learning the stuff and thinking about it need to happen almost concurrently.

How do you know you know?

We want students to always be thinking about not just what they know, but how they know it. This is the beginning of building knowledge. Metacognition – thinking about thinking – is key to comprehension and interpretation.

Students are not spectators of someone else’s knowledge.

When students are engaged in asking questions, looking at sources with critical lenses and basing interpretations based on the evidence they glean, they are building knowledge themselves. Being an actor is so much more powerful than being a bystander.

Cognitive modeling and apprenticeship of thinking

None of this happens automatically or easily. Students have to be shown what this looks like and practice, practice, practice. Teachers can’t put sources in front of students and expect them to know what to do. We have to show them and guide them and coach them and show them again. This is a way of interacting with sources: asking questions, specifying what we don’t know, and surfacing the connections that we make. Students won’t do this unless we model this kind of thinking for them. Remember Dr. Wineburg call historical thinking an “unnatural act”!

It was a great day of thinking and learning! I would love to hear how you might be implementing historical thinking in your classroom. What has gone well? What are the stumbling blocks for you? For your students?

And, BTW, at our next Social Studies Leadership Network meeting on March 24th, we will be focusing on historical thinking and participants will receive Sam Wineburg’s book, Reading Like a Historian (Wineburg, Martin and Monte-Sano, 2011) as well as other resources. Be there or be square!


Jenny Fanelli



  • *(Porter 1929)
  • Porter, Cole. You Do Something to Me.
  • Wineburg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of teaching the Past. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001.
  • Wineburg, Sam, Daisy Martin, and Chauncey Monte-Sano. Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press, 2011.

One thought on “Teaching Social Studies = Do Do That (Historical Thinking) Voodoo You Do So Well*

  1. What I find interesting about a lot of history teaching in the west, and maybe elsewhere on the planet too, is that we are taught history with sprinkles of revision here and there. Sometimes, when you have the chance to visit the location of where history went down, you get the real low-down on the influencing factors and a better more intimate feel for the events that transpired. Like I thought Pocahontas married John Smith and they lived happily ever after. I thought George Washington cut down a cherry tree and Columbus discovered the western continents.

    There is a lot of really cool eastern history too that we don’t even get taught in school much past Kublai Khan and Ghenghis Khan and Marco Polo’s travels. So we don’t just get revision; we get omission as well.

    When I was younger, I used to be angry about my misinformed history studies after being illuminated about how things really were and what really happened. Now, when I travel to different parts of the globe I am excited about the possibility of getting the real low-down. In fact, I seek out the “real story” if it doesn’t happen to fall into my lap.

    Letting that anger and disillusionment go must mean that I have been tamed a bit in my old age.

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