AI for Human Flourishing

Last week, I read The Atlantic article, “The Big AI Risk Not Enough People Are Seeing: Beware Technology That Makes Us Less Human” by Tyler Austin Harper. His primary case, that AI must be used for human flourishing, is one that I have often made in AI circles the last year. Harper has recently been one of my favorite journalists to read. His cultural commentary consistently verbalizes things I’ve been thinking about in ways I couldn’t have done so effectively. I’m thankful to the Atlantic for prioritizing his writing regularly. 

I want to take today’s post to dissect his claims a bit and also elaborate on how we take those claims seriously at Thinking Nation internally, as well as how we uphold the vision behind those claims in our collaborative work in the civics space. Generative AI has upended life as we know it, and it will only continue to do so. Not all upending is bad, though, so we must take into account how we use it in order to promote human flourishing. What we can’t do, as Harper so helpfully describes, is let it use us to detract from human flourishing.

Harper explores a space that we in the civics and history education space are perhaps not that up to speed in: online dating (disclaimer: I met my wife in HS, so have not had to navigate this space). In a growing “innovation” in that space, AI-run algorithms can weed out all the likely wasted first dates so that you can have the highest chance of relational success from the get go with the person you swiped right for. At its core, it’s a way to make the dating process much more efficient, but Harper points out the dehumanizing qualities that should really be the focus.

Harper marks the 20th century as one empowered by the onslaught of “disabling professions.” These professions took common skills to a community (medicine, schooling, child-rearing) and exported them to professionals. He calls these “disabling professions.” In some cases, such as medicine, this saved lives. But it also weakened human ability to cope with many aspects of life that had been inherent to human life for centuries (education) or even millennia (child-rearing). This “standardization and professionalization of everyday life” disabled normal human life.

In the 21st century, with the help of AI, these disabling professions were replaced by “disabling algorithms,” he argues. The latter being much more ominous for the future of humanity than the former.

He writes,
” Disabling Algorithms as tech companies simultaneously sell us on our existing anxieties and help nurture new ones. At the heart of it all is the kind of AI bait-and-switch peddled by the Bumble CEO. Algorithms are now tooled to help you develop basic life skills that decades ago might have been taken as a given: How to date. How to cook a meal. How to appreciate new music. How to write and reflect.”

Later in the article, he writes of the consequences of these disabling algorithms and how we need to have a clear understanding of our humanity to parse out the good algorithms from the bad. “We can’t take a stand against the infiltration of algorithms into the human estate if we don’t have a well-developed sense of which activities make humans human,” he posits. This is key. 

CivXNow AI Working Group

Back in the fall, I had the opportunity to serve on a working group under CivXNow around the intersection of civic, social cohesion, and AI. My constant push in every meeting was that our conversations around the barriers we should set around AI are all irrelevant if we don’t have a common understanding of what it means to be human. Without first defining the ontological characteristics of humanity, any sort of walls around AI are too flexible, constantly adjusting to the whims of society at any given moment. 

Harper addresses this need succinctly, “Without some minimal agreement as to what those basic human capabilities are—what activities belong to the jurisdiction of our species, not to be usurped by machines—it becomes difficult to pin down why some uses of artificial intelligence delight and excite, while others leave many of us feeling queasy.” If we don’t know what it means to be human, how will we know whether AI contributes to or detracts from human flourishing?

I had the opportunity to author the introduction and conclusion of the CivXNow Report that came out of our working group’s meetings. The report, titled “Unchartered Waters: Education, Democracy, and Social Cohesion in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,” gives some recommendations for how we can work together to ensure AI’s support of humanity, rather than its replacement. You can access some of the resources developed here.

In the introduction, I start with the famous line of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” as it sets a tone of human equality (and therefore some definition of humanity) that AI must must be seen in light of, especially in a civics space. My portion of the introduction ends with this, “As a community, we must be willing to honestly think through the various uses of AI and its implications in order to successfully wield its power without compromising our own humanity.” These discussions are imperative as AI becomes more ubiquitous in our daily lives. Otherwise, we don’t run AI, it runs us.

AI and Thinking Nation

Sample AI feedback on a Student Essay.

At Thinking Nation, we think deeply about how to use AI on our platform. Currently, we use it to grade student work to provide students with instant feedback and teachers with clear data on student growth. Since all of this feedback and data enhances the teaching of history as a discipline and better facilitates students ability to engage with the past, it also enhances their own flourishing. We incentivize this approach to teaching social studies because we know this way empowers students with the agency they need to actively engage with the world around them. There are many uses of AI that we choose not to entertain as it could cloud the difference between human and machine and blurry distinctions are no distinctions at all.

Sample Teacher Data Report from AI-generated grading

I was incredibly encouraged by Tyler Austin Harper’s piece in The Atlantic. He is calling our attention to the intense ramifications of AI that are hidden in the mundane aspects of our lives. This calling attention to is critical as we move forward in the age of AI. I’ll leave a portion of the CivXNow report’s conclusion here as I hope to continue the conversation around AI, human flourishing, and education:

“As leaders in the civics and education spaces, we know that just because something can be done, does not mean it should be. One of the core aspects of being a good citizen is to think about what is best for the community, not just oneself. At the core of that civic aim is really a question of our humanity.

As people, we are inhumane when we detract from human flourishing; we are humane when we contribute to it. These are the terms in which we should think as we consider how to harness the power of AI in a way that centers our own humanity and, conversely, how AI might be used in ways that lessens that humanity.”

Our Platform Got a Refresh!

If you’ve been on our platform in the last couple days, you’ve noticed that we got a platform refresh! As a small nonprofit organization entering a space with many VC-backed edtech companies, it is always exciting when we can streamline the edtech side of things to be more user-friendly and helpful for our teachers and students. It’s always for the mission!

I wanted to take today to highlight some of these new changes for those teachers wondering about the changes. Let’s explore!

First, the teacher portal:

In addition to making the look feel cleaner and more intuitive, there are minor adjustments for teachers. For instance, the Icon Key is now on every page at the bottom, but with the option to minimize it to have more room to view your rosters.

Also simple changes, like the icons matching our brand colors have been updated, too. It’s the little things for this little organization, folks!

Now, if you ever want to unsubmit an assignment that is past the due date, you can. Before, teachers could only unsubmit active assignments, but thanks to your feedback, we’ve realized that sometimes that second chance comes for a student well after the assignment was due (I see you end-of-year make ups!). Hopefully, this will make it easier for the student to demonstrate their growth mindset and raise their scores! So teachers, just hover over any assignment that a student has turned in, and you can unsubmit it on their behalf.

We’ve also made the resources tab a lot easier to navigate! With buttons and more visible drop down menus, we hope it will be easier for you to find that resource you were looking for! Also, stay-tuned, in the next couple months, this tab will go over a 2.0 makeover as we sort the resources by historical/content topic, rather than type of resource. We hope that it will help you see all of the types of resources for each corresponding topic, rather than having to hunt around for them on the platform. Once again, thank you teacher feedback!

Students, too, have a more streamlined experience. On their homepage, the layout is much easier to see, and depending on which sources they want to see, they can simply click the buttons on the top of their screen. If a resource type is in green, it will show up, if it is gray, it won’t be visible. Hopefully this can help students focus on the task they need to first, as well as sort through the assignments as the year goes on and the resources accumulate.

The “Notes” and “Chat” features are more visible and easy to use, too. For both teachers and students, don’t forget that you can annotate or ask questions via chat when working on any assignment on the platform. Notifications for the chat will always show up in the top right corner of your homepage.

As you navigate the platform refresh, you may notice other subtle changes not addressed here, but hopefully they all provide a more user friendly experience. And of course, we’d love to hear more feedback if you have it teachers. Just send a help desk ticket once on your portal and let us know what you want to see!

The National Civic Collaboratory and Building Hope Summit

Last week, I was honored to attend my first National Civic Collaboratory. This summit is put on 3 times a year by Citizen University in order to shift “the current paradigm of individual achievement towards collaboration and shared success.” You know how much I love the language of paradigm shifting! Generously hosted at the Reagan Library by the Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, about 100 civic leaders gathered in Simi Valley, CA to commit to the broader work of strengthening democracy. 

There was such a wide variety of civic-minded organizations there, with representation from presidential foundations, former elected officials, educators, artists, philanthropy, youth-led organizations, and more. As a whole, it was an act of pluralism, where people of diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and visions came together to support one another in civic initiatives. I was both encouraged and inspired. As we at Thinking Nation continue to cultivate thinking citizens by shifting the paradigm of social studies education, I was so energized by the work of so many in the room over the summit’s two days.

Our little Civic Collab sign under the Reagan Library’s beautiful Wisteria (Go smell some, it’s blooming!)

The National Civic Collaboratory is a unique set up. When various organizations share to the group about their own work, the listeners are not asked to provide feedback or advice; rather, they are asked to make commitments of support. In this way, the civic circle grows exponentially. We all can leverage our own resources and networks to further civic’s ultimate aim of preserving and protecting democracy, even if we are not directly involved. This type of pluralism gave me great hope, even as I look at an increasingly polarized populus. I look forward to more of these and getting more involved with the other organizations in the community.

The Building Hope Impact Summit

In the same vein of finding hope wherever you may be, the leadership team at Thinking Nation is excited to head to Miami today for the 3rd annual Building Hope Impact Summit. Our own Spenser Mix and Liz Connolly will be presenting on how we are leveraging AI to empower students, which will surely be an engaging session (I’m looking at you, Spenser, and former 6th grade teacher!).

I’m excited to meet so many changemakers in the education community and learn from their successes (and hopefully share some of ours!). It is bound to be an enriching time. Whereas the National Civic Collaboratory gave me hope about the state of civic initiatives in a fractured democracy, I am excited to identify areas of hope in a fractured education system. Our students deserve it.

Not Too Late for Mock APs!

The last thing I want to put on your radar is our Mock AP exams! It is not too late to get your rosters all set up to give a Mock AP exam to your students on our platform. Our AI instantly grades the student exams, giving students immediate and specific feedback. Both the students and their teachers get detailed data reports that outline exactly what needs to be studies in the final days before the exam. If you are looking for a way to give your students the best shot to be successful on the big exam, this is it! If you want more information, head over here to download the informational flyer or request a meeting to set things up. Also, shout out to History For Humans for detailing the Mock APs on social media!

Final Days of Student Art Contest and a Podcast Interview on AI Updates

First things first before we jump into AI updates. Students and teachers: there are just a few more days to submit artwork or poetry for our annual art contest! The Contest officially closes at 11:59pm on April 1st. And this is not a joke! We are excited to see all the student submissions and showcase the top 20 at the National Charter Schools Conference in Boston at the end of June. You can find the flyer with all the details here and the link directly to the submission form here. Good Luck!

(Note: TEACHERS! There is also a raffle for a $100 Amazon gift card going on. For every student that submits in your class, you get one entry. So encourage those submissions so you can TREAT YOURSELF to a well deserved whatever-you-need!)

AI Updates for Mock AP Exams

Second, as many of you know, Thinking Nation has been hard at work integrating Artificial Intelligence into our platform in order to better shift the paradigm of social studies education. Our AI updates started in December, when we rolled out AI grading of student essays for our Curated Research Papers. This means that teachers and students can get instant feedback and data on the complex disciplinary thinking skills inherent to social studies. With robust, usable data accessible in an instant, we can better structure our classrooms around the discipline we teach, rather than only the content within that discipline.

Moreover, last week, we rolled out our Mock AP Exams that also have AI grading! This means that students can take a full length (in parts) AP Exam for APUSH, AP Gov, AP Euro, or AP World and get instant feedback! We’ve done the intricate work to align every question and rubric component to the Periods/Units, Skills, reasoning processes, Themes, and Stimulus types, too.

A sample snapshot from a teacher report for the DBQ.

So, when students complete the exam, they get a robust data report detailing exactly what they need to study before the big exam in May. It’s not too late to sign up to do this for your students, either! Here is a little flyer that outlines the pricing of the AP Exam. Or, if you want to talk to someone at Thinking Nation about setting this up for your students to do before the big exam, fill out this form and let us know you are interested in Mock AP Exams.

A Sample snapshot of the Teacher Report for the MCQs.

The EdSurge Podcast

Lastly, as the conversation around AI and education continues to boom, I was excited to join Rachel Davison Humphries from the Bill of Rights Institute on this week’s EdSurge podcast. The question at the heart of the podcast interview was “Could AI Give Civics Education a Boost?” We obviously think yes, and we outline how in the interview with host, Jeff Young. Please read the summary of the episode here, or you can download the episode from Apple Podcasts (or any other podcast directory).

Since day one, Thinking Nation has thought strategically about how we can shift the paradigm of social studies education. That goal has never changed, but now, with the introduction of Generative AI, we think we can push systemic change in a way that benefits all classrooms and provides more attainable equity across the country. 

Join us as we continue the mission!

Happy Civic Learning Week!

Today marks day 1 of Civic Learning Week! It has already been a busy one for us. 

The first mark we made on the week came in the form of an Oped I wrote in The Fulcrum that explored the essential nature of social studies skills for cultivating civic dispositions. In a recent oped on the same site, a binary of skills vs. content was established that I don’t think fully captures the goals of the social studies classroom. In today’s blog I responded and outlined just why the skills of our discipline are so essential. Give it a read.

Next, at 9am PT, I joined Dr. Larry Paska of the National Council for Social Studies for a webinar on the state of social studies education. If you’ve been following our blogs recently, you know we’ve hosted a mini podcast series on this topic, where I interviewed various thinkers about the subject. In fact, we released episode 6 of the series on Friday, March 8th. In that interview, I really enjoyed my conversation with Shawn Healy of iCivics. Shawn serves as Senior Director for Policy and Advocacy and he brought a really helpful policy perspective to the conversation. Take a listen!

Back to the webinar with Dr. Paska. We started with a brief interview of Dr. Bill Daggett of the Successful Practices Network. We wanted to hear what an outside perspective had to say about the current state of social studies education and were grateful to Dr. Daggett for sharing his own perspective built on decades of experience in the broader education reform movement. 

From there, Larry and I explored the research from Thinking Nation’s white paper, NCSS’s annual survey, and three studies that specifically looked at the state of social studies education in the elementary classroom. The studies are:

  1. 2020 Fordham Institute Study: “Social Studies Instruction and Reading Comprehension: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study”
  2. 2023 Rand Corporation Study: “The Missing Infrastructure for Elementary (K–5) Social Studies Instruction”
  3. 2023 CCSSO Guidelines: “Effective Social Studies Integration in Elementary Classrooms”

It was really helpful to take all the data together and think through its meaning and how we can best move forward as a discipline. There are so many exciting events for Civic Learning Week and it was exciting to kick off the week with NCSS!

Moving on to midday, Larry and I were the primary guest’s for KPBS’s Midday edition. KPBS is San Diego’s public radio station and it was such a treat to speak with host, Jade Hindmon. The recording of the interview should be uploaded as a podcast soon, and I’d encourage you to listen to this more focused (and less data-oriented) conversation around social studies and civic education. I’m grateful to KPBS for prioritizing Civic Learning Week in their programming!

Lastly, tonight, Thinking Nation will take over the #sschat feed on X for 10 or so minutes as part of Civic Learning Week. Follow the hashtag #sschat on the app from 5-6pm PT to engage with several organizations who are trying to think together about how we can make the most of this important week. 

Student Art Contest – Final Days!

It’s of course a busy week, and we hope that for your students it is too! Friday is the last day that students can submit an art piece for our annual art contest! As a reminder, We teamed up with the National Alliance for Charter Schools again this year to host a nationwide student art contest for middle and high school students. (Check out last year’s!)  This year’s National Charter School Conference will be in Boston, MA from June 30-July 3. Since the conference leads right into Independence Day in one of the nation’s most revolutionary cities, we decided to build our theme around the future of American democracy. Students can create a creative work of art that addresses the prompt: What does the future of American Democracy look like?

Submissions for this Student Art Contest for Democracy will be accepted until March 15th and the top 20 will be featured at the National Charter Schools Conference! The top 2 will even win cash prizes! For full details on the contest, check out the contest flyer. Be sure to have your students submit!

Socratic Seminars and Deep Conversation

I had the privilege of attending class in Mr. Martinez’s 8th grade class again last Friday. If you haven’t read about Abraham’s class, I’d encourage you to here or here! He’s such a stellar teacher and I appreciate every opportunity I have to attend his class.

Abraham and I will be presenting together next Saturday at the California Council for Social Studies, where our session is titled “Cultivating Community through Socratic Seminars.” At Thinking Nation, we’ve been quietly building Socratic Seminars for all of our units and Abraham has been generous enough to pilot them and reflect on his experience during our CCSS session. 

On Friday, I walked into his classroom in the middle of a seminar (sorry kids! Also, c’mon meetings…) and was instantly excited by what I walked into. The students had just finished engaging in one of our Curated Research Papers on Slave Resistance and were participating in the Socratic Seminar as the final piece before they wrote their essays. The inquiry question for that unit is “How did enslaved people resist their enslavement and why is this historically significant?” As I listened to the students, I heard them answering complex questions, referring to primary sources, and citing evidence from those sources to defend their answers. In fact, one of my favorite sounds during the 1.5 hours I was there was the 15 pages turning at once when a student spoke up and said something like, “As shown in Document B.” To hear the pages flipping in unity was a joy to historian ears.

A student preparing to engage in the discussion.

While I recorded many insightful moments provided by the young scholars in the room, I’ll share just a couple of them here.

The first example demonstrated a student’s commitment to methodology. Multiple students in the inner seminar circle were bringing up the point that running away was the greatest form of resistance. After hearing this multiple times, one student chimed in, “Wait, I’d like to ask a question. What are you guys referencing when you are saying that running away was the most common way to resist?”

This may not seem like much on the surface, but in this moment, the student wanted to source the claims she was hearing. She followed good historical thinking practice and asked a question of sourcing to the students. This high standard for evaluating claims is the type of disposition our democracy requires (Fortunately, the students were able to point her to the section of their materials that made that claim).

The second came when the students were discussing the significance of runaway slave advertisements. In a seemingly simple observation, a student said, “I’d like to add that running away was so common because they put it in the newspaper and it had its own section.” He went on to expand that it wasn’t just the language of the advertisement that revealed significance, but it was the existence of the ad. To him, the fact that newspapers would dedicate copy space to this regularly demonstrated just how prevalent of an event it was. This was great contextualization at work!

I was so impressed by what I heard in the class that day, and I hope that if you are planning to go to CCSS that you come to our session on socratic seminars or at least stop by the Thinking Nation booth (401) and say hi!

Thinking Historically About Podcast

Today we released episode 5 of our mini podcast series “Thinking Historically About the State of Social Studies Education.” As the other episodes have been for me, this was another great conversation with a insightful leader in the education space. My guest was Dr. Janet Tran, the Director of The Center for Civics, Education, and Opportunity for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute. If you read the blog a couple weeks ago, Janet was the mind behind the incredibly thought-provoking roundtable at the Reagan Library. Her deep and layered thinking only further shined in my conversation with her on the podcast. Please listen!

It’s been a busy week but also incredibly fulfilling. If you plan to attend the National Council for History Education’s conference in Cleveland please come say hi on Friday. And for my fellow Californians, I’ll see you Saturday in Garden Grove for CCSS!

AASA, Art, and Thinking Historically About

Last week, the Thinking Nation team exhibited and presented at AASA’s National Conference on Education in San Diego, CA. It was a busy and well attended conference and so nice for the Thinking Nation team to engage with school and district leaders from around the country. Spenser, Liz, and Valentina presented on Valentine’s Day about our AI initiatives and Zach presented the next day about how we can better align social studies departments at districts large and small. To read more about our sessions, check out the press release that went out before the conference.

The Thinking Nation Crew!
Spenser, Valerie, Liz, and Johanna representing Disciplinary Thinking Skills

For me, the best part of the conference was just hanging out with our team. Being a remote-working team, opportunities for us all to hang out in person are not lost on me. I had so much fun catching up with each person at our booth or offsite when we had meals together. I’m really so fortunate to work with the people I do, and last week’s time together only confirmed that.

Student Art Contest

As a reminder, our Student Art Contest is alive and well! As a reminder, We teamed up with the National Alliance for Charter Schools again this year to host a nationwide student art contest for middle and high school students. (Check out last year’s!)  This year’s National Charter School Conference will be in Boston, MA from June 30-July 3. Since the conference leads right into Independence Day in one of the nation’s most revolutionary cities, we decided to build our theme around the future of American democracy. Students can create a creative work of art that addresses the prompt: What does the future of American Democracy look like?

Submissions for this Student Art Contest for Democracy will be accepted until March 15th and the top 20 will be featured at the National Charter Schools Conference! The top 2 will even win cash prizes! For full details on the contest, check out the contest flyer. We can’t wait to see what students come up with!

The Podcast: Thinking Historically About

Lastly, since I didn’t get around to sending anything out last week, I want to make sure I let everyone know about last week’s podcast episode with Dr. Larry Paska, Executive Director of the National Council for Social Studies. I’m excited to have a more extensive conversation with Larry during Civic Learning Week, but if you are looking for a sneak peak of our conversation, check out the episode. If you want to attend the CLW webinar, sign up here!

This week’s episode features Andrea Foggy-Paxton, who I regrettably didn’t know about until we serendipitously sat next to each other at the Reagan Institute’s roundtable a couple of weeks ago. Andrea is Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Education Leaders of Color and Founder of Social Studies Accelerator. She also sits on the iCivics and Los Angeles County Board of Education boards.  I am so inspired by Andrea’s work in Social Studies that I had to have her on the podcast. I hope you all enjoy her insights and benefit from her wisdom in the episode!

Promoting Freedom and Democracy At Home and Abroad – Our Time at the Reagan Library

Quick Podcast Update

As I mentioned last week, we are releasing a new podcast episode every week leading up to Civic Learning Week (March 11-15). Today’s release is an interview with Jessica Ellison, the executive director of the National Council for History Education. Please listen!

Also, I was kindly invited by Dr. Almitra Berry to join her on her podcast, “Educational Emancipation Equity” recently. You can listen to our conversation here. As I tell her, we want to empower students and firmly believe that equipping them to think historically can do just that.

Promoting Freedom and Democracy

In another great opportunity to talk about the importance of social studies education as a means to preserve and protect our constitutional democracy, I facilitated a roundtable discussion at the Reagan Library on Tuesday, February 6 as a part of the celebration of President Reagan’s 113th birthday. 

Former Polish President, Lech Walesa, giving his address.

The public portion of the event began with a speech from former President of Poland and distinguished Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Lech Walesa. He had admirable reflections on the state of democracy and how we can sustain it, reminding us in the crowd: “First, we have to focus on the values that guide us—then we can focus on the laws and the economy.” So often, we miss the forest for the trees. His broad view was a good reminder.

After the address and public ceremony, a group of us joined together for the roundtable, “Promoting Freedom and Democracy at Home and Abroad.” The first roundtable was led by Consuelo Amat, SNF Agora Institute Assistant Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. She led us in a discussion of lessons from abroad about fortying democracy. Her insights to how people resist repressive regimes was incredibly illuminating and I wish her portion was longer!

I was fortunate to lead and facilitate the 2nd half of the roundtable around the topic, “Nurturing Civic Dispositions to Uphold Democratic Institutions and Integrity.” As a premise, I reinforced my case that a good history education is a civic education and called to attention the research findings of our white paper published in Education Week back in November. I then facilitated a discussion on how social studies educators can be at the forefront of this work.

I’m privileged that Ben Katcher, one of my favorite history teachers, was able to join for this discussion. Ben teaches at Valor Academy High School, a partner school of Thinking Nation’s. His practical insights brought the theory to life for those in the room without classroom experience. 

In an increasingly polarized country where more and more citizens are advocating for more authoritarianism, and by default, less democracy, conversations like this are vital for creating action and sustaining our democracy. I’m grateful to Dr. Janet Tran at the Ronald Reagan Institute’s Center for Civics, Education, and Opportunity for prioritizing this space and dialogue.

Spenser, Liz, and Zach hanging out on Air Force One before the roundtable began.

Another new Board Member

Last thing! Each week I want to highlight another new board member (last week’s being Dr. Marco Clark. This week, let’s welcome Paolo DeMaria!

Mr. DeMaria is president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education. Prior to this role, he was the State Superintendent of Public Instruction in Ohio. He focused on literacy outcomes, teacher excellence and leadership, career-technical education, business-education partnerships, and equity in Ohio’s education system. He previously directed the state’s Office of Budget and Management and was chief policy advisor to former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and executive vice chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education. He also spent six years as principal consultant for Education First Consulting. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science and economics from Furman University and a Master of Public Administration in public administration leadership and financial management from the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at the Ohio State University.

To hear more about the historical thinking skill DeMaria most resonates with, watch the video interview with Tiana Day below.

A Student Art Contest for Democracy, The Road to Civic Learning Week, and Another Board Member!

Yesterday kicked off the shortest month of the year (but at least it gets an extra day this year!), Black History Month, and the first day of our 2nd Annual Art Contest. We teamed up with the National Alliance for Charter Schools again this year to host a nationwide student art contest for middle and high school students. (Check out last year’s!)  This year’s National Charter School Conference will be in Boston, MA from June 30-July 3. Since the conference leads right into Independence Day in one of the nation’s most revolutionary cities, we decided to build our theme around the future of American democracy. Students can create a creative work of art that addresses the prompt: What does the future of American Democracy look like?

Submissions for this Student Art Contest for Democracy will be accepted until March 15th and the top 20 will be featured at the National Charter Schools Conference! The top 2 will even win cash prizes! For full details on the contest, check out the contest flyer and/or attend our webinar this coming Monday, February 5th at 2:30pm PST. It’s also worth noting that the contest ends on the last day of Civic Learning Week, which Thinking Nation is excited to take part in this year.

The Road to Civic Learning Week

Today, Thinking Nation released the first podcast episode in a mini-series of our regularly monthly podcast: Thinking Historically About. For the six weeks leading up to Civic Learning Week, we are going to publish a podcast conversation with various leaders to talk about the state of social studies education. Civic Learning Week takes place from March 11-15 this year with the aim of “Making civic learning a nationwide priority for a stronger democracy.” On Monday March 11th, I will cohost a lunchtime chat with National Council for Social Studies Executive Director, Lawrence Paska, where we will dive into both the current state of social studies education and how we can best collaboratively move forward. More on that event to come.

In the time leading up to that week, however, we thought it would be helpful to get a pulse from various leaders about how they see things, as well as their interpretations of the findings of our White Paper published in Education Week back in November. We hope to provide opportunities for nationwide collaboration around how we can best identify the ways to support and sustain social studies education in order to preserve and protect our democracy. 

In our 1st episode, we are joined by two museum experts. Elizabeth Grant is the Chief Program Officer for the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, PA. Sarah Jencks is Principal Consultant at Every Museum a Civic Museum. In addition to their decades of museum-focused expertise, Both Liz and Sarah serve on the Board of Directors for the National Council for History Education. Both Liz and Sarah give us a lot to think about in our conversation as we think about how to best move forward as a field. We these episodes spur great conversation and action in your own education communities and that you all participate in Civic Learning Week (and submit for the student art contest for democracy)!

New Board Member Highlight!

Last thing! Each week I want to highlight another new board member (last week’s being Dr. Catherine O’Donnell). This week, let’s welcome Dr. Marco Clark!

As the Founder & CEO of Richard Wright Schools in Washington, D.C., Dr. Clark has been a transformative leader in the global educational space for more than 30 years. Richard Wright Schools prioritize not only academic excellence, but also holistic development, fostering a culture where every student can thrive and be empowered to become life-long learners, leaders, and responsible citizens poised to shape their communities. Dr. Marco Clark is also a noted educator, scholar, and speaker who shares his personal challenges with reading as a youth and his educational reform efforts to fight against literacy and community issues throughout the country. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Clark Atlanta University, a Master of Arts degree in special education from Coppin State University, a Master of Arts degree in education administration from Goucher College, and a Doctor of Education degree from Morgan State University.

As with last week, here is a brief video interview by Tiana Day to get to know him more!

January 2024 Organization Highlights

Today, I want to take some time to highlight some great things going on at Thinking Nation this month. But first, an inside scoop:

A Press Release – Thinking Nation’s Board of Directors

On Monday (1/29), you will see the publication of our first press release. It will highlight the doubling of Thinking Nation’s board of directors. As many of you know, the board of directors of a nonprofit organization is critical to driving growth and sustainability, and we are so fortunate to have such a wealth of knowledge and diversity of expertise on our board in order to help us fulfill our mission to cultivate thinking citizens. At any point, you can head over to our website to learn more about Thinking Nation’s board of directors, but in this space, I am going to highlight one of our board members in each post for the next few weeks.

First up, our resident historian. Dr. Catherine O’Donnell joined our board back in October 2023 and brings such a robust track record of centering historical thinking in her scholarship. We are grateful for her grounding perspective as we seek to shift the paradigm of social studies education toward a specifically discipline-driven, rather than content-focused approach. A bit more about Catherine: 

Professor O’Donnell, currently a distinguished faculty member at Arizona State University, brings a wealth of expertise in history and administration to her role as board member. She has authored several scholarly books and articles, including Elizabeth Seton: American Saint (Cornell University Press, 2018), which received the Distinguished Book Award by the Conference on the History of Women Religious and the Biography Prize from the Catholic Press Association. She is also a member of the Board of the Arizona Council of History Educators. Dr. O’Donnell received a Bachelor of Arts inSpanish and American Studies from Amherst College, a Master of Arts in history from the University of Michigan, and Doctor of Philosophy degree in history from the University of Michigan.

Also, here is a brief interview with Dr. O’Donnell, to get to know her better:

Dr. O’Donnell shares a little bit about what drew her to Thinking Nation

A Day with Indiana Teachers

Moving onto more Thinking Nation happenings, January has been quite the busy month for us. One particular event that I’d like to highlight here is a statewide virtual professional development we hosted for teachers across Indiana. The goal of our time together was to spend time understanding and practicing the ways that we can teach history in order to better align our classrooms across the 6 grade levels of secondary social studies education. It was entitled: “Building Alignment Across Social Studies: Creating a More Unified Social Studies Approach.”

Engaging with a couple dozen Indiana educators for a day and hearing how they could take some of the practices gleaned from the session back to their own schools in order to create robustly aligned social studies departments was definitely a thrill. We are incredibly thankful to Keep Indiana Learning for helping to organize the event. Indiana continues to pave the way in how we can see education as a civic endeavor and it was a joy to be a part in facilitating that goal for educators who care deeply for the students they serve.

I’m excited to share more on the many great events and announcements we have for the coming weeks, but for now, I’ll just say “stay tuned!”

“Thinking Historically About” – Thinking Nation’s Podcast

Back in September, we announced our new podcast, “Thinking Historically About.” Since then, we’ve released one episode a month featuring an interview with a historian. We discuss a particular Curated Research Paper that students engage with in our curriculum. In all of these instances, the interviewed historian consulted on the actual CRP, ensuring that it was aligned to scholarship and appropriately provided opportunities for students to analyze the questions in the same ways that scholars do. For a list of historians who have consulted on our curriculum, head to our website.

Next month, we plan to launch a parallel version to the podcast, where we think historically about the current state of education. We will primarily do this by bringing in key leaders and thinkers to discuss the findings and implications of our recently released white paper, courtesy of Education Week. We hope that our podcast continues to be a place for people to be thinking historically about both past and present issues.

For now, I want to highlight some of the episodes we released in the final months of 2023, and provide a quick summary of our January episode that was released today– an interview with historian John Fea.

In September, we released our inaugural episode with Nadya Williams, a scholar of Ancient Rome and Greece. In that first episode, Dr. Williams contextualized the evolution of citizenship in Ancient Rome for us. Students who engage with our resources are asked to evaluate how citizenship developed over time in Ancient Rome, and Dr. Williams gave us key insights into the types of primary sources that could be helpful to understanding everyday Romans during the age of the Roman Republic.

In October, we interviewed Dr. H. Paul Thompson, Jr.,  a scholar of temperance movements and 19th and 20th century Black American history. Dr. Thompson provoked deep questions around how we would frame our own exploration into how the New Deal impacted Black Americans. In that episode, we talked a little more at length about historical thinking more generally, giving listeners a helpful methodology for exploring the topic at hand. Dr. Thompson also reminded us about how important primary sources are to the historian’s job.

Then, in November, we coupled an additional interview with the release of  Nadya Williams’ first book: Cultural Christians in the Early Church. In this interview, Dr. Williams helps us better understand the similarities and differences with the two most known Greek city-states: Athens and Sparta. As she did in the first interview, Dr. Williams really pushed us to think more broadly and inclusively in our historical analysis. She also reminded us of the importance of sourcing, that is knowing the background information behind a source in order to better evaluate and analyze it.

Our last episode of 2023 was an interview with Pearl Young, a historian of the American South with particular emphasis on women and gender in the 19th century. In that episode, Dr. Young took on the role of both scholar and teacher, thinking strategically about how to best guide students through the Curated Research Paper that asked students to compare the experiences of women on the homefront during the Civil War. Her guidance in the pedagogical, as well as scholarly aspects, will hopefully help future students think more deeply about the subject when they engage with that unit of our curriculum.

Lastly, in our first episode of 2024, released today, we interview John Fea, a historian of Colonial America and the early republic era. Dr. Fea helps us to think historically about the ideas of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and how their ideas shaped the founders’ vision for government. Dr. Fea really pushed us to think historically in order to best contextualize that particular time and place in order to best understand what shaped their views, and how their views shaped others.

We are excited to continue our podcast in 2024, and pushing the topics for what we are thinking historically about. I’m looking forward to interviewing others on the state of social studies education and what we can do about it. Stay tuned!

Historical Thinking, Meet AI: How We Now Grade Essays

One helpful way to understand the historical thinking skill of continuity and change over time is through turning points in history. Well, this week was a turning point in our own organization’s history. This weekend, we transitioned to Artificial Intelligence for grading essays. As I’ll address below, the human touch is still very much present, but we have spent the last few months working on the AI’s infrastructure and coding to give teachers and students detailed and instant feedback on the essays they write for our Curated Research Papers. We’ve tapped into AI to go beyond assessing memory of the past to using AI to assess historical thinking.

In the future, I’ll write more at length as to why this will be so transformational, but I do want to make the primary reason known right away: We can give students instant feedback and scores on complex writing tasks by programming the AI to assess the writing in the ways we tell it too. The level of detail in feedback that used to only be possible for the super humans among us can now be given to every student, every time. It’s remarkable. AI can enhance historical thinking

Simply, we can incentivize the type of inquiry-based lessons and assessments that we all know to be essential for real understanding without using up so much of our teachers’ outside-of-class time toward grading, or the time it took for our own graders to go through 1000s of essays that may come in any given week.

So what does this look like for Thinking Nation? From the inception of our organization, we always knew that removing the barrier of time spent grading for teachers was critical to shift the paradigm of social studies education. We also knew that social studies lacked key data metrics that could be used to appropriately assess student understanding within our discipline. This is why we’ve always graded the student essays for our partner teachers. 

Our goal was to give students detailed feedback and teachers data reports on student learning without burdening the teacher with losing 12 hours of their weekend to grading essays. As we’ve grown, though, doing this consistently and timely has become harder. Then ChatGPT came out a year ago. We began to see that, given the right prompts, AI could give robust feedback to complex writing tasks with remarkable accuracy. After that, we began to plan out how we could do this for our own CRPs.

Here is an essay graded by AI. This is only it’s first iteration, so the feedback can be strengthened, but this was provided within seconds of the student submitting their essay.

Now, once a student submits their essay, our AI instantly grades it, providing detailed feedback for every single category on the rubric. We know that AI comes with its own set of issues of course, so we still have all of our essays run through human eyes to check on AI’s understanding of our rubrics, for any bias in the programming, and language of the feedback given. We’ll be continuing to refine the algorithm based on the feedback from our (human) graders in an effort to give students immediate detailed feedback on their argumentative writing.

This new addition of AI will only further help our mission to shift the paradigm of social studies education. With immediate and detailed feedback, teachers can have students reflect on their writing in real time, enhancing students’ metacognition that is essential for the discipline itself to be cemented in their minds. AI is a game changer for enhancing historical thinking and we are really excited to provide our partner schools with a way to better shift the paradigm of social studies education.

The National Council for Social Studies: A Recap

This has been a busy season of travel for the Thinking Nation team, but the travel ended on a high note with the National Council for Social Studies in Nashville, TN. With almost 5,000 people in attendance, it is by far the largest gathering of social studies educators each year. The weekend was filled with vibrancy, collaboration, and especially new friendships. It really is such a treat to be a part of.

Just an excited History nerd about to present.

This year, I was fortunate to present a power session, entitled “Cultivating Historians, not History Enthusiasts: Maintaining Relevance in Education’s Future.” I’ve written in the past on this distinction, but it was especially exciting to dive deeper into the ramifications of making this distinction among fellow social studies educators. In the session, I addressed why our primary goal should be to cultivate historical thinkers in our classrooms in order to best empower our students as both citizens and future participants in the workforce. Moreover, historical thinking can be a unifier in our discipline. Often, we silo ourselves based on the content we teach (World History, U.S. Government, Ethnic Studies, etc.), which makes it hard for us to collaborate and vertically align across our discipline. As I wrote in Education Week back in May:

We can bring legitimacy back to what we do. Focusing on the discipline rather than the content allows us to rise above the culture wars, redeem ourselves as teachers of literacy so that we can properly collaborate with other content areas, and, most importantly, empower our students with the skills and dispositions to reinvigorate a visibly injured democracy.

“History Teachers Deserve Respect,” Education Week, May 15, 2023.

Cultivating historians in our classrooms is essential if we want to be seen as a legitimate discipline in such a future-focused education atmosphere.

Spenser, Annie, and Me (Zach) hanging out at our booth before the rush of attendees!

But onto the rest of the conference. Spenser (Our COO), Annie (Our Director of Curriculum), and myself had such a fun (and busy) time in the exhibit hall talking to educators from around the country. We firmly believe that our resources, assessments, and professional development can help facilitate a paradigm shift in classrooms and schools, and we were so excited to share more about that with curious educators.

The motivational Rachel Humphries from the Bill of Rights Institute.

We also got to meet or reconnect with such inspiring educators throughout the country. It was great to finally meet two prominent Instagram history educators (Of course our very own Annie Jenson is @apushladyboss): Dan Lewer (of @History_4_Humans) and Cate Baumgarten (of @thegreatcatehistory). Cate even saved my own presentation by lending me her clicker! Thank you Cate!

Few scholars have personally influenced me as much as Sam Wineburg. What a treat to chat with him for a bit!

I also finally met and enjoyed a conversation with Karalee Nakatsuka, or better known as @historyfrog (GLI’s CA Teacher of the Year!) She has consistently been doing such great work pushing boundaries in using edtech in her history classroom. You’re a rockstar, Karalee! It was great to connect with folks from the Bill of Rights Institute, OER Project, Sam Wineburg of SHEG (Now Digital Literacy Group), and Sarah Jencks who does incredible work in the museum space ( The list could go on! NCSS continues to be such a fruitful and rejuvenating conference and we feel so fortunate to be a part of such a dedicated education community.

The Front of President Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage

Lastly, it was a treat to see some of Nashville’s rich history. We walked around historic broadway where the music could not be contained to the bars they originated from. The streets were flowing with talented music. We got to see Tennessee’s State Capital (where President James Polk is buried), and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. But perhaps most inspiring was the several Civil Rights Movement markers throughout the city. Walking to Woolworth’s where the first lunch counter sit-ins took place and stumbling upon a parking lot where the First Baptist Church once stood and used as an organizing location for the sit-ins were both inspiring. And no surprise, spending time at the National Museum of African American Music was so enriching and fun! I’ll definitely need to head back to Music City and explore more! Who will we see next year at the National Council for Social Studies conference in Boston??

The site of Woolworth’s, where the first lunch counter sit-ins took place.

ExcelinEd and a Thanksgiving Reflection

Last week, Thinking Nation’s executive team headed to Atlanta, GA for the 15th Annual National Summit on Education hosted by ExcelinEd. Each year at ExcelinEd, policy makers, nonprofits, and other education organizations get together to talk to and learn from each other on how we can build an education system that prioritizes students over systems. I left feeling both inspired and challenged in and I am looking forward to integrating some of the takeaways into our own work at Thinking Nation. Today, I’d like to highlight two of the keynote addresses from the conference that equally inspired and challenged me.

Jonathan Haidt has been inspiring me with his research and writing for the better part of the last decade. So, as you can imagine, when I learned that he would be at the conference, I was excited for what he would focus on. In the past few years, his book The Righteous Mind gave me a concrete way to understand how people come to different political views. His research is very much aligned to the historian’s chief job: to understand people from a time and place not like our own. In 2018, he and Greg Lukianoff wrote The Coddling of the American Mind. Once again, I was taken by their findings. This time, he explored “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas” (chiefly at universities) “Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” I encourage all of us who work in education to read it.

As you can tell, I’m great with selfies…

For the past couple of years, Haidt has built off that research and explored the specific impact of social media on our younger generations. Thus, in his talk for us, he introduced some of his new findings that will be in her newest book, The Anxious Generation, coming out in Spring 2024. As he’s written elsewhere, he pointed out that social media is producing much more harm than good, especially for younger users, and especially for younger female users. Second, he called on the audience, many of which have the power to introduce corresponding legislation in their states, to “get phones out of school now.” His ExcelinEd presentation provided compelling findings that demonstrate the negative impact of screens in school. Both he, and the next speaker I’ll highlight, Arthur Brooks, noted that at the schools that they teach at (NYU and Harvard Business School, respectively) do not allow devices in their classrooms. If these elite institutions recognize the need for analog classrooms, we all must consider the ramifications of our own technological choices in the classroom.

Of course, as an organization, we have built an entire web-based platform for teacher and student use. This complicates things. At Thinking Nation, we recognize just how much technology can help us shift the paradigm of social studies education. Still, we know that not all classrooms operate the same. This is why all of our resources are available to our teachers both to assign directly on our platform, or to download as PDFs for student use. Technology can expedite growth but we also must be realistic about the times that it is a growth inhibitor.

The second speaker I’ll highlight here is Arthur Brooks. Brooks has become a mainstay in my weekly reading over at The Atlantic with his Thursday “happiness” column: How to Build a Life. Not to be confused with that overly-optimistic friend we all have that secretly makes us want to throw up, Brooks’ columns and research feels both authentic and practical. 

Brooks’ talk challenged us at ExcelinEd to think about how we can teach happiness to our students and he gave us very practical approaches to do so. First, he highlighted that happiness is comprised of three things: enjoyment, satisfaction, and meaning. 

Arthur Brooks speaking with former congressman, Eric Cantor

While each of these three things are important on their own, it is when they work in concert with each other that we experience happiness. He continued to give us at ExcelinEd practical outlines and activities to promote self-awareness and happiness, many of which can be done with students. But it was his two questions he left for us to answer that stuck with me the most. He said that the mere ability to answer the following two questions are the best indicator to whether you have found meaning in your life. One’s answer to those questions doesn’t matter as much as the sheer ability to answer them. The questions?

  1. Why am I alive?
  2. For what would I be willing to die, today?

Brooks continued to challenge us, but this is a good spot to transition to the other topic of today’s blog: Thanksgiving. Before I do though, whenever I travel for Thinking Nation, I like to prioritize at least one historical landmark. So, thank you ExcelinEd, for giving me the ability to see Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth home and Ebenezer Baptist Church. MLK was a model for us of how to best be an American and it was special to visit those sites.

MLK’s Birth home

The original Ebenezer Baptist Church


Thanksgiving is a special holiday filled with historical tension. While it is worth exploring the tensions of the ethnic roots of some of the holiday traditions, today (as I’ve done in the past), I’d like for us to merely consider the purpose of the day: to give thanks. At the heart of gratitude is humility. We cannot be thankful for anyone or anything without acknowledging that others help us. A humble person gives thanks. 

History, with its core purpose to be the understanding of people and places not like our own, is a discipline rooted in humility. As I wrote in the blog linked above:

“With no urgent need to use the past for present benefits, historians can humbly try to understand the past rather than co-opting it for a specific purpose or use. This intellectual humility can lead to an intellectual gratitude.”

This intellectual gratitude is embedded throughout our resources. We challenge students to understand diverse perspectives, identify historical significance, and take on historical empathy. These tools, inherent to our discipline, is why we believe that our curriculum, assessments, and professional development can support teachers in cultivating thinking citizens.

Meeting Teacher Needs through Formative Assessments on Historical Thinking

At the end of last school year, many of the teachers we work with had a common reflection. It went something like this: “While I appreciate seeing the robust data from the Curated Research Papers, I don’t have enough time to do these often. I do really enjoy the formative assessments on historical thinking, though. The ability to assess a student on a particular thinking skill in a short (less than 30 minute) time span is incredibly helpful for gauging student growth. Can you make more?”

Yes, yes, we can. 

Over the summer, we gave ourselves the goal of having 4 formative assessments for all 80+ of our current units. This meant that we would have to more than double the amount of formative assessments we offered on our platform. So we did! As a rule of thumb, I often recommend that teachers implement a formative assessment on disciplinary thinking every other week in their classes. With over 40 available for teachers in each of our course offerings, this is now an easy feat to accomplish. 

Why formative assessments?

We’ve identified 8 different skills to assess in our formative assessments (We recently added Quantitative Analysis!). Essentially, these assessments are stimulus-based, consist of one “Weighted Multiple Choice” (WMC) question and one “justification” short answer question. Here is a sample for the skill “causation.” Our goal with our formative assessments is to help whole departments shift their own paradigm for how they measure student success. 

Usually, formative assessments in social studies classrooms consist of memory-based assessments to ensure that students have retained the information taught. Essentially, success is measured by a student’s ability to retell us what we told them earlier. However, this is not historical thinking. 

Nothing is moncausal.

Our formative assessments on historical thinking allow for teachers to assess how the students approach the information they engage with, rather than simply their ability to remember it. For instance, in the sample linked above, students are presented with historical context and a primary source. The WMC question asks them to use those sources in order to select the two strongest statements that describe why an event happened. Then, the short answer component asks them to defend one of those statements as the stronger cause for the event, citing evidence in their justification. 

This simple task on causation emphasizes two key components of the historical thinking skill of causation. First, nothing is monocausal: “select two.” Second, historians make evidence-based arguments about the past. This second part is critical if we want to empower our students with the agency to enter into nuanced conversation, whether about the past or our present.

Vertical Alignment through Historical Thinking

Another critical component of these formative assessments is that whole departments can norm around them. In fact, the idea of building collaboration without losing teacher autonomy was the focus of my California Council for Social Studies session back in February 2023. Social Studies departments have been siloed by content for too long and our formative assessments give teachers a common language for success regardless of the content of their classroom. If teachers of different subjects each gave a formative assessment on causation, they could then come together and have meaningful and productive conversations around student success, as well as create aligned goals across the department. Common assessments transform history departments.

We cannot shift the paradigm of social studies education without a common language for success. Formative assessments on historical thinking can help get us there. That’s why we listened to teacher feedback and more than doubled our offerings of this particular assessment tool.

Redefining Ready – College, Career, and Life

Last week, our Chief Partnership Officer, Liz Connolly, and myself, flew out to Mansfield, Texas. We witnessed the great work being done at Mansfield ISD under the leadership of Superintendent, Dr. Kimberly Cantu. This visit was part of our partnership with AASA, The School Superintendents Association, and the work of their Redefining Ready! Cohort. The multi-day summit was filled with brilliant ideas, great collaboration, and of course, some great Texas BBQ thanks to Mansfield’s own students at Ben Barber Innovation Academy’s Savvy’s Bistro.

Much of our time together was spent visiting different Mansfield ISD schools and witnessing such rich education innovation. From the programs to the classroom layouts to the lesson plans themselves, it was such a special experience to witness such deep learning. I was so impressed with all of the teachers and students I interacted with.

In particular, though, this cohort got together as we rethink how we “redefine ready” for our schools. Much in the same way that Thinking Nation wants to shift the paradigm of social studies education and redefine how we measure success in the discipline, this group of superintendents is seeking to redefine how we measure success as districts, and hopefully, as a nation. The three categories where we worked together as a group to redefine readiness were college, career, and life. Of course, there is great overlap in each of these categories. But, to think of each of those domains separately was a great exercise in thinking through our own priorities for K-12 education.

Ellen Gallinsky leading one of the breakout sessions on “Life Readiness.”

In one of the breakout sessions, I joined the Life Readiness group. I wanted to hear the research and insights that came from Ellen Gallinsky, the executive director of Mind in the Making. Her 2010 book of the same title explores seven life skills that she’s identified as essential for children to grow into flourishing adults. Her next book, which comes out in the spring, continues this research and explores the teen years. 

Before her presentation, I had time to talk with her about some of the intersections between our work. Specifically, our historical thinking skills that I addressed last week and her work in life readiness. While I often see the connection between historical thinking and life readiness, Mrs. Gallinsky’s quick ability to see the connection was encouraging. As I say often, historical thinking is a life skill. If more of us applied historical thinking to more parts of our life, society would be grateful. It’s why our vision is that “all students will mature into thinking citizens, equipped with the essential skills to participate in a robust democracy.”

As we move forward with our partnership with the Redefining Ready! Cohort, I’m excited to think alongside such brilliant superintendents who are striving to shift the paradigm of education more largely. We will continue to advocate for a needed paradigm shift in social studies. Because we know that when students are empowered to think historically they are more college, career, and life ready. Thank you to AASA and Mansfield ISD for having us!

What are Historical Thinking Skills?

At Thinking Nation, we’ve consistently stood by the belief that historical thinking empowers students. When students think historically, they are equipped with the skills and dispositions necessary to sustain democracy and carve out a better future. Social Studies, as a discipline, is uniquely set up to equip students in this way, but what these historical thinking skills exactly are can be challenging to define. 


One of our first blogs simply asked “What does it mean to think historically?” In the blog, I wrote,  “Simply, historical thinking skills are the skills needed to properly interpret documents, events, and their outcomes.” Being able to interpret (and effectively analyze) what is put in front of you in order to make meaning of what you are interpreting is one of life’s most critical skills. It is a skill at the heart of our discipline.

Staying at a 30,000 foot view of the definition of historical thinking skills, I’d also like to add that these are simply the skills that historians employ in their study of the past. While they are by no means natural, as Sam Wineburg points out, they can be learned if students are given adequate instruction and practice. 

Historical Empathy

Historical thinking skills are the historian’s toolbelt. At least that’s how I summed it up when asked by historian John Fea. But these skills, while cultivated in social studies, don’t just remain there. Historical thinking skills are incredibly helpful in navigating everyday life—from the news, to the workplace, even to our relationships. I often tell people how learning to think historically did not just make me a better analyst or writer. It’s made me a better dad, husband, and neighbor. 

Evaluating Evidence

As I wrote above, historical thinking is empowering. Paradoxically, historical thinking is humbling, too. When students think historically, they have the agency to enter into conversations about complex ideas. They are empowered. But, they also know their limits. They seek to empathize with who they study. They rely on evidence over their own opinion. They’re humbled.

With all of this in mind, as we continue in our goal to shift the paradigm of social studies education in building both teacher’s and student’s capacities to think historically, we wanted to have a simple and clear way to communicate those skills to those who engage with our resources. We needed a visual.

Therefore, as a part of our organization’s rebrand, we worked with the talented design firm, Josh Warren Design, to create visual icons to represent the various skills embedded into our curriculum. Currently, we’ve focused on 10 skills. Below, you can see each of them with their corresponding icon.

Each of these icons will now follow their respective historical thinking skill around our curriculum. Students will see them when they engage in document analysis, formative assessments, or engage in a curated research paper. We hope that these clear visuals, along with their succinct definitions (some examples here!), will help students internalize these thinking skills. We know that the internalization of such skills won’t just be a good way to score well on a history test. Most importantly, it will set up students for success outside of the classroom in creating confident citizens, prepared to think critically about the world they live in.

Hispanic Heritage Month – El Malcriado

September 15th kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month! To celebrate this month, we’re revisiting a blog from two years ago that highlights some pictures and other magazine clips from El Malcriado, a Chicano labor newspaper from 1964-1976, established by Cesar Chavez. Chavez was a core leader in the United Farm Worker’s Movement of the 60s and 70s that advocated for farmworker rights and fair wages. This week was also a great time for me to reflect on such an exciting moment last spring when I was able to go hear Dolores Huerta (pictured below during the movement) speak at California State University, Channel Islands. If you want a way to get students thinking about Huerta’s impact on the broader Chicano Movement, here is a free document analysis resource!

In preparing for one of our CRPs on the Delano Grape Strike, we relied heavily on El Malcriado  as it is full of rich documentation of the farmworker’s movement. Here is a brief summary of the strike, excerpted from our CRP: 

In 1965, after a successful strike in Coachella Valley, Larry Itliong led the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to Delano to fight for farm worker rights during the grape harvest. Having gained a $1.40/hour wage for farm workers in Coachella, he prepared workers to go on strike in Delano when growers refused to pay more than $1.20/hour. However, while the Filipino workers under Itliong readily joined the strike, Mexican workers were willing to accept $1.20/hour and work in the strikers’ place. 

Recognizing that unless they banded together, no one would win, Itliong approached and convinced Cesar Chavez and his union, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), to join the strike. AWOC strikers began on September 8, 1965 and the NFWA joined the strike on September 16. For the next five years, the strike persisted into a global movement of labor strikes and consumer boycotts to fight for fair wages for farmworkers.

In March 1966, Cesar Chavez led a 300 mile march from Delano to Sacramento to pressure the state to answer farm worker demands. Then, after almost a year of striking together, the two unions merged together as the United Farm Workers (UFW) in August 1966. Chavez, Itliong, and Dolores Huerta were its top leaders.

Below are some clips from the Magazine:

Dolores Huerta holding “HUELGA” sign in issue 21 of El Malcriado. ‘Huelga’ means ‘strike.’
More protesters holding “HUELGA” signs from issue 21 of El Malcriado.
A powerful essay on unity in the strike from issue 23 of El Malcriado.
The cover from issue 26 of El Malcriado.
Scenes of farmworkers from the August 22, 1966 issue of El Malcriado.

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

Thinking Historically About: Our New Podcast

Well, another week, another podcast. Though, this time it’s our own: Thinking Historically About.

As many of you know, we continually try to be a bridge between secondary education and the university. Rather than thinking how we can put a historical thinking “twist” on traditional classroom narratives in social studies, we look at how professional historians define their discipline and then think through how to scaffold those approaches for younger learners. 

Another way we try to be that bridge is by seeking out the expertise of scholars as we construct our own units. Thanks to the generosity of so many historians offering their expertise, Thinking Nation students have access to high level thinking about complex historical events through our materials. I appreciate historians like Carol Berkin, who helped shape our unit on Women and the American Revolution, Manisha Sinha, who guided our unit on Slave Resistance, John Fea, who made sure students can think historically about Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, and James Walvin who thought deeply about the Haitian Revolution with me and how to best get students thinking about its consequences. These scholars, among many others, have made our curriculum so much stronger.

One of the next stages of incorporating the expertise of scholars into our resources is through our new Youtube Series and Podcast: Thinking Historically About. In this series, we interview scholars specifically about the inquiry questions that students engage with in our units. Our goal with these is that students can hear how an expert in the field wrestles with the same question they will wrestle with and potentially write about through our Curated Research Papers. We’ve been quietly uploading some on our Youtube channel, but starting this month, we will release one interview a month via podcast. We hope that this gives teachers multiple methods for allowing students to engage with these quick conversations either before or during their own engagement with the historical events they study in their classes. 

Our first episode, Thinking Historically About Ancient Rome can be found on Apple Podcasts here (Or Spotify). Or, if you want to play the video interview for your students, you can find it on Youtube. We are grateful to Ancient Rome scholar, Nadya Williams, for sharing her own expertise in both the crafting of the unit and in her reflection in the interview. We hope these interviews become useful for your classroom!

Lastly, to contribute to the funding of these interviews and other collaborations with scholars  You can donate here.


Thinking Nation’s Podcast Interview!

As a teacher, I thought I had found the ultimate historical thinking podcast to listen to back in January 2016. In just some of the first few episodes, guests included Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association; Sam Wineburg, founder of the Stanford History Education Group, and Annette Gordon Reed, Pulitzer Prize (and National Humanities Medal and Macarthur genius) winning historian. (Gordon-Reed has also been the subject of one of our past blogs). Since I already looked up to these three scholars, it was special to find a place where they were all being interviewed was such a treat. It felt like a special corner of the growing podcast sphere that I got to be a part of as a listener.

The podcast, hosted by historian John Fea, is entitled “The Way of Improvement Leads Home,” after his first book, which explored the American Enlightenment. Dr. Fea has long been a champion of historical thinking at both the college level and in K-12 education. He has a track record of working with K-12 teachers to help them refine their own pedagogy when it comes to incorporating historical thinking skills into their classroom, and has personally inspired me greatly over the years. His work with the Gilder Lehrman Institute is especially notable. He taught graduate level history courses for teachers looking to get their Master’s degrees and led week-long institutes at historical locations for history teachers looking to gain more content expertise.

Dr. Fea has also graciously helped us refine one of our own units. His expertise strengthened our unit on Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson’s competing visions for government. With all of this in mind, you might imagine how honored I felt when he asked me to join him on his podcast late last month! I felt so fortunate to be interviewed by John and share more about our vision for teaching and assessing historical thinking in K-12 education.

From the podcast’s episode description: 

“If you’ve listened to this podcast over the years you know that we champion “historical thinking” as one of our best hopes for sustaining and preserving American democratic life. In this episode we talk with Zachary Cote, the Executive Director of THINKING NATION, a non-profit organization devoted to helping K-12 social studies students mature into citizens who are empowered to analyze information effectively, think historically, and write persuasively in order to build a better democratic future. If you are a school superintendent, principal, or history teacher you are not going to miss this episode!”

With that, we’d love for you to listen! I’m thankful to John for hosting me and excited to continue to share the ways in which we want to shift the paradigm of history education. I’ve linked the podcast here through Apple podcasts, but it is available across all podcast directories.