Sometimes, Simple is Best

When I lead professional developments for teachers, I don’t shy away from the difficulty of teaching students to think historically. It’s rigorous, time consuming, and at times, frustrating. When we ask students to think historically, merely restating historical facts is no longer sufficient. Students need to interrogate past documents and perspectives in order to make evidence-based statements and draw conclusions for themselves. It’s hard. Still, I remind teachers that just because teaching historical thinking is difficult, does not mean it can’t be simple. Sometimes, simple is best.

At Thinking Nation, we are not trying to develop the next best educational buzzword. We aren’t trying to fill our curriculum with abundant strategies, games, interactives, or whatever the latest trend in education has become. Rather, we are looking to cultivate thinking citizens with targeted approaches to teaching historical thinking. What does this look like?

Well, to start, we want to introduce students to the practice of reading, interpreting, and synthesizing primary sources. These rich documents of the past are filled with so much insight to whatever moment in time they hail from that it is key that we don’t simply read them to remember what they said. Instead, we need to read them, ask questions of them, interrogate their authors, seek to understand their premise and historical context, and connect them to a larger vision of the past. Reading historical documents is not merely reading for knowledge. It is reading for understanding. 

T= Topic, H= Historical Context, I= Intended Audience, N= New Vocabulary K= Key Purpose, S= Significance

Our simple yet effective approach to teaching students this skill comes in the form of a graphic organizer. When students read a primary (and sometimes secondary) source within our materials, they use our “THINKS” graphic organizer to guide their own reading of the document. (Download a sample!) THINKS is a simple acronym that helps students think more deeply about the text. 

Last week, I had the privilege of conducting a guest lesson at a large LA high school. We read a 7 sentence excerpt of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations where he highlights the benefits of his theory of Division of Labor. I began the class with a simple breakdown of the term using Frayer’s Model, and then dedicated the next 70 minutes to those 7 sentences. All the students had in hand was the source and their THINKS graphic organizer. 

TIME FLEW. We interrogated the text using the prompting questions from the organizer. We dug deep in order to understand the context, purpose, and significance of Smith’s claim. We asked questions to challenge his claim. We identified new vocabulary. We did so much. 

Of course, the process must be refined more for students so they can internalize this approach to reading the past, but it was an incredibly successful start. The students were engaged and boring Adam Smith came alive. The historical thinking we engaged in was rigorous and difficult, but the process was simple. Students had a simple tool to help guide them on their road to historical thinking.

Pushing Student Thinking through Socratic Seminars

This week I had the opportunity to do a two-part guest lesson with a group of seniors in their government class. Our essential question was “Why is America so polarized?” We looked at four different sources to answer this question: a Pew Research Study, a conservative’s OpEd, a liberal’s OpEd, and a podcast interview. I’ll be honest, the students did not love digging deeply into those four sources. It was mentally rigorous and at times, exhausting. But I knew that they needed that information for day 2’s agenda: a socratic seminar.

When the time came for the seminar, students were ready to speak. They shared their own personal vision for America, they supported what they believed to be the biggest contributing factor to political polarization with evidence from our readings, and they debated the best way to move forward to diminish the crippling polarization we see daily. The vast majority of students, even the shyest, participated in the discussion, bouncing ideas off of each other and challenging others’ conceptions with the evidence they drew from the articles. It was really a joy to just sit back in a student’s chair during this time and listen to these seniors, who will be voting in the next election, debate real ideas with real consequences. Socratic Seminars provide a great platform to do this.

In Socratic Seminars, students usually sit in a circle and discuss deeper questions that then lead to a bigger, essential question, which encapsulates the whole learning event. Teachers often stay back, letting students start the conversation (perhaps with some questions on the board), engage with one another, cite evidence from previously-read sources, and draw conclusions together. Socratic Seminars put the onus of learning on the students and allows them to explore different answers to complex questions in the safety of their classroom.

When I lead professional developments for schools who use the Thinking Nation curriculum, I often encourage teachers to incorporate socratic seminars into their use of our materials. While Socratic Seminars may seem intimidating at first, they are excellent ways to have students engage with complex ideas and empower them to think critically about the content they are studying. To successfully engage in a Socratic Seminar, students need to have read or looked at relevant sources to the topic at hand. They must have a broad essential question to frame their thinking about those materials and they need smaller open-ended questions that can guide their thinking throughout the discussion process. We’ve designed our curricular materials, especially our DBQs, to include all of these things so that teachers can effectively attach a Socratic Seminar to that learning process.

At Thinking Nation, we believe in empowers students to think historically. We aren’t satisfied with them being mere passive receivers of a historical narrative; rather, we want them to actively engage with the past. We want students to wrestle with historical sources and draw evidence-based conclusions as they navigate the sea of the past. Implementing Socratic Seminars gives students such opportunities in their learning process. 

Hispanic Heritage Month and the Mexican Revolution

As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, we will look at origins in this blog post. Hispanic Heritage Month kicks off each year on September 16th because September 16th is celebrated as Mexican Independence Day. On September 16th, 1810, Priest Miguel Hidalgo called for Mexican independence from its colonial ruler, Spain. However, the next 100 years were filled with instability in Mexico, leading to a revolution beginning in 1910. 

One of our DBQs focuses on this Mexican Revolution, which lasted from 1910-1920. In it, students are asked to respond to the question: “Was the Mexican Revolution successful?” They explore the historical context of the revolution, key documents from the revolutionaries themselves, as well as some reflective pieces from the years after in order to draw their own evidence-based conclusions. While we won’t seek to answer this question in today’s post (after all, that is for the students to decide!), we will highlight some aspects of the revolution so we can have a better understanding.

First, some historical context. In the first 55 years in Mexico’s history after its independence from Spain, the country’s leadership changed 75 times. Power was unstable and during this time, the United States took over half of Mexico’s land in the US-Mexican War (1846-1848). (It’s worthwhile noting that many Americans completely disavowed the U.S. Government’s actions in taking Mexico’s land seeing it as a clear infringement on Mexico’s sovereignty. For example, see Frederick Douglass’s editorial). Then, in 1876 Mexican general Porfirio Díaz became president of Mexico. While he did bring stability, Mexico had to endure his dictatorial regime for 35 years. It was in this context that the Mexican people stood against oppression, beginning the revolution.

A portion of Diego Rivera’s famous mural, “The History of Mexico,” at the National Palace in Mexico City.

Different factions within the revolutionaries arose. Some, like Venustiano Carranza, pushed for political rights. Others like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa fought for labor rights and economic equality. “Tierra y Libertad” (Land and Liberty) was their motto. Zapata and Villa’s contributions were unquestionable (it is they, not Carranza, who are better known today). Still, it was Carranza’s vision that won in the end. In 1917, Mexico drafter a new Constitution. While it did have some concessions to the goals of Zapata and Villa, it was largely a political document as Carranza and his allies pushed for.


Despite Hispanic Heritage Month being based on Mexico’s 1810 independence from Spain, the revolution that occurred 100 years later is perhaps even more influential for the modern country. We hope that students who engage with this part of our historical thinking curriculum don’t just become better historical thinkers. We want them to become better aware of the history of our southern neighbor, Mexico.

We Need Deep Analysis, Not Fact Retention

Last week we argued that history curriculums need to serve students, not politics. History classrooms should focus on equipping students with the skills for deep analysis, not fueling the fire of political partisanship that plagues social media. 

This week, the American Historical Association made a similar argument. Today’s blog is short, as it is more or less reiterating our claims from last week, but it is worth highlighting what the AHA published as it supports the theme we highlighted.

Defining History Graph
© American Historical Association

With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the AHA conducted a survey asking about public perceptions of history. The survey is very in depth and is worth exploring more, but we will only focus on a particular consequence of its findings. 

The survey illuminated that most people focus on the “what” of history—those names, dates, events, and places that can often cloud the deeper discipline-specific skills. The public acknowledged the credibility of academic sources and primary sources, but these were generally low on the list of sources most consulted when learning about the past (Interestingly, movies were ranked at the top for sources consulted even though they were toward the bottom of acknowledged credibility).

Graph on the benefits of Deep Analysis in the history classroom.
Graph © American Historical Association. This data shows that people are more motivated to learn history in an inquiry-based model over fact-based.

With the data, the survey’s authors make a compelling statement: “If wider interests and greater empathy are desired outcomes of history education, then educators might need to rethink the content-mastery versus inquiry environments they foster.” For these same reasons, Thinking Nation focuses on an inquiry-based model for teaching history. This centers on historical thinking

We hope that as research like this comes to light, more voices will join these calls to action. History education needs a revolution. We need to be defined by our deep analysis. Join us as we seek to cultivate that revolution in the K-12 setting.

Common Assessments Transform History Departments

At Thinking Nation, we believe that teaching students how to think historically is key to cultivating thinking citizens. With this, though, we recognize that equipping teachers with the time and tools to do so is essential. This is why we make common assessments the backbone of our curriculum.

Common Assessments are simply tests or quizzes given by teachers across grade levels and/or departments. When multiple teachers give (almost) identical assessments, it dramatically increases opportunities for teachers to collaborate with one another to push student learning forward. While many subject areas prioritize giving common assessments, these are often lacking in social studies classrooms; and even if social studies departments do administer these, they are often based on content-knowledge rather than the skills that define thinking citizens. Our mission is to change that.

Thinking Nation’s formative assessments and DBQs assess how students think, not what they think. Our rubrics are designed to give students and teachers targeted feedback on the thinking process. When these are given as common assessments across multiple classrooms, student growth is not just localized within one classroom but is shared across a school or district. Teachers can have baselines for conversations, data analysis, and re-teaching lessons. When more teachers can talk about pathways to student growth, students benefit. And that is the goal of education.

Whole class data from a Common Assessment

Since our DBQs vary in topics but assess the same skills, this also means that the assessments can be common without being identical. This gives teachers freedom to use our materials for whatever content they are currently teaching in their class. Even if two classes are administering two different DBQs from our online platform, the resulting collaboration is just as helpful because the conversation is about students’ ability to think historically, not memorize historical information. 

When we assess our students on their understandings of history, we can better serve their needs. We can meet them where they are at. With common assessments across a school or district, we can meet more students’ needs and elevate more students’ learning experiences. This allows student growth to go from isolated incidents to district-wide trends. It can transform the way that history departments work. For these reasons, Thinking Nation is committed to providing teachers, schools, and districts the curricular and professional development resources to realize these goals. 

History is Contested

This week was spent deep in curriculum research. After reading several historian’s books on the Haitian Revolution, I noticed that depending on who I was reading, the effects of the Haitian Revolution differed. I was reminded of just how much history is contested. 

An 1839 Painting depicting fighting during the Haitian Revolution.

We obviously see it in our current political state. States around the country have been drafting legislation encouraging or condemning certain approaches to history in their public schools. Teachers are being unnecessarily confronted with absurd demands by people who have not been in a classroom since they were teenagers. Ironically, all of these debates, in a way, are actually living out the very aspects of the history discipline that we prize.

Of course, we should not condone the hyper-partisan views on history that tend to dominate the current debate. Condemning certain approaches to history that you may (even strongly) disagree with only provides fuel for “the other side” to condemn your preferred approach when they have power. Nobody wins. But maybe what is worth celebrating is the fact that we are acknowledging the contested nature of history, even if the mode in which the contestation is happening is unhealthy.

Removed from mainstream media’s gaze, historians have vigorously debated the nature and meaning of the past since the inception of the discipline. As we’ve addressed in past blogs, historiography is the study of historical writing. In it, we see that historians will collect and interpret differently from others, which can lead to various conclusions about the past. Or, perhaps the lens in which they see the past results in a particular focus that differs from others. Historians, not confined to the notion that history is merely the past, revel in this aspect of our discipline. We can have highly evidence-based discussions about the events of the past and still argue about the nature of those events. 

For instance, this week, I’ve been reading about the Haitian Revolution. The Haitian Revolution was undoubtedly a turning point in world history. It was the largest slave rebellion to ever take place and it resulted in the first independent modern Black nation. In an era where racism, racial hierarchy, and slavery was the rule rather than the exception, the Black population of Haiti united in an unprecedented struggle of self-emancipation. Still, how did this profound event impact the surrounding world? 

Well, it depends on which historian you go to for the answer. Some emphasize how often abolitionists cited the success of Haiti as a rallying cry for abolition in another part of the world. Other historians will point out that outside of Haiti, the economy driven by slave labor and the slave trade actually increased. These are clearly competing conclusions. The thing is, both perspectives have ample evidence to demonstrate their view. For every piece of evidence that reveals the contagion of liberty brought about by the Haitian Revolution, there is a piece that shows that there was little spread of antislavery fervor as a result of the triumph on that island.

This, to this historian, is not just tolerable, it’s a hallmark of why we study the past. We are ok that history is contested. We are excited to engage in a debate with other scholars. In fact, unless a book is truly the first book on a given subject, every published history book is an opposing argument on a given topic. History is an ongoing discussion. If it weren’t, the textbooks from 1925 would be equally relevant to us today as they were then.

Perhaps if we weren’t so dogmatic on what “the right history” was, we would be humble enough to engage in a dialogue, not a shouting match. At Thinking Nation, we hope to cultivate those skills for our students. We know that when we help students think historically, they are better prepared to be thinking citizens. Everyone is better for it.

(Re)Defining History Shapes our Teaching

In our very first blog we defined history. We’ve brought this blog up pretty consistently in other blog posts, too. History is not the past. History is the study of the past. Today, I want to pose that we history teachers take that definition seriously when designing our class lessons and unit plans.

In several past blogs we’ve also covered the importance of depth over breadth when teaching and that content coverage isn’t the end goal. We’ve even asked, “But what if the rigor, the analysis, the deep thinking was the essential content?” It is this essential content that we will teach if we truly teach history by its own definition.

Unfortunately, when most people hear that we are history teachers, they interpret that to mean that we are teachers of the past. Even more unfortunate? We often internalize this definition of our profession too. We get caught up in covering content so much that history and the past become interchangeable in our lessons and even our identities as teachers. But what if we truly internalized history’s proper definition? What would that look like?

When students came into our classrooms, they would learn how to study the past, not just know it. Their skills of analysis, thought, and writing would be cultivated. We would no longer be satisfied with creating walking encyclopedias, able to drop knowledge of past events when asked; rather, we would cultivate thinking citizens, equipped to analyze both the past and present. Our lessons would be rooted in cultivating those skills. The content would no longer be our end goal, but rather the means by which we teach our end goal: to think historically.

Sometimes grounding ourselves in simple definitions can shift our own paradigms and approaches in life. In the case of the history classroom, we as a profession need to re-ground ourselves in our discipline’s definition. If we don’t, we will quietly put ourselves out of a job. 

21st century technology has made merely knowing the past less and less essential. At any moment, I can pull out my phone and google almost any piece of historical information. But google can’t teach us how to navigate that information. Encyclopedias don’t teach critical thinking. But history can. At Thinking Nation, we want to revolutionize the history classroom, not into something completely new, but by reevaluating it in light of the discipline’s own definition. Let’s teach students how to study the past.

Historical Thinking Paves a Better Way Forward

This week, I came across a statement by the Big City District-University Social Studies Group. In it, the authors write that “social studies must have a prominent role in the ‘build back better’ Conversation.”

They (rightfully) contend that any conversation around equity or combatting learning loss must contain a plan for a robust social studies curriculum in classrooms. Of course, we joyously agreed with their statement and accompanying sentiments. If we want a better way forward, we need a social studies curriculum that is centered on historical thinking.

This week, I also attended an online forum on equity in education in Los Angeles. Throughout the forum, the speakers pointed out the gross physical inequities exacerbated by this past year of virtual learning. Whole families who only had internet through a couple of smart phones had to figure out how multiple children were going to “attend” school every day. In blunt terms, it was impossible.

Focusing on physical inequity is crucial to building a better way forward. We need to ensure that every child has the physical means to grow and learn. But this can’t be the end of the road toward equity. There is still a necessary conversation about what we do now that students have equal access. Do they still have an equal experience

Unfortunately, the answer is still no for so many communities. Resource rich students are still ill-equipped to sustain the future of our democracy. This is why the above-mentioned statement is so true. In order to overcome the ailments of our society and democracy, we must rethink how students are introduced and taught to engage with the past. To deny the connections between the past and present is to deny reality. We have to teach students to critically engage with the past. We have to empower them to be doers of history, to think historically. When students are empowered to do the above, they can build a more equitable future. They can pave a better way forward. 

As we move into the 2021-22 School year, may we re-evaluate how we are teaching social studies to our next generation of engaged citizens. Let’s center historical thinking as a way to empower our students. When our students are confident in their ability to think about the issues of the past, they will be able to intelligently engage with the issues at our present. 

Thinking Nation is ready to partner with schools who see this tall order and know that it is time to act. We want to empower students to think historically. They can’t wait any longer.

Historical Thinking Combats Polarization

Why are we so polarized right now? If “the other side” says it, we automatically discount it. We don’t know how to debate, or even argue well. We just yell. We devour information that feeds our own perspective and spit out any information that we disagree with as “fake news.” We are hurting ourselves, hurting our local communities, and hurting our national democracy. 

In his 1796 Farewell Address, our first President George Washington warned his country that the “spirit of party” “serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection.” he continues, in words that will jolt the eyes of any modern reader. This spirit of party is “A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.” 

We have been consumed.

But we don’t have to remain this way. We can still put the fire out. But, like any fire, this is going to take time, a lot of resources, and the skill to do so properly. Within this solution is the core of our curriculum: historical thinking.

When we think historically, we are skilled to navigate evidence appropriately, engage with multiple perspectives, recognize causation, recognize trends, and have the knowledge of historical precedents needed to make informed decisions about our present. Historical thinking is critical thinking. It’s slow thinking, counterintuitive to the click bait culture our social media accounts reward. It’s persistent thinking, willing to engage with a topic enough to actually understand it. It’s empathetic thinking, willing to compassionately understand those we study rather than jump to ill-informed conclusions.
Historical thinking is the type of thinking we need the upcoming generations of citizens to embody if we don’t want to continue to be consumed by the fire of factions and polarization. Let’s slow things down, revolutionize the history classroom, and cultivate a Thinking Nation.

Resistance and Persistence for Equality: Honoring the AAPI Community

The month of May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. As the month comes to a close, we want to take this week’s blog to honor those who resisted injustice and persisted toward equality within the AAPI community. This week’s blog will highlight three instances where Asian Americans called the United States to live up to its founding ideas of liberty and justice for all. Each of these stories come from our curriculum’s library of DBQs and we hope that as you engage with their heroism today, students will engage with their stories in the classroom.

Our first story of resistance and persistence comes from San Francisco in 1886. Chinese men Yick Wo and Wo Lee were denied permits to operate their laundry businesses under a new discriminatory law in San Francisco. While the law did not mention race at all, after the city council passed it, only white laundry business owners could obtain permits to legally operate in the city. Yick Wo and Wong Lee challenged this discrimination on the basis of the relatively new (passed in 1868) 14th Amendment, which states, “No State shall… deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” To put the amendment to the test, they continued to operate their businesses without permits, and then when threatened by the city, made their case in the U.S. legal system. Despite the new city law not explicitly referencing Chinese San Franciscans, Wo and Lee took their case (Yick Wo v. Hopkins) all the way to the Supreme Court to argue that the city’s laws violated their 14th amendment rights. The court unanimously sided with Wo and Lee and set a profound precedent in U.S. legal history. The court argued that just because a law is not racist on its face doesn’t mean it can’t violate a citizen’s 14th Amendment rights. Their resistance and persistence led to an important change in our justice system.

Our second story comes during the American tragedy of Japanese internment. During World War II, the American government forced Japanese Americans out of their homes, rounded them up, and forced them to live for almost three years in concentration camps in remote areas mostly in the Western United States. Resisting this unjust internment, Fred Korematsu hid in Oakland. He was later arrested and jailed for refusing to be taken from his home to one of these camps. The ACLU used his arrest as an opportunity to test the legality of Executive Order 9066, which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed to intern Japanese Americans, arguing that it was in the interest of national security. Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court did not uphold the 14th Amendment rights like it did in 1886 and ruled 6-3 in favor of Korematsu’s conviction. Still, Korematsu paved the way for America’s apology for this atrocious act against Japanese Americans. In 1982 a federal commission found that the Executive Order was shaped by “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” In 1988, the government paid $20,000 in reparations to each surviving internee. Korematsu’s resistance set the foundation for justice. 

Our third story takes place in 1965. Thousands of Filipino farmworkers in California were working underpaid and in inhumane conditions in California farms. Filipino-native Larry Itliong, who led the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) led a successful strike in Coachella to raise the wages and working conditions of Filipino farmworkers. From there, the workers followed the grape crops to Delano, CA. When refused the same wages they were granted in Coachella, they planned another strike. But to avoid Mexican workers taking the jobs once the Filipinos went on strike, Itliong approached Cesar Chavez, the leader of the association that primarily served Mexican farmworkers. Initially hesitant, Chavez agreed to help Itliong and join the strike. This became the great Delano Grape Strike that lasted 5 years and became an international movement to advocate farmworker rights. If it were not for the resistance and persistence of Larry Itliong, the movement would have never come about.

As May ends, may we remember the contributions of the above three men and so many more within the AAPI community who resisted injustice and persisted toward equality on behalf of Asian Americans throughout the United States.

History Does Not Have to be Familiar to be Relevant

When most people talk about history needing to be relevant for students, I fear what they mean is that it needs to be familiar. These voices argue that if a historical subject is too different from the students that learn it, they’ll just tune out. Or that students need to see themselves in the past in order for it to be meaningful in the present. While there are some truths to this, I fear that if we cling too tightly to this false equivalency, that familiarity = relevance, our students will miss out on just how great history is.

To be fair, the motives behind this false equivalency are good. Unfortunately, so many students are taught a specific narrative about the past that neglects the beautiful diversity of past characters. History is often taught from a purely political lens, leaving out the rich social, cultural, economic, and religious aspects. Or, even worse, history becomes a hagiography, where it is just a series of biographies of the past’s “great men.” These approaches to history miss so much richness, and it is true, can be very hard for students to be attracted to, especially if they can’t see themselves in those stories. We need a history curriculum that highlights diverse voices and perspectives and avoids simply conveying some grand narrative whose only grandeur is that it has been repeated over generations. Mere repetition does not make something more true. 

Still, if we try to right this wrong by only focusing on whatever history is clearly connected to our present moment, we make history something that it never was supposed to be. 

History is not meant to serve the agenda of the modern mind.* Just as historians rightly point out when politicians quote historical anecdotes just to show that they are “on the right side,” we must also challenge history curriculums that are all too directly tied to our current cultural moment. When we only focus on this history that is familiar or supports our current trends, we enable our own narcissism, believing that the past is just meant to serve our needs. It wasn’t.

As novelist L. P. Hartley opened one of his novels, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” 

It is ok for the past to feel very foreign, or unfamiliar, when we study it. This lack of familiarity has the ability to humble us. It forces us to have empathy for those we study. It forces us to get out of our modern bubbles and seek to understand those not like us. It gives us the dispositions to navigate a world where people grew up differently from us, worship differently than us, adhere to political parties opposite of us, or uphold different customs from us. When we study an unfamiliar past, we better fit in with the human family. We see humanity in others before anything else. We have better ears for listening and better hearts for understanding. This has a much deeper relevance than simply making sure our students can see themselves in the past. It helps us become better people, ready to learn from those we’ve been told are so different from us.

At Thinking Nation, our goal is for students to engage with both the familiar and the foreign in the past. They can learn from stories they feel strong connections to, while at the same time seek to understand stories where the connection isn’t clear. Through this, they can be better citizens in both the U.S. and the world.

*Here, it is important to acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with our modern mind influencing our focus for our own study of history. Often, our own political, social, or cultural goals influence what parts of the past we want to uncover. Still, we must avoid trying to make the past fit into our present conceptions. There often will not be any subject that is a perfect fit for what we are looking for and we need to be able to wrestle with that complexity without simplifying past stories to fit our own outlooks.

Depth > Breadth

You can never cover it all.” 

If there was a slogan that we history teachers should put on the front of every yearly plan, unit plan, or lesson plan, it should be this. In an education environment where history teachers are guided by chronological standards, it is no wonder that we often feel discouraged toward the end of the school year, lamenting what we have to cut out for the lack of time. I’ve heard “We just couldn’t get to it this year” countless times from colleagues. Unfortunately, the content-coverage approach to teaching history makes us feel rushed and dissatisfied with our results each year. It doesn’t have to be this way. 

At Thinking Nation, we prioritize teaching historical thinking over content. We recognize that it will always be impossible to cover every important part of the past. This also means that it is impossible to make sure that every voice is heard or every story is told, even if that story is incredibly important to us or some of our students. But that doesn’t mean that our history classrooms cannot be incredibly impactful.

If we teach students how to think historically, they can apply those skills to historical topics that they are most interested in. Like in university-level history classes, students can engage in research projects where they apply the thinking skills that have been cultivated in their history classrooms in order to pursue historical knowledge on a topic of their choosing. Not only does this allow the content to feel more relevant to themselves, but it also pushes them to be actively engaged with the study of the past, not merely passive receivers of historical information. This is empowering.

If we focus less on the breadth of what we cover in class and more on the depth in which topics are engaged with, students can experience the power of doing history. They can be equipped to tackle any topic they feel pulled toward both in and outside of the classroom. No matter the subject in school, the major in college, or the career path they choose, when students are empowered to think historically they can apply those skills to be the leaders and agents of change we hope for them to be. That is far more important than knowing “at least I addressed such and such topic.” So, let’s prioritize depth over breadth when teaching the past in an effort to equip and empower our students for what lies ahead.

And if there was a second slogan, perhaps it should be:

“You will never get it perfect.” 

And that’s ok.

The Discipline of History is Our Best Chance at Interdisciplinary Collaboration

One of the core aspects of our platform is providing schools with useful data on student writing performance, aligned to common core standards. Many curriculums also do this; however, they do not clearly and unabashedly align the content of their curriculum to the study of the past and the unique skills that that entails. We prioritize history and historical thinking while also providing schools with necessary data in order to drive student learning forward and provide schools helpful tools to ensure their students are equipped to do well on high stakes state exams. We can do this because the discipline of history is better set up than any other subject for interdisciplinary collaboration.

In our first blog of 2021, I brought up how I would show my students that everything is history. No matter what you are studying, it is history, because everything that is studied happened before this very moment. The different areas of emphasis among historians solidifies this fact. We have historians of science, medicine, religion, math, literature, art, economics, politics, the environment, transportation, and the list could go on… endlessly. History is the study of the past, and depending on one’s framework, that study can take a variety of forms. Due to this, the history classroom is uniquely set up at the level of secondary education to collaborate with any other discipline. It is versatile in its content, allowing for the adaptation of its accompanying skills to any particular field of study. History does not need to fit into a framework like the hard sciences or social sciences. Yet, unfortunately, history is often merely an afterthought in many school curriculums today. It rarely receives the notoriety of STEM or English Language Arts, and because of that, it also receives little funding. This is a travesty for both education and our democracy. It is why creating a “thinking nation,” to us, means emphasizing history education. It is why we want to create a teaching revolution that prioritizes the discipline of history as a core subject.

If we stop seeing history as its own silo of learning, we can expand that teaching revolution beyond history classrooms. If the other subjects taught at schools see history as the perfect partnering subject, no matter the content, not only will students better understand the context of any content area, they will be stronger thinkers and writers, applying the analytical skills fundamental to history to all of their subjects. The result? Empowered students and citizens, ready and equipped to make our future better.

When we see history as the bridge that connects all content areas, we can create more robust and rigorous educational atmospheres. Interdisciplinary collaboration is a powerful tool for teachers to provide the education our students need. We hope that by centering history and writing as the foundation of our curriculum and platform, we can come along schools to provide them the tools needed to equip students and cultivate citizens.

Our Goals: To Empower, Promote Equity, and Cultivate Citizens

If you have been on our website’s homepage recently, you may have noticed a change. Now, when you head to thinkingnation.org, you see this slogan:

As we talked about last month, we are seeking a teaching revolution. One where the history classroom is more than just learning about the past, but learning how to understand the past. In short, one where historical thinking is prized. Today, we are going to look at some of the profound benefits of being able to think historically.

First, historical thinking empowers. As a principle, education should empower students. Yes, knowledge is power, but perhaps wisdom is the type of power we should all seek. While knowledge is critical, wisdom is the ability to discern what to do with that knowledge. The ability to think historically, to reason with the past, helps us to exercise that wisdom. It empowers us. When students learn about the past, no matter how inspiring the story, if they can’t think historically about the past, they are more like an encyclopedia than a true student. But when students contextualize the past, identify patterns and change, causes, and can make historical comparisons, they are empowered to actively engage with the past and not merely be passive receivers of a particular narrative. That empowerment builds confidence with how they engage with their present. A particular narrative no longer needs to be simply accepted, but it can be interrogated and wrestled with. Historical thinking empowers them to do so.

Historical thinking promotes equity. There is a clear gap in our educational world. Students who have historically had access to a variety of resources consistently do better than students who haven’t. Numerous schools and organizations have dedicated their time and energy to closing this gap, but we still have a lot to do. One thing we can focus on is equipping students to think historically. While knowing about a diverse past is critical to helping students see themselves in others, we must also equip students to reason with the past. We must work hard to push our students to think critically about the documents and people of the past. We must work to equip our students to analyze historical perspectives. We must work to help our students articulate their analysis in clear, evidence-based writing. When students feel like they can draw their own conclusions about the past because they have been taught to think historically, they are better able to engage in dialogue about robust topics, even if those they dialogue with know more than them. As the adage goes, we must teach students how to think and not what to think. If historically-disadvantaged students are empowered with the above skills, we will have a more equitable education system.

Lastly, historical thinking cultivates citizens. At the core of who we are at Thinking Nation is our desire to cultivate thinking citizens. We want students to be equipped with the skills to participate in a robust democracy. Part of these skills is the ability to think historically. While we live in “the information age” we also live in an era of disinformation. In order to sustain democracy, students need to be able to sift through a variety of sources and perspectives, make analytical judgments, and draw evidence-based conclusions. The study of the past is an excellent way to cultivate these skills. When students engage with history, they have to ask deep and difficult questions about the nature of people and their decisions. These skills, embedded in the ability to think historically, allow students to be informed citizens, ready to tackle the issues of the present in order to preserve democracy. 

The ability to think historically is central to our curriculum. We believe that historical thinking empowers, promotes equity, and cultivates citizens. Join us as we use the study of the past to build a more democratic future.

Our Professional Development Empowers and Equips Teachers

Today is our 30th blog! In the last 30 posts, we’ve defined key ideas like history, historical thinking, and its examples. We’ve explored the relevancy of the U.S. Constitution to our current moment, we’ve explored the richness of the historical discipline and its historiography, and tried to understand the present by looking to the past. At Thinking Nation, we want to equip all stakeholders in history education for their various roles. At the heart of our mission is to cultivate thinking citizens in our students through our historical-thinking centered curriculum. But just as important, we want to equip our teachers to be agents of change in a teaching revolution. This is why we prioritize professional development for all of our partners.

Practically, we want to make sure teachers understand our DBQ process, our scaffolded lessons, and our online platform. But good teaching isn’t just understanding the mechanics. It’s being inspired to walk into class every day, knowing that we teach the most important subject for sustaining our democracy and civic society. We are not merely conveyers of knowledge. We are empowering students to be the best they can be by teaching them to think critically and better understand where we are by understanding where we’ve been. As the ancient Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero put it, “to be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” By teaching history and historical thinking, we are cultivating mature citizens.

With this ethos driving our mission, our professional developments seek to reinvigorate history educators in their own missions. Like a conference does for so many of us, PDs should provide us a renewed sense of purpose in our vocation. This is why our PDs focus on both the philosophical and the practical. Once we are reminded of just how important history education is, we can understand the mechanics in our mode of teaching. It’s not until a person understands the beauty of a car that working on it has meaning. The same goes for teaching!

As we seek to cultivate thinking citizens, empowered by their ability to think historically, we want to equip teachers with both the understandings and dispositions to be successful in doing so. When schools join us in this mission, we ensure that educators feel inspired, supported, and equipped, starting with the professional developments we provide.

Our Online Platform Prioritizes Academic Excellence

Teaching in the last year has shown us just how important it is for lessons to be adapted for a digital platform. Teachers had to rethink lessons that were built for in person learning in new ways so that they could be administered digitally. Unfortunately, this approach can often come at the price of de-emphasizing the rigor of the assignment in an effort to ensure there is understanding of the “essential content” that needs to be acquired. But what if the rigor, the analysis, the deep thinking was the essential content?

With our online platform for administering DBQs (Document-Based Questions) and formative assessments for historical thinking and writing, we want to ensure that deep thinking and analysis are prioritized no matter if learning is taking place virtually or in a classroom. We want to provide teachers and students in all learning circumstances with the tools necessary to cultivate thinking citizens. Whether a teacher assigns our DBQs directly on our platform for students to complete, or prints out the PDF versions of our DBQs for students in class, learners have access to complex historical topics where they can employ historical thinking skills to better understand our past and be better equipped to engage with our present. 

For a simple tutorial of our teacher and student platforms, head to our website and watch our videos on how to navigate the platform. We hope to come alongside teachers and schools who are pursuing academic excellence for their students and equip them with tools to do so. Our online platform for teaching, learning, and assessing historical thinking and writing gives teachers the flexibility they need in that pursuit.

Why Data Matters

Honestly, the idea of “data-driven instruction” bugged me for years. I hated reducing students to percentage points of growth. I hated “mining data” to refine my instruction. It all felt formulaic for something that was really an art in my mind. But my frustrations were based on misunderstandings. My premises were wrong. Data-driven instruction is truly key to providing the best education possible for our students, if we use this tool in the way it was intended for.

Head over to Thinkingnation.org/technology to watch two videos showing how our platform works.

I often think in my head that the difference between a ‘good cook’ and a chef is the recipe. Anyone can make something delicious once, but to be an expert, the dish must be able to be replicated day in and day out in a restaurant or even in the hands of someone else if they are provided the recipe and some helpful tools. It would benefit us to think of teaching in this way. A good lesson or unit is worth praising, but expertise lies in our ability to build off that success to create more success for both ourselves and our students. Data affords us that opportunity.

At Thinking Nation, as we addressed last week, we provide grading services to our partnering schools. One of the strengths of this approach, summarized last week, is the ability to use data to enable vertical alignment across grade levels. We suggested that “having access to uniform data assessing the same standards over [the] years is crucial for the development of deep thinking and analysis.” If one teacher can build upon the gains of another teacher in cultivating historical thinkers and writers, we begin to look like chefs whose dishes are replicated in kitchens everywhere. We build a community of experts, not simply star teachers in isolated cases.

But we don’t need to wait for vertical alignment to be a possibility for data to be incredibly useful to our teaching. When teachers receive a data report (see a sample here), they get simple but helpful feedback on whole class trends and individual students. Using this data, teachers can go back to our document analysis worksheets to re-teach primary source analysis or review how to write a thesis statement and then check progress by implementing one of our formative assessments. Of course, teachers can go beyond Thinking Nation resources too, re-teaching or pushing rigor further depending on student needs. The important thing is that by having distilled data on student performance, teachers can best address their students’ needs in order to cultivate them as thinking citizens.

Data, especially in history and the humanities, can sometimes feel like a “4 letter word” (I know, I know, it is…). But in reality, when we have data on how students are doing on complex writing tasks like DBQs, we can tailor instruction specifically to meet their needs. Data allows us to see our students as people with specific skill sets and then take those observations and build something appropriate for their growth. With our online platform, teachers don’t need to spend extra time compiling that data; rather, they can dive right into it, reflect on it, and then do what teachers do best: teach.