What Does it Mean to Think Historically?

In my last post, I outlined an answer to a very simple, but by no means simplistic, question: What is history? As a review, history is not merely the past, but it is the study and interpretation of the past. Today, I want to explain what we do with history. Or how do we do history?

At Thinking Nation’s core is our belief in the importance of historical thinking skills. These are the skills that students and scholars need to properly investigate the past. Simply, historical thinking skills are the skills needed to properly interpret documents, events, and their outcomes. These skills are not natural, especially in the clickbait culture we live in. They must be taught and practiced.

A focus on historical thinking was really pioneered by Sam Wineburg with his 2001 book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. From his groundbreaking work, historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke sought to distill the broad question, “What does it mean to think historically?” into an answer that could be used in K-16 classrooms. In their relatively short article, they outlined 5 key historical thinking skills, 3 of which we have explicitly adopted at Thinking Nation, although all 5 are embedded throughout our curriculum.

The 5 skills they prioritized were: Change over Time, Context, Causality, Contingency, and Complexity. A brief summary here is worthwhile.

Change Over Time (We label it as Continuity and Change over Time): The past is not static, things change over time. Similarly, certain trends and patterns reveal that “some aspects of life remain the same across time.” As an example, laws that made sense 200 years ago may not anymore. The world changes, and a historian must be aware of those changes when studying the past.

Context (We label it as Contextualization): People, documents, and events can not be properly understood without looking at the context beyond them. Time periods, geography, social norms, and a host of other things influence the past. Historians must explore the relationship with their subject and the subject’s context in order to best understand the past.

Causality (We label it as Causation): Simply, why did things happen they way they did? Exploring these answers is critical to analyzing the past. Historians must recognize that there are often multiple causes of and effect from any given event, development, or process.

Contingency: At Thinking Nation, we do not explicitly teach contingency, but its principles guide our curriculum. In fact, the use of this skill is necessary for the other skills. Historical contingency stresses that nothing that happened in the past was inevitable, rather the way history went is contingent on a host of various factors. Historians must never assume that things had to be a certain way, but must apply a critical eye to the outcomes of the past in order to understand the road to the present.

Complexity: When the above skills are implemented, one thing becomes clear—history is complex. Simplistic narratives of the past do not do the justice to the complexity in the lives of the people who lived before us. Historians must be ok with nuance, sometimes living in gray areas where the answer is not clear.

Lastly, at Thinking Nation, we also stress the Historical Thinking Skill of Comparison. This skill is helpful for middle and high school students to internalize as they study the past. Historians must identify both the similarities and the differences between the people, places, events, and ideas studied in history.

Of course, we would not stress these skills as much as we do if we believed they only had importance for studying the past. The truth is, people who can think historically are better equipped to think about the present. In a culture where hot takes are given more credence than deliberation and misinformation can spread faster than fire, historical thinkers can pause, think critically, and make evidence-based decisions to better the world around them. Our historical thinking curriculum equips students to do this.