What is Historical Thinking?
by James L. Smith

History teachers should not only provide students with historical knowledge, they should also help students develop basic academic skills that include reading, writing, and the ability to think. Although history teachers should not be teaching students
what to think, they should be teaching them how to think. For history teachers, that means teaching students to think historically.

And what is historical thinking? I can find no clear consensus for the definition, and the terminology varies from one organization to another and one scholar to another. I can, however, make two recommendations for developing a working definition of what it means to think historically:
  • Sam Wineburg's Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts is the one book that serves as a classic in the genre of books about historical thinking. (See #13 below.)
  • The College Board provides a clear definition of the various skills involved in historical thinking and good strategies for developing those skills. (See #2 below.)
Although it's difficult to identify one definition of historical thinking, I believe we can identify four significant skills that that should serve all history teachers well.
  1. Chronology – Teaching students to identify and understand historical periods, change over time, cause and effect in history.
  2. Context – Teaching students to place historical information in context.
  3. Connection – Teaching students to connect time periods, as well as to synthesize historical information by connecting such topics as political and economic history to social and cultural history.
  4. Questioning – Teaching students that all history begins with a question. Learning to think historically requires intellectual curiosity and the ability to ask questions.
To help history teachers create a practical definition of historical thinking that will help them create good history lessons, here's a list of websites that attempt to describe the process of thinking like a historian.

1. American Historical Association (“What Does it Mean to Think Historically?”)

2. College Board (See “Course Descriptions” for U.S. History, European History, and World History)

Common Core

The Historical Thinking Project (“Historical Thinking Concepts”)

5. HistoricalThinkingMatters.org (“Why Historical Thinking Matters”)

The Juvenile Instructor (“Thinking Historically and Why It Matters”)

National Center for History in the School – UCLA (“Historical Thinking Standards”)

8. StudentsFriend.com (“What to Teach: Thinking Strategies”)

9. TeachHistory.org (“What is Historical Thinking?”)

TeachHistory.org via YouTube (“What is Historical Thinking?“ – video)

Thinking Through History (“The Nine C’s of Thinking Historically”)

12. Wikipedia (“Historical Thinking”)

13. Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (A classic book!)