Thinking Historically… and Why it Matters

By March 20, 2013

I spend a lot of my work-life time pondering what it actually means to think historically, and how to get undergraduates to do it. I have been much influenced by the work of Sam Wineburg, who has studied this quite a lot, and I find it interesting that there are multiple models or frameworks for what “historical thinking” means and why it’s important. Let’s look at a few of these lists, and think about how the concepts might apply to increasing the level of historical thinking literacy among “non-professionals” outside of history classrooms. The web, the digital archive, and the museum (and perhaps, the Church classroom) are all public history settings where this kind of thinking can be practiced, strengthened, and taught. The benefits are legion. Let me start with this quote from the AHA’s 1999 pamphlet Perspectives on Teaching to Think Historically: ?History offers a perspective on life, a way to approach the worlds we inhabit, a way to use our brains that helps us to benefit from the past” (xiii)

and this one:

?Thinking historically involves developing the ability to articulate problems in need of resolution and to formulate theses based upon what we have discovered; it is learning how to ask the kinds of questions for which the answers, once determined, will help solve a historical problem or fill a gap in our knowledge” (Ibid.)

Mainly, though – especially for laypeople – thinking historically means the simple but profound realizations that 1) there really was a past, and 2) that things haven’t always been done the way they are now, and 3) that things could have always been different. Which means, of course, that new outcomes are always possible. Predictive, history is not. I take courage especially from this when it comes to women’s history.

One place to begin is with‘sĀ five components of historical thinking:

  1. Multiple Accounts & Perspectives
  2. Analysis of Primary Documents
  3. Sourcing
  4. Understanding Historical Context
  5. Claim-Evidence Connection

Other versions focus on skills, like UCLA?s National Center for History in the Schools five competencies:

  1. Chronological Thinking
  2. Historical Comprehension
  3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation
  4. Historical Research Capabilities
  5. Historical Issues ? Analysis and Decision-Making

The Carnegie Initiative’s project Teachers for a New Era makes it catchy with five C’s:

  1. Change Over Time
  2. Context
  3. Causality
  4. Contingency
  5. Complexity

One that I use in class a lot is the framework developed by Nikki Mandell and Bobbie Malone in Thinking Like a Historian: Rethinking History Instruction:

  1. Cause and Effect
  2. Change and Continuity
  3. Turning Points
  4. Using the Past
  5. Through Their Eyes

I also like the list of Historical Thinking Concepts from Canada?s Historical Thinking Project because of its attention to the ethics of history:

  1. Establish historical significance
  2. Use primary source evidence
  3. Identify continuity and change
  4. Analyze cause and consequence
  5. Take historical perspectives
  6. Understand ethical dimensions of history

Wineburg’s research explored what happens when a historical “professional” and a historical “novice” encounter the same object or text. Through think-alouds, he found that professionals went straight to sourcing the thing (what is this? what do I already know about it? where did it come from? who made it?) before reading it. They sought context first, before content. Or they iterated between context and content with increasing focus. I remember one time I went to an art museum with a friend and he pointed out that I always went right to the label first, and then stood back to look at the painting. He was so amused that this was my reflex, something about myself I had never noticed. As Wineburg writes for the Library of Congress TPS Quarterly, “Beyond highly specialized areas of concentrations, even doctoral level historians don’t possess factual knowledge about every topic. What historians do have is a ‘historical approach’ to primary sources that is often taken for granted by those practiced in it. However, this approach unlocks a world closed to untutored readers.?

So what might be some strategies for helping “novices” (i.e. untrained but curious Church members, let’s say) approach the ever-increasing corpus of historical documents we keep releasing in their general direction and publishing with beautiful search and display capabilities on the open web?

Wineburg offers several strategies for reading historical documents more ?like a pro? – to wit –

  1. Sourcing
  2. Contextualizing
  3. Close Reading
  4. Using Background Knowledge
  5. Reading the Silences
  6. Corroborating

and he argues that ?[the goal] in reading and thinking like a historian should be to treat with skepticism any account that claims to present a full story of the past. Achieving this goal requires [readers] to question the source, evaluate the evidence it offers for its assertions, and read and consider the source more carefully than any historical account read before.?

Most importantly –

?Students need to be taught to ?think like historians? not because they will become professional historians but precisely because most won’t. The goals of school history are not vocational but to prepare students to tolerate complexity, to adapt to new situations, and to resist the first answer that comes to mind.?

To some extent, this works against the prevailing hermeneutic of “Church” – i.e. to present stories that claim to be full & complete, definitive and divinely sanctioned stories of the past – but I like to recognize the alternative possibilities everpresent within Mormonism too. As Joanna Brooks often points out, Mormonism is a religion founded upon asking sincere and tough questions, and so one that has at the beating heart of itself, an open-ended curiosity and willingness to “resist the first answer that comes to mind.” Thinking historically, in that sense, is not a subversive methodology or an oppositional “worldly philosophy” but an essential quality of the faithful. Therefore, it matters very much, and emerging scholarship on thinking historically in the teaching/learning process can be a useful resource for helping initiate “novices” into this richly rewarding process.

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues Pedagogy


  1. Tona,

    This is a wonderfully helpful summary. Thanks for doing the leg work and putting this together.

    Comment by Christopher — March 20, 2013 @ 4:21 pm

  2. Thanks, Tona. I’ve found Wineburg’s ideas to be useful when discussing “difficult” issues in church history, by emphasizing that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” (a quote which Wineburg, of course, borrowed from David Lowenthal, who I think borrowed it from someone else). Anyway, it’s a useful idea to help people realize that, when understood in context, the strange things about our past (polygamy, priesthood ban, seer stones, etc.) can be made comprehensible, while also explaining why those things seem strange from our vantage point.

    Comment by David G. — March 20, 2013 @ 8:20 pm

  3. This is great. The students I teach haven’t taken any history courses, so this will be very helpful for me.

    Comment by Saskia — March 21, 2013 @ 7:27 am

  4. Really helpful stuff for those of us in the middle, not professionals, yet not complete novices.

    I like Wineburg’s list, especially. The item about “Reading the Silences” has been very important in my current project, reading letters and journals from WWI soldiers, where censorship was an ever present reality, and many things were left unsaid.

    Comment by kevinf — March 21, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

  5. Very useful post. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 22, 2013 @ 11:03 pm


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