Sunday, July 17, 2016

Thinking Like A Historian - Context as a Historical Thinking Skill

            Now that I am caught up for a bit on my doctoral study, I have some time to work on the next C of historical thinking. For this post we will examine Context or Contextualization. In the Advanced Placement course, this skill is part of the broader Making Historical Connections skill along with Comparison and Synthesis. Context covers all of these as well when used in the Five C’s exploration of historical thinking. 

            Employing context as a historical thinking skill is probably the most difficult skill to master as a historian. My survey courses help teach my students causation and change over time and help them to understand the complexity of history, but only generally help make them aware of contingency and context. It takes time for budding historians to develop this skill, so anyone who is not a trained historian will probably have a bit of difficulty in understanding what context is and how this skill is critical to becoming a historian.

            I run into people who have issues with context all the time. They see something from the past, realize it is connected in some way to something in the present, and leap to a conclusion. This conclusion is almost always colored by the individual’s 21st century experiences, ideas, and concepts. In short, the person is looking at the past through the lens of the present. This is termed presentism by historians.

            Using the historical thinking skill of context, historians look at the past using a lot of sources, both primary and secondary, to develop a broad picture of an event. They seek out multiple perspectives and ground the event firmly within the time period it occurred in. They compare these perspectives against each other while also integrating the perspectives into the larger picture. In doing this, they look before and after the event’s occurrence in time so as to see how the event was shaped by prior events as well as how the event helped to shape later events. They also look to multiple historical themes because often events occur and involve multiple themes.

            This is how historians provide context for the events of the past. Obviously it is not simple. Most people prefer quick and easy solutions or answers to their questions. Historians are notorious for saying something is complicated when asked a question about the past and expected to deliver a quick answer in a short time span. My favorite example is from the Yale Online lecture series. David Blight, the professor whose lectures were videotaped and used in this series remarked on the time he was asked to be on a radio program which was going to cover a Civil War event. During the program, the radio host asked him what the cause of the Civil War was during a momentarily lull in the program and expected Professor Blight to give the answer in less than 60 seconds. Anyone who studies the Civil War very long knows that answering that question takes hours. 

            This example helps to explain why understanding context is so difficult. The past exists on its terms and cannot be shaped or changed. It is literally beyond our ability to do so. Yet the past shapes our present and future. Understanding historical context is critical to helping us understand what is occurring in our present and how to shape our future. Getting that context right is important. It cannot be done quickly and easily, and this is where the majority of people fail when it comes to developing this skill. 

            The Advanced Placement course says this about context within the larger heading of Making Historical Connections.

Comparison - Historical thinking involves the ability to identify, compare, and evaluate multiple perspectives on a given historical event in order to draw conclusions about that event.
It also involves the ability to describe, compare, and evaluate multiple historical developments within one society, one or more developments across or between different societies, and in various chronological and geographical contexts.

Contextualization - Historical thinking involves the ability to connect historical events and processes to specific circumstances of time and place as well as broader regional, national, or global processes.

Synthesis - Historical thinking involves the ability to develop understanding of the past by making meaningful and persuasive historical and/or cross-disciplinary connections between a given historical issue and other historical contexts, periods, themes, or disciplines.

            The skill takes a lot of work to develop. Considering that the AP course is taught over the course of a school year in a high school setting and covers US History from pre-contact 1492 to the modern era, it is understandable why these students are expected to reach a certain level of proficiency in this skill. In comparison, my community college students often only receive one semester’s course covering half of what the AP students cover. The AP students just get more time to develop the skill. Even then, a lot of the development of this skill rests on the teaching methods of the instructor. Regardless of whether a student is in college or an AP History student, they both are expected to reach some proficiency in the skill.

We as history professors and/or AP instructors should expect our students to be able to:

C1—Compare diverse perspectives represented in primary and secondary sources in order to draw conclusions about one or more historical events.
C2—Compare different historical individuals, events, developments, and/or processes, analyzing both similarities and differences in order to draw historically valid conclusions. Comparisons can be made across different time periods, across different geographical locations, and between different historical events or developments within the same time period and/or geographical location.

C3—Situate historical events, developments, or processes within the broader regional, national, or global context in which they occurred in order to draw conclusions about their relative significance.

C4—Make connections between a given historical issue and related developments in a different historical context, geographical area, period, or era, including the present.
C5—Make connections between different course themes and/or approaches to history (such as political, economic, social, cultural, or intellectual) for a given historical issue.
C6—Use insights from a different discipline or field of inquiry (such as economics, government, and politics, art history, anthropology) to better understand a given historical issue.

Looks simple, doesn’t it? How we go about getting our students to understand this skill requires some work. I use a framework called Thinking like a Historian. It was developed in Wisconsin and employed some of the resources from the University of Wisconsin as well as assistance from the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the National Council for History Education, the National History Standards, and state standards for Wisconsin and California. It is applicable to both high school and college students. You can learn more about this framework by going to or reading this source:,%20Thinking%20Like%20a%20Historian,%20Mag%20of%20History%20April%202008.pdf
I have already discussed the book that goes with this. It is just one framework of many which are available to history educators.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Mad Historian's Athenauem

I am doing a doubleheader with today's post. I am reviewing a book which I referenced earlier this week in my post on Causation. As you will quickly see, the colorful chart I used in that post is from this book.

Mandell, Nikki and Bobbie Malone. Thinking like a Historian: Rethinking History Instruction. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2007. 136 ppg.

            This book is a very interesting look at how to teach history in the K-12 classroom. I picked it up to add to my pile of information on teaching history. Unfortunately, most of that information is from sources focused on K-12. There is nothing wrong with that, except I am trying to develop a teaching and learning model for teaching history in community colleges. This book contains good information for doing so with the caveat that the content must be adapted to fit into community college teaching. The authors are educators which who have worked with other educators to construct a pedagogical model for use in K-12 in the state of Wisconsin. This is a very laudable goal. It also shows that the practices discussed in this book are not theoretical, but are practices in use in actual classrooms.

            They present their Thinking like a Historian framework through lessons tailored to specific grade levels throughout the book. The use of primary sources and secondary sources is made explicit in the lessons which show how this development in historical analysis has made deep inroads in history education. This is a very good thing and hopefully will eventually be the order of the day. Mandell and Malone have done a good job in taking elements of historical pedagogy and putting them together in a coherent framework. The chapters make good sense of these elements and have a solid way of presenting the information.

     The lessons were extremely useful in the development of the lessons I constructed to cover these same concerns in my own classes.  On the surface it sounds easy to build a lesson to get students to put historical thinking skills into play, but my experience in doing so has shown me that instructors have to literally build a survey course around the development of these skills. Students just do not have these skills developed in the K-12 institutions around my community college. That is where this book comes in really handy along with some others. I use a collaborative learning method to emphasize the development of these skills because that seems to promote active learning and get students to interact with each other in utilizing the skills.

            I especially liked the way they discussed the use of sources and what they are. Primary and secondary sources are absolutely vital to historical analysis. Understanding what they are and how to use is something that every instructor has to know. Not only that, they also need to be able to explain what these sources how and why they matter to students. Research has shown that when students are engaged with sources, they respond positively to them. In addition, the role of context has to be explained to them as well so that they can place the information from the sources within the historical context. Without this, the primary sources become information blobs that lack a coherent structure. All told, if you are going to be a K-12 history teacher, this book is a very worthy addition to your collection as well as guide to preparing lessons.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Thinking Like A Historian-Causation as a Historical Thinking Skill

     Recently I had an opportunity to grade for the College Board on the AP History exams. My assignment was the short essays. I graded over 2000 of the answers written by students who took the AP United States History course at their high school or through home schooling. It was an interesting experience and one which I am grateful to have had the opportunity to partake in. I plan on doing it again next year and if scheduling works out, will go to the site and meet many of the instructors involved.

     The AP History exam is graded differently than the way I grade in my classrooms. It took a bit to get used to it, but once I did the system worked well. I wanted to learn more about how the students learned or what the instructors were supposed to be teaching the students. I had already looked over the AP History course a few times, but this time I really got into the mechanics. I also took a good look at the part where the instructors are supposed to be teaching students what history is and to promote the development of historical thinking.

     This is important because the grading of the exams involved grading answers that were supposed to be written using cause and effect answers or the causation portion of historical thinking. The AP course uses the following explanation of causation:

Historical thinking involves the ability to identify, analyze, and evaluate the relationships among historical causes and effects, distinguishing between those that are long term and proximate. Historical thinking also involves the ability to distinguish between causation and correlation, and an awareness of contingency, the way that historical events result from a complex variety of factors that come together in unpredictable ways and often have unanticipated consequences.

     That is part of the Chronological Reasoning section of the Historical Thinking Skill Categories. Patterns of Continuity and Change over Time as well as Periodization are included with Causation in this singular category. The idea is that students will use all of the nine thinking skills to develop their understanding of causation so as to enable them to explain events as follows: 

D1—Explain long and /or short-term causes and/or effects of an historical event, development, or process.

D2—Evaluate the relative significance of different causes and/or effects on historical events or processes, distinguishing between causation and correlation and showing an awareness of historical contingency.

      Multiple historians have written on how to teach history using these five C's which Causation is part of. Sam Wineburg, John Fea, and James Smith are three which I have experience in learning from along with many others through their own actions and methods. Wineburg covered this in his book Historical Thinking and Other Unusual Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Fea did so in his book, How to Study History. Smith has done so through an EdX course on teaching history. All three used the five C's and naturally, none of the three are the originators of the concept. That goes back a long way.

     Thinking historically involves considering a world and its history which is much larger than ourselves. We as individuals are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but our nature often prevents us from understanding that fact. Often, we fail to accept our smallness. We think that we as individuals are capable of creating change directly as the results of our actions, yet history teaches us that change is the result of all of our actions and that our own individual actions are really nothing more than just part of all actions working throughout history. Howard Zinn commented, "If people could see that Change comes about as a result of millions of tiny acts that seem totally insignificant, well then they wouldn't hesitate to take those tiny acts." 

     The American Historical Association has an article by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke from the January 2007 issue of Perspectives on History that goes into more depth on the five C's of historical thinking. They label Causation as Causality which is used with context and change over time "to form arguments explaining past change." I agree with both the AP and AHA on this as they are saying the same. American Historical Association "What Does it Mean to Think Historically?" 

    It really comes down to making sure we as instructors take the time to teach Causation and the other C's of historical thinking, but it also means we have to incorporate the development of those skills in our methodology. This is the part where many instructors fall short. They lecture on the five C's or use the AP guide to explain historical thinking skills, but fail to promote student usage of the skills. What good is explaining the skills if you don't put them into practice? I will cover more of this in future installments of The Art of Teaching History.