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.