Historical Thinking

History, properly developed for children in the early years of schooling, can open important opportunities to analyze and develop appreciation for all these spheres of human activity and of the interactions among them. To do so requires that children be engaged in activequestioning and learning, and not merely in the passive absorption of facts, names, and dates. Real historical understanding requires that students engage in historical reasoning; listen to and read historical stories, narratives, and literature with meaning; think through cause-effect relationships; interview “old-timers” in their communities; analyze documents, photos, historical newspapers, and the records of the past available in local museums and historical sites; and construct time lines and historical narratives of their own. Essential to developing historical insights and lasting learning, these skills are also the processes of active learning.

Tailored to the capabilities of young students, these activities are capable of developing skills in the following five types of historical thinking:

  • Chronological thinking, developing a beginning sense of historical time-past, present, and future-in order to identify the temporal sequence in which events occurred, measure calendar time, interpret and create time lines, and explain patterns of historical continuity and change.
  • Historical comprehension, including the ability to listen to and read historical stories and narratives with understanding, to identify the basic elements of the narrative or story structure (the characters, situation, sequence of events, their causes, and their outcome); and to develop the ability to describe the past through the eyes and experiences of those who were there, as revealed through their literature, art, artifacts, and other records of their time.
  • Historical analysis and interpretation, including the ability to compare and contrast different experiences, beliefs, motives, traditions, hopes, and fears of people from various groups and backgrounds, and at various times in the past and present; to analyze how these differing motives, interests, beliefs, hopes, and fears influenced people’s behaviors; to compare the different perspectives included in different stories about historical people and events; to compare historical fiction and documentary sources about a particular era or event; and to analyze the historical accuracy of fictional accounts.
  • Historical research capabilities, including the ability to formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, artifacts, photos, visits to historical sites, and eyewitness accounts; to acquire information concerning the historical time and place where the artifact, document, or other record was created; and to construct a historical narrative or story concerning it.
  • Historical issues-analysis and decision-making, including the ability to identify problems that people confronted in historical literature, the local community, and the state; to analyze the various interests and points of view of people caught up in these situations; to evaluate alternative proposals for dealing with the problem(s); and to analyze whether the decisions reached or the actions taken were good ones and why.