Historical Thinking Standards Grades K-4


Children’s study of history rests on knowledge of facts, names, dates, and places. In addition, real historical understanding requires students to engage in historical thinking: to raise questions and to marshal evidence in support of their answers; to read historical narratives and fiction; to consult historical documents, journals, diaries, artifacts, historic sites, and other records from the past; and to do so imaginatively-taking into account the time and places in which these records were created and comparing the multiple points of view of those on the scene at the time.

Real historical understanding also requires that children have opportunities to create historical narratives of their own. Such narratives may take many forms: group stories dictated to the teacher in grades K-1, and individual stories, letters such as a child of the time may have written, journals, and reports in grades 2-4, for example.

Historical understanding also requires that students thoughtfully listen to and read the historical narratives created by others. Well-written historical narratives are interpretative, revealing conditions, changes, and consequences, and explaining why things happened as they did. Following such narratives, and analyzing the events they describe and the explanations they offer, promote important skills in historical thinking.

Because of the importance of historical fiction in opening the past to children and engaging their interests in the people and events of long ago, it is especially important for children to learn to analyze these stories for their historical accuracy, to compare these stories and their illustrations with primary sources-historical artifacts, photos, diaries, and other records of the past-and to differentiate fact and fiction. Children should also have opportunities to compare different stories about a historical figure or event in order to analyze the facts each author includes or omits, and the interpretations or point-of-view communicated by each-important early steps in the development of students’ abilities to compare competing historical interpretations of events.

Students engaged in activities of the kinds just considered will draw upon skills in the following five types of historical thinking:

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

These skills, while presented in five separate categories, are nonetheless interactive and mutually supportive. In conducting historical research or creating a historical story of their own, for example, students must be able to draw upon skills in all five categories. Beyond the skills of conducting their research, students must, for example, be able to comprehend historical artifacts and records consulted in their search, analyze their purpose and importance, and demonstrate a grasp of the historical time (e.g., long, long ago) and geographic place in which the problem or events developed.

In short, these five sets of skills, developed in the following pages as the five Standards in Historical Thinking, are statements of the outcomes we desire students to achieve. They are not mutually exclusive when put into practice, nor do they prescribe a particular teaching sequence to be followed. Teachers will draw upon all these Thinking Standards, as appropriate, to develop their teaching plans and to guide students through challenging programs of study in history.

Finally, it is important to point out that these five sets of Standards in Historical Thinking are defined in the following pages largely independent of historical content in order to specify the quality of thinking desired for each. It is essential to understand, however, that these skills do not develop, nor can they be practiced, in a vacuum. Every one of these skills requires historical content in order to function-a relationship that is made explicit in Chapter 3, which presents the standards integrating historical understandings and thinking


A. Distinguish between past, present, and future time.

B. Identify the temporal structure of a historical narrative or story.

C. Establish temporal order in constructing students’ own historical narratives.

D. Measure and calculate calendar time.

E. Interpret data presented in time lines.

F. Create time lines.

G. Explain change and continuity over time.


A. Reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage.

B. Identify the central question(s) the historical narrative addresses.

C. Read historical narratives imaginatively.

D. Appreciate historical perspectives.

E. Draw upon data in historical maps.

F. Draw upon visual and mathematical data presented in graphs.

G. Draw upon the visual data presented in photographs, paintings, cartoons, and architectural drawings.


A. Formulate questions to focus their inquiry or analysis.

B. Identify the author or source of the historical document or narrative.

C. Compare and contrast differing sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions.

D. Analyze historical fiction.

E. Distinguish between fact and fiction.

F. Compare different stories about a historical figure, era, or event.

G. Analyze illustrations in historical stories.

H. Consider multiple perspectives.

I. Explain causes in analyzing historical actions.

J. Challenge arguments of historical inevitability.

K. Hypothesize influences of the past.


A. Formulate historical questions.

B. Obtain historical data.

C. Interrogate historical data.

D. Marshal needed knowledge of the time and place, and construct a story, explanation, or historical narrative.


A. Identify problems and dilemmas in the past.

B. Compare the interests and values of the various people involved.

C. Suggest alternative choices for addressing the problem.

D. Evaluate alternative courses of action

E. Prepare a position or course of action on an issue.

F. Evaluate the consequences of a decision.