Teaching Historical Thinking

“The past is never dead”–William Faulkner

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Which one of these statements is correct?

This is how Peter Seixas and Carla Peck begin there essay “Teaching Historical Thinking.”  Of course both of these statements–Faulkner and Hartley–are correct.  Seixas and Peck write:

If Faulkner is right, then we need to know a lot about the past to know who we are (individually and collectively) in any deep way.  If Hartley is right, then finding out about the past is no easy matter.  We think they are both right..  Taken together, they show us how big and important and difficult a problem it is to think historically.

This essay is particularly worthwhile for the sample exercises.  Here are a few examples:

On teaching historical significance:

List four significant events in your own life.  Why did you choose these?  Write an autobiography using only these events and transitions between them.  Now list four different significant events from your life.  Write another autobiography using only these four and transitions among them.  How are the two stories of your life similar?  How are they different?

On teaching epistemology and evidence:

Examine a historical artifact.  What do you think this is?  What makes you say so?

On teaching continuity and change:

Examine two or more photographs of the same street scene from different eras.  What has changed?  What has remained the same?

On teaching progress and decline:

Have things progressed (i.e. improved) since the time [pictured, written about] here?  In what ways yes?  In what ways no?  For whom?

On teaching empathy:

Write a response to the coming of the railroad from the perspective of the Blackfoot.

On teaching historical agency:

Have there been people who have changed many other people’s lives?  Who?  How?

Seixas and Peck conclude:

What we have proposed here is a radically different approach to history education than what is currently embedded in social studies curriculum documents.  Thinking in social studies is too often defined in terms of generic “critical thinking” or “information processing” approaches.  Following that line of reasoning leaves only “the facts” about the past as anything specifically historical.  The argument here is that historical thinking involved certain distinct problems that cannot be collapsed into a more generic “critical thinking.”  We have attempted to show that students’ social, political, and historical orientation requires confronting these problems.  Students simply cannot get their bearings without grappling with these issues.  Educators moan that too many social studies classrooms are dominated by rote memorization, mainly of historical facts.  We have attempted here to define a richer vision of what students and teachers might strive towards.

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