Thoughts on How to Teach Using Historical Thinking Concepts

Ronald Martinello

I am currently the History/Geography head at  St. Benedict Catholic Secondary School in Cambridge, Ontario. I teach History, Law and Civics. I am in my 26th year of teaching.

Like many of you, I’m trying to get my head around historical thinking concepts. This semester I have the luxury of teaching a new enriched Grade 10 history class. It gives me the luxury of experimenting with new teaching strategies. But with thinking concepts, and learning goals and success criteria, my head’s spinning a bit. 

So I’ve struggled and here’ s why:  as history teachers we like to say we teach skills but we are also heavily content driven. Where’s the balance? So I began to look at my curriculum the way a basketball coach would look at a practice plan. 

a.     What skills do I want to teach?

b.    How do I want them to think?

c.     How do I teach these skills and thinking concepts?

d.    How do I evaluate these skills and thinking concepts?

e.     How do I incorporate these skills and thinking concepts into the bigger picture (in basketball it would be the game, in history it would be the course content)?

So I came up with a basic formula for my lesson planning:

a.     What do I want the students to know? (content)

b.    What do I want them to do, how do I want them to think? (thinking concept demonstrated)

c.     How will I get them to show it? (activity)

d.    How will I evaluate?

As I plan my day to day lessons, I am using this basic format. For example, here’s an outline for a lesson in World War I.

Lesson: Background Causes of the War (CAUSE AND CONSEQUENCE).

Guidepost 1: Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts:

Change is driven by multiple causes and results in multiple consequences. These create a complex web of interrelated short-term and long-term causes and consequences

What I want students to know: (content – causes of the war)

Students will know the M.A.I.N. causes of World War I (Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism, Nationalism)

What I want students to do (historical thinking concept demonstrated – understanding cause and consequence)

Students will explain the how the background causes of World War I were instrumental in the outbreak of war.

Activity:  Students will be sorted into six groups, each group representing one of the six key countries of the pre-war period (England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia). Each group will be given a list of country profiles identifying key pieces of information on each country: historical developments, previous conflicts, military growth, imperial ambitions, rivalries, friendships). Students will then be re-sorted into groups with representation from each of the six major players. They are to open negotiations with the representative countries making deals on offensive or defensive alliances. They will process all their information and individually create their ideal alliance with two other countries. They must have two lists by the time they are finished: a three country alliance list and a three country enemy list.  When finished, they are to share their findings in a partner pair. They are to justify their alliance and offer critique on their partner pair’s list. Once this has occurred, the original alliances systems (Triple Alliance, Triple Entente) will be shared with the students.

Evaluation: Students will peer and self evaluate based on the accuracy of their “prediction”. This will be a formative evaluation.  They will rate themselves and their partner on the following scale:

Very accurate, mostly accurate, partly accurate, not accurate.

Follow up activity next day: examine the immediate cause of World War I (the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and examine how the alliance system came into play).

Guidepost 5: Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts:

The events of history were not inevitable, any more than those of the future are. Alter a single action or condition, and an event might have turned out differently.

The beauty of this approach is that I can now create learning goals and success criteria directly from the format.  What I want them to know and what I want them to do can be used to create two learning goals for each lesson:

1.     Students will know something. (the background causes)

2.     Students will do something. (demonstrate how the alliance system helped cause the war)


The activity then can be used to create the specific success criteria:

1.     Students will identify a set of common goals and other factors shared between countries of the pre-war period.

2.     Students will identify a set of competing goals and other factors of countries of the pre-war period.

3.     Students will create a list of probably alliance countries based on common goals.

4.     Students will create a list of probable enemy countries based on competing goals.