The implementation of historical thinking concepts has raised a number of issues, not the least of which is trying to in-service colleagues in the practice. A common refrain I have met is: “but I already do this”. I tend to agree, but only to a certain extent. We have taught many of these concepts but for the most part we have rarely been intentional in our teaching. And if we have not been intentional, how do we expect our students to understand and apply these concepts?
Here is something you can try to illustrate my point. I see historical thinking concepts as a subject specific subset of critical thinking. So, next time you are in a meeting, ask this simple question: Can you define critical thinking for me? I have asked this question in history department meetings, at department head meetings, at program association meetings, at round table discussions with working groups working on new curriculum and with administration. Usually, I get silence. The sense I get is that teachers intuitively know what it means, but cannot articulate it. And if you cannot articulate it, how can you teach it?
One simple definition of critical thinking is: making rational decisions based on a reasoned set of criteria. This is far from a complete or fully accurate definition, but it is certainly a working definition that can be applied to a number of things we do in the history class:
- Reading for bias
- Analyzing evidence
- Explaining cause and consequence or continuity and change
- Drawing moral conclusions
- Understanding the perspective of historical actors
- Explaining why something is important
So, in trying to in-service teachers, I make the point that we need to be intentional in our teaching. This means we need to be clear in what we want to teach because, again, if we are not clear with ourselves, how do we expect our students to understand it. So, here’s a set of steps that I have shared with fellow teachers that hopefully will help in the teaching of historical concepts:
I guess the problem I have with the response: “but I already teach this in my class” is that it’s an indication that there is no need to change teaching practice. And there might be no need for this change, if the teaching of these concepts has been intentional. But I believe that one of the key shifts in our teaching is to move from being deliverers of learning to facilitators of learning. This means that we need to give students the tools to be critical thinkers and they need to practice with these tools. We can’t give them the tools unless we name them. So unless you have intentionally identified and given these tools to students, they won’t become the adaptive learner that our changing society requires.