How to Teach Students to Think Like Historians



Craig Thurtell was a teacher at Ardsley High School in Ardsley, NY, and is a contributor to HNN's forthcoming "Teachers' Edition," which will provide historically-grounded lesson plans on current events to elementary and high school teachers.

The National Council for Social Studies held its national conference in Washington, D.C. from December 2-5. Craig Thurtell reports.

There was not a seat to spare by the time Abby Reisman began her presentation at the 2011 National Council for Social Studies conference December 2.  Maybe teachers crowded in because Reisman’s dissertation, the basis for her presentation, won the NCSS’s Larry Metcalf Exemplary Dissertation award.  Or maybe word has begun to spread about the effectiveness of teaching and learning history by exercising the analytical skills of the historian.  No matter, the attendees heard a fascinating and compelling argument for integrating historical thinking skills into their lessons.  (In addition to my notes on her presentation, Reisman graciously agreed to sit down with me later for further discussion, and subsequently sent me two forthcoming papers, from which I will draw in this account.  I cannot, however, hope to convey the full richness of her work.)

One premise of this approach holds that history requires the application of certain cognitive skills and understandings that are unique to the discipline.  A second premise is that these skills are neither natural nor intuitive; on the contrary, to be learned effectively, they require an explicit naming and repetitive use.  They must be incorporated into history curricula as an essential component of historical understanding.  Another premise is that when students approach history as an inquiry-based enterprise, they come to grasp that history is not a single story, but a contested one, and they can, once they have mastered the skills, make their own meaning out of the evidence left to us by the past.  With this understanding, the study of history can actually provoke excitement—the late Roy Rosenzweig’s nationwide survey of attitudes toward history classes found that “boring” was the most common word associated with the subject.  (1)

Reisman began by recounting the early and ultimately abortive efforts to infuse history teaching with the rigor of historical analysis—most importantly the New Social Studies movement and the Amherst Project in the 1960s and 1970s and the UK Schools Council Project History 13-16 in the 1970s and 1980s.  The seminal figure in the current movement is Sam Wineburg, a cognitive psychologist who possesses a deep appreciation of the philosophy and practice of history.  His book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Temple University Press, 2001), which includes research reaching back into the 1980s, is a founding text, along with Knowing, Learning, and Teaching History, cited above.  Wineburg is now Professor of Education and History at Stanford University, and director of the Stanford History Education Group, of which Reisman was an active member.

The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), as this field has come to be known, has made two contributions that are especially important for history education.  First, the accumulation of research has established a developmental framework for historical knowledge.  Development moves broadly from a naïve, unquestioning acceptance of the authority of historical texts and a judgment of the past by contemporary values and beliefs to a sophisticated recognition that the past is irretrievable and different (even strange), all accounts are human constructions, subject to challenge, and all sources are problematic.  Reisman developed a rubric for evaluating students along this continuum, which I will take up below.  Second, sophisticated historical thinking can be broken into discrete cognitive “moves”  (2), which Reisman has condensed into sourcing, close reading, contextualization, and corroboration.  These skills seem effective for teaching at the secondary level, especially for the struggling readers in the study, but of course historians use more; for example, making connections, empathy, marshaling evidence, recognizing limits to one’s knowledge, and recognition of different perspectives.

So how did Reisman contribute to this growing scholarship and practice?  Her “curriculum intervention” was a six-month experiment in inquiry-driven, document-based instruction, carried out in 11th grade U.S. history classes in five San Francisco high schools, ranging in size from 637 to 2,500.  Reisman believes that public school teachers are too burdened by large classes, insufficient planning time, and numerous other responsibilities to be capable of writing the lessons like those in the “Reading Like a Historian” curriculum; ready-to-use lessons, complete with documents, essential questions, worksheets, and graphic organizers, are essential for success.  The worksheets and organizers emphasized explicit naming of the historical skills students were asked to deploy—“close reading,” “contextualization,” and so on.  All of the lessons executed in her study were designed by her, though she acknowledged that the cooperating teachers fell short of full implementation of the curriculum, devoting from 41.9 percent to 71.5 percent of total class time to it.  Unlike a traditional history class, in which students are asked to master a single narrative, usually established by a textbook, Reisman’s lessons asked students to “interrogate, and then reconcile, the historical accounts in multiple texts in order to arrive at their own conclusions.”  (3)

Reisman emphasized that she often found it necessary to modify the language in documents to make them accessible to struggling readers.  She acknowledged that this practice is controversial, with many (this writer included) fearing the damage to the “pastness” and integrity of historical documents.  Reisman argued pragmatically that the use of documents, crucial to any interrogation of the past, would be rendered impossible for struggling readers without modification.  She also noted that she took considerable pains to use language consistent with the tone and language of the author.  As the lessons unfolded over the months, fewer changes were necessary.

Reisman has learned from the failures of past reform efforts.  Often they demanded too much of students and teachers, or required a wholesale revamping of school practices, which, as all teachers know, are deeply rooted.  She explained that her curriculum meshed with the state’s standards and coverage model, in California’s case, from 1877 to the present.  She believes that the introduction of historical thinking skills does not require the dismantling of chronological approaches to history.  Instead, they are integrated into the chronology-based curriculum already in place.  “[R]ather than attempting to revolutionize classroom life,” she writes, “we sought to embed historical inquiry into its well-worn structures.”  (4)          

The fifty-minute periods were organized in a consistent, predictable structure (an important element of learning, Reisman maintains), with the teacher typically devoting ten minutes to introducing or reinforcing background information through lecturing, use of video, or textbook questions followed by thirty minutes of document work, individually or in groups.  The background presentation was designed to prepare students for the documents to come, and often to set up “straw men” that the documents could challenge.  The document work was organized around an essential question (for example, “Why did the Homestead strike of 1892 turn violent?”), and included documents offering conflicting interpretations.  Questions in the handouts were designed to direct student attention toward interrogation of the validity of the documents.  The final ten minutes were taken up with whole-class discussion, during which, Reisman hoped, students would engage in historical argument, making claims supported by specific evidence from the background material and documents. 

What happened?  Reisman measured achievement according to four criteria of learning:  reading comprehension, factual knowledge, transfer to general reasoning, and historical thinking.  She found that the students in her study outperformed their counterparts in the control group by statistically significant margins in all four criteria.  Even struggling students outperformed the control group in three of the four, falling short in transfer of general reasoning.  There were, however, variations; students performed better overall on some criteria than others, with skills like intertextual corroboration and contextualization showing relatively less achievement.

Reisman also evaluated student arguments on a scale beginning at the lowest level of analysis—judgment of historical actors by modern standards with no evidence—to judgments with minimal evidence and no regard for context, to judgments containing an awareness of context and perspective though limited in awareness of complexity, to, finally, awareness of one’s own historical subjectivity that encouraged resistance to hasty judgments.  This highest level demonstrated metacognition; these students had developed an awareness of their own thinking.

Other findings may give teachers pause.  In analyzing the whole-class discussions, Reisman set rigorous, substantive criteria.  For any segment of the discussion to count as a meaningful argument, it had to include a minimum of three student turns, in which the students made claims accompanied by warrants (evidence), and the segment had to last at least four minutes.  By these standards, very few discussions qualified; in fact, in the five schools, only 32 to 54 minutes reached Reisman’s threshold, out of total discussion times ranging from 1,000 to 1,800 minutes.  This may strike one as a very low proportion; on the other hand, compared to what?  How many of us have made comparable calculations?

Reisman also noted another critical but unmeasured factor:  the role of the teacher.  It was crucial for teachers to model the thinking they asked of their students, often by putting a document up on a screen and “thinking aloud” as she read the document and reasoned her way through it, demonstrating, in the process, specific use of the various skills.  In this way, she could make metacognition concrete.  Teachers’ mastery of their subject varied, however, as did their skill in guiding a discussion.  Most of the teachers who participated in the study did not question documents sufficiently or “stabilize content knowledge” by correcting misconceptions.  Reisman pointed out the crucial role of guiding discussions, for example, to interrupt for clarification or to push student thinking toward greater rigor.  Instructional methods that permit students to explore a topic without teacher intervention run the risk of leaving errors and misconceptions—“opportunities in the search for understanding”—unexplored.

Abby Reisman’s study is not alone in demonstrating the comparative effectiveness of teaching history as a discipline over traditional approaches.  The Schools Council History 13-16 Project achieved results superior to control groups, as did Peter Stearns in two years of before-and-after testing at Carnegie-Mellon.  (5)  A YouTube video of Reisman’s students and teachers effectively conveys their enthusiasm and intellectual development.

Teachers are finding out, and they apparently like what they find.  The Stanford History Education Group offers 75 document-based lessons, all written by Reisman and first used in her project, on its website, and, to date, there have been 200,000 downloads.


(1) “How Americans Use and Think about the Past:  Implications from a National Survey for the Teaching of History,” Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg, eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History [New York University Press, 2000], 273.

(2) The term is Lendol Calder’s—see “Uncoverage:  Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal of American History, March 2006, 1358-1370.

(3) Avishag Reisman, “The ‘document-based lesson’:  Bringing disciplinary inquiry into high school history classrooms with adolescent struggling readers,” in press, 25.

(4) “The ‘document-based lesson,’” 10.

(5) Wineburg, Seixas, and Stearns, eds., 427-428.  Lendol Calder achieved similar results in his article cited above (and on his website, cited in the article, which contains an extended discussion of his evaluation).

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