Historiana and the teaching of historical thinking skills

As we all know, teaching history involves much more than just telling ‘a story’. Even telling a story is not just that. It starts with the choice of language we use, what we include and leave out, the perspective we use when presenting events, and what narrative approach we choose: do we start from the end and or the beginning? Some of the best historians are also good story tellers, incorporating in their narratives historical concepts such as change and continuity, cause and consequence, perspectives and historical significance. They base their historical narratives on primary and secondary sources, assessing their usefulness and reliability with regards to a given research topic. When selecting their sources, historians focus on the author or origin of the sources they use, their purpose, the context in which they were produced, whether they can be corroborated, and they apply close reading skills focusing on language, tone, symbolism or other elements. All these are then the basis for historical reasoning: coming up with a conclusion which is evidence-based rather than based on a gut feeling. 

Apart from being part of history teaching, historical thinking skills are transferable skills and are more than ever useful when our students read information on social media or are exposed to AI generated content. 

In our history classes, we focus on exactly these points when we teach our students how to think and reason historically. Teaching these skills can be challenging both for teachers and students. Finding source materials and activities which focus on these skills can be very time consuming. Accessing source materials which is copy-right free can be a great challenge. 

Historiana has a large number of activities that emphasize historical thinking skills. Here are a few examples (the underlined passages indicate the link to historical thinking skills):

  1. How does knowledge help us to use a source as evidence? – Applying knowledge to evaluate what a political cartoon can reveal about World War I in 1915

    At the end of this activity, students will be able to explain what a political cartoon source reveals about World War 1 in 1915. They will study the source closely and match events of 1915 from a timeline to particular aspects of the cartoon. By doing this, they will be applying knowledge to use the cartoon as evidence for the war in 1915. They will see that the cartoonist has been selective in what he/she has chosen to include. They will discuss the perspective of the cartoonist on the events of his/her time and how this perspective was shaped. As a plenary activity, they will persuade an author that this political cartoon should be included in a textbook.

  1. How similar are the images of the enemy in political cartoons during WWII?- Comparing and contrasting political cartoons to evaluate the image of the enemy

    Students will work in groups. They will study, analyse and compare the sources to draw conclusions about similarities and differences in the way the enemy was represented. By comparing and contrasting the sources they will better understand different perspectives in history. Additionally, students will evaluate historical sources to decide how the sources answer the question ‘How can the value of sources be evaluated?’

  1. Storming the Winter Palace – Fact and Fiction. – What did the storming of the Winter Palace in 1917 actually look like?

    Based on the example of the storming of the Winter Palace in St.-Petersburg (Russia) in 1917, students are confronted with their insufficiently critical view of historical source material. This is followed by an analysis of the degree of objectivity of a number of sources. Based on this, students also learn directly that different sources can tell different stories about the same topic.

The above examples highlight how different learning activities and teaching approaches can encourage students to think historically and come up with evidence-based conclusions on the topics they are studying.