Teaching Students to Think Like Historians

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we discover some of the teaching techniques and exercises you can use to get your students to begin thinking, researching, and writing like historians.

Thinking Like a Historian

Whenever folks ask historians about their jobs, the question usually comes up 'Don't we know everything that's happened already?' While the answer to that question is 'no we don't,' it assumes that all a historian does all day is teach others about events in the past. The work of a historian is far more dynamic, and it starts by having skills that translate well elsewhere in the world, like critical thinking skills and an ability to translate your thoughts into words effectively.

In this lesson, we will explore the important things to emphasize and some techniques you can use to help your students learn to think like a historian.

The 5 Ws

The stereotypical history course involves rows of students memorizing facts and figures out of a boring book, and a teacher who administers tests at the end of the week that asks questions like 'Who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo?' and 'What year did Columbus sail the ocean blue?'

Now, all good history courses do include a lot of reading about the past, and the dates and figures are certainly important. But even more important are the skills and thinking processes students develop when engaging in a discussion about history. Whenever your students have read about an important event, be sure to direct them in identifying the 5 Ws: who, what, where, when, and why.

The first 4 encapsulate the basic facts of any event - these are the memorized things that many consider the only parts of history. But the fifth W - the 'why' - can lead to engaging and important classroom discussions that help students practice critical thinking skills and think like a historian.

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