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Six Historical Thinking Skills and Your Homeschool



There is a new movement sweeping history education that seeks to enhance critical historical literacy using six thinking skills.  These skills can benefit anyone who studies history and are especially relevant to homeschooled teens, but they are not without danger either.

The following brief overview consists of notes taken when Donna Ward, the mother of Canadian homeschool social studies, presented and interpreted the six historical thinking skills at the recent online Canadian Homeschooling Conference. I have also included a few of my own thoughts after each point and a brief evaluation at the end of this article.

#1 Establish historical significance.  There has to be a decision about what and whose story to tell.

  • Check how the event resulted in change.
  • How profoundly were people affected?
  • How many people were affected?
  • How long-lasting was the effect?

Notice how worldview issues come into play. How does one make a decision about whose story to tell?  For example, the history of Huguenots in Canada is rarely discussed.

#2 Use primary source evidence.  How do we know what we know?

  • Primary sources are eyewitness events, and are necessarily one-sided.
  • First of all, determine what the primary source is and what its purpose was.
  • Who was the author, and what was his/her worldview?
  • What events occurred and how did they shape the work we are looking at?
  • What point of view does the author present and what other primary sources could give more information?

With widespread internet availability, the study of primary sources is becoming more and more possible for all.  Assessing their place in history is both difficult and worthwhile and the Historical Thinking website provides a key insight.  Some primary source collections are Early Canadiana Online,  British History Online, Primary Documents in American History, and  European History Primary Sources.

#3 Identify continuity and change. To what degree is there continuity and to what degree is there change?

  • Does change always mean progress?
  • Consider turning points in history, when one period in history moves to another (e.g. Canada’s Confederation, the American Revolution, the World Wars, the Reformation).
  • Evaluate both progress and decline, and consider how one’s perspective affects this evaluation.

Here again, one’s worldview comes into play at every point.  We really need to know what we believe and its significance in order to determine what change is progress and what is decline. In other words, there is a very close connection between our Bible knowledge (and theology) and our understanding of history.

#4 Analyze cause and consequence.  What are the causes that are hidden from view?

  • Who or what led to an event that caused change or resisted change?
  • Which belief systems, circumstances, influential people, were involved?
  • What is the social, political, economic, historical context?
  • What were unintended consequences?
  • It is helpful to study history chronologically to identify cause and consequence.

Timelines are valuable.  A solid and deep knowledge of many aspects of history is needed for anyone to be able to really assess these causes and consequences.  Homeschooling parents should probably focus a lot of their personal study of history on these ideas.  I  have found Total Truth by  Nancy Pearcey to be a helpful introduction to this way of thinking.

#5 Take historical perspectives.  How can we ever understand the past when people thought far differently than we do today?

  • Find evidence to understand how people felt and thought.
  • The culture in the past was very different than it is today; it is like a foreign culture to us.
  • Do not impose present day ideas on the past; that is called ‘presentism and many people do it automatically because they do not understand ideas and culture of the past.
  • Diverse perspectives must be understood to comprehend an event.

Here we Christians have an advantage.  Much of Western society was Christian and can best be understood from a Christian worldview.  Mind you, medieval Roman Catholics, Reformation era Protestants, and modern evangelical Christians have divergent worldviews, something that becomes clear from a detailed study of church history. In history, just as in most other subjects, the more you know the more you can understand.

#6 Understand ethical dimensions of historical interpretations.  What do historical injustices and sacrifices mean for us today?

  • We can learn from the past to face ethical issues today.
  • Ethical judgments of the past inform us about ethical decisions for today.
  • Keep a historical perspective and do not impose present day values on the past.

Since we Christians believe God decides what is right and wrong, we would approach this aspect completely differently than a non-Christian might, and vice versa.

One thing that these six historical thinking skills bring out into the open is that the presentation of history is subjective and heavily influenced by what one believes about the world, people, values, and, ultimately, God.  In that sense, they can also be used by our teens (and by ourselves) to evaluate the study materials used for history.

I would love to learn what a Christian historian or philosopher has to say about this historical thinking skills approach.  Are there trends and assumptions that we should be aware of?  We know that God is Lord of history, as of everything else, and that history is the unfolding of his work.  In some fundamental way, history is about Christ saving his church, but there is so much more to consider; it is also about man building civilizations as he was created to do (Genesis 1:28).  Undoubtedly this has implications for how a Christian can best approach the study of history.  Perhaps, as in other subjects, one cannot properly study it without formally acknowledging this in the very structure of the course.  Being in the thick of life and homeschooling, I am currently unable to dig into this more deeply.  But perhaps someone else who has a more relevant background will do this.

On an immediately practical level, the historical thinking skills approach has many good points, as I noted above.  Are there any obvious cautions?

There is at least one significant danger that I have come across.  Some educators assume that with this approach history is now about teaching thinking skills rather than about teaching history itself.  This has become a problem in public schools in Ontario, at least. However, as the Historical Thinking website points out,  “Historical thinking” only becomes possible in relation to substantive content.  You need knowledge of the people, the events, the dates and all that is traditionally known as history in order to apply these skills.  So, yes, it is possible to use these skills to dumb down the curriculum, and that is what would happen if you asked students without historical knowledge to apply them.  For teens and adults who have prior historical knowledge, however, applying these thinking skills could lead to a deeper understanding of history.

As a homeschooler, I suggest using the early grades to absorb as many historical stories as possible. As we all know, information in story form is retained very well; that is one reason our family has an ongoing literature-based approach to Canadian history in our homeschool.  Then in the teen years the aim could be to increase and consolidate that knowledge, add more in-depth detail, and apply these historical thinking skills.

I know some of you have done a lot of reading and thinking about the study of history.  What do you think of this approach?

Disclosure:  I am not compensated for sharing any of these resources with you.

Review: The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

swiss family robinson

There are few books as suited to finding homeschool rabbit trails as The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss. I’m sure you know the story: A family with four boys was shipwrecked on a deserted tropical island. Because they had been planning to set up a colony, the ship was full of useful supplies, but getting them onto the island was an adventure in itself.

The family explored and prospered in their lush surroundings, discovering one exciting plant and animal after another, working hard, and exercising amazing ingenuity to meet basic needs and to find luxuries as well.  As the years went on, the boys grew up and eventually their situation changed…

Not only is this a splendid read aloud for all ages, but parents who love to set up a unit study could easily make this a year-long project….

You can read the rest of this review at The Curriculum Choice

Lessons from a Long Marriage

wedding-rings 2 creative commons

Thirty years ago this weekend we were engaged and in a few months we will celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary.  Even after all these years it is good for us to look at others who have walked this path before, whose long marriages have been a living testimony of God’s goodness.

Recently I attended the funeral of a man who had been married 73 years.  His children, grandchildren, and all those who knew him were inspired by this couple’s marriage, their devotion to each other, their love, and their enjoyment of each other.

Every time I went to visit them I noticed one thing about this man.  At 98, with an enormous family of his own and many other acquaintances, he always remembered to ask about my family by name and to discuss gardening with me.  He always made the effort to really connect.  Even though he loved so many others, he cared about me, too.

In fact, at the funeral it was said repeatedly that his life was characterized by love for God and for others, and I think those qualities shone through in his marriage.

Considering that, perhaps much of the current thinking about marriage has its emphasis slightly wrong.  Perhaps the basis for a God-honoring marriage, even after 73 years, is simply what Jesus said:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  When Jesus told the people this, he said that all of the Bible up to that day depended on these two commandments (Matthew 22). Perhaps all of the Bible of today does, too.  Perhaps, then, the indignant fuss in many quarters about marriage, how it works and should work, the relationships between men and women, and so much else, could simply be resolved by this two-fold commandment.

On the other hand, perhaps not.

Be that as it may, in practical terms we should always aim to serve God with our whole being and to be kind to our spouse and those around us.  We should praise God for blessing us with these people and gratefully acknowledge that he put each one of them into our lives for our good and his glory.

But how can anyone possibly do this?  I think the answer is in that couple’s wedding text which hung on their wall and formed the basis of their 73 years together:

‘Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God.’  (Ps 146:5)

This is the answer.  With this confidence in our hearts we, too, can praise God in our lives, our marriages, and our other relationships.  And our praise is not only singing and talking; it is also, and perhaps even more deeply, simply trusting God enough to obey him.

With God, it is possible, although not necessarily easy, and we will be blessed if we obey him.

To help make it all practical, here are four encouraging resources.  All are based on research that clearly shows that God’s plan for lifelong marriage is not only good but also truly possible, even in our society. (Most links are to my reviews; there are no affiliate links.)

May God bless us as we seek to praise him in all our relationships.  May he keep us from temptation, forgive our failures and sins, and give us everything we need to repent and continue on, always thankful to him.

If you want to read more about marriage, here is an annotated list of Nine Helpful Marriage Books  (updated to include one more) and here are links to other posts I have written for Valentine’s Day.  Some of them I still find helpful and I pray that you may as well.

This post is adapted in part from a funeral message by Rev. G. Van Popta.  He has also written Pure Love (reviewed here and available free online here), a series of sonnets on Solomon’s Song of Songs, which is obviously related to this topic.      

 Creative commons image from nyphotographic

Disclosure:  I am not compensated for recommending any of the resources mentioned.

Review: No Little Women by Aimee Byrd

No Little Women

Aimee Byrd says bad theology is entering doctrinally sound churches via women’s ministries.  Others agree.

If true, this is an incredibly serious matter, since theology is the study of who God is.   No Little Women discusses the problem and suggests the solution, Equipping All Women in the Household of God

This book is written primarily for women, elders, and pastors, with many sections and discussion questions addressed separately to these groups.  This unique approach is necessary because women need to know what is said to the church leadership, and the office bearers need to know what is being said to women.

In a world littered with conflict and disagreement about the role of women, Byrd actively attempts to avoid such discussions, focusing rather on a few indisputable points:

  • Women have influence in their families, in the church, and wherever else they are.
  • Women were created to be necessary allies of their husbands.
  • Women need to know the Word of God and be transformed by it, arriving at the truth, not merely searching for it.
  • False teachers want to make disciples in the church, but we are forbidden to welcome them into our homes.

Although Christian women are a valuable commodity to the publishing and speaking industries, they need the same theological standards as men.  Yes, there are many gifted women with popular women’s ministries, but some of them attack or denigrate the basics of Christianity:  the authority of the Bible, the Trinity, Jesus’ incarnation, justification by faith.  Because these teachers can be appealing, compassionate, understanding, and relevant, we sometimes need to be reminded to notice deviations from the truth.  Byrd gives an array of ideas to watch out for.  She also urges pastors and elders to read some of the titles being studied by the women in their church.

Byrd identifies three problems commonly encountered in Christian best sellers for women

  • Ecumenicalism at the expense of doctrine
  • Claiming direct revelations from God
  • Reading one’s own meanings into the text

The author is careful not to attack any author or teacher, which is wise.  Instead, she gives excerpts from various popular books for the reader to practice finding problem issues.  I have read some of the authors she discusses and, while it is possible to criticize them, it is also possible to learn from them if one is careful, as Byrd also says.

At one point the character of the book changed, or perhaps my perception of it did.  In any case, suddenly the author and I were joyfully engaged in a discussion of how to read carefully (using How to Read a Book, link to my review) and how and why to review what we read.

No Little Women ends with a chapter written to pastors about how to preach to women as well as men.  That chapter concludes with an excellent encouragement to women about how and why to listen to sermons, a section that applies to all.

In No Little Women, Aimee Byrd does the church a great service by discussing a problem that is so explosive most people avoid it.  She offers solutions that seem obvious to some but perhaps not to others, the most important being that the preaching should be based on the Word of God, listened to diligently, and addressed to the entire congregation.

There is an interesting omission in this book.  In the Bible women are instructed to ask their husbands about things they do not understand.  Byrd emphasizes going to the elders or the pastor instead.  Now, it is true that some husbands are not Christians, but many are.  It is also true that if the husband is away or busy, for whatever reason, he will have no time to consider his wife’s questions, and this is a serious matter.   The important point, though, is that by God’s design husbands are the heads of their families and no one should try to bypass or undermine them.  Looking at things this way, the words Byrd wrote to church leaders should also be read by husbands.

In conclusion, many of the things Aimee Byrd says are true.  Some of them may seem a bit off although it is hard to pin that down, but the important thing is this: she bravely and carefully opens a conversation that has long been needed.  All Christians who value the truth about God, i.e. true theology, should read this book and it should be in every church library.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book from P&R publishing in exchange for an honest review.

Canadian History Celebration

canada 150

Since 2017 is Canada’s 150th birthday, we aim to celebrate that in our homeschool.  Some say Canadian history is boring because it has no impressive royalty, revolutions, or invasions, although it does have its own version of each of these.  Indeed, its history is a whole lot less dramatic than that of many other countries but it is fascinating in a more subtle way.  There are many heroes, from courageous explorers to thousands of unsung settlers, from world famous scientists to authors who continue to inspire, from soldiers to politicians and grassroots influencers.  Everywhere, the land and the climate shape us, and always our past influences who we are.  That, in fact, may be part of our Canadian identity.

My goal this year is to increase our knowledge of Canadian history’s facts, stories, and personalities and to understand how ideas and international events influenced it and continue to have an impact.  Practically, we want to be able to use that knowledge to contribute to our country, both politically and otherwise. Of course, there is also the matter of completing a Canadian history credit for high school.

How will we go about this?  First of all, we will intensify our literature-based Canadian history studies, focusing on that in our reading.  We also hope to go on at least 12 history-based outings, watch relevant movies, and look at the current Canadian scene from a Christian point of view.

To intensify our teen girls’ multi-year literature-based Canadian history course we will start with a broad outline of the history and geography of Canada learned in the earlier years, just as our older children did.  Together we will determine a handful of major dates and topics to focus on, probably from a review skimming of our much-loved Story of Canada and the excellent Canadian history series by Robert Livesey.  We will also study a more in-depth, age-appropriate history of Canada.

With this background, we will branch out to interesting rabbit trails and read both fiction and non-fiction about those topics.   Current areas of interest include the history of Canadian hockey, science, and country music.  We will also, however, read about people and events that the girls are not currently interested in such as the development and influence of the RCMP, various prime ministers, settlers, industries, the underground railway, immigration experiences, local history, the world wars, and whatever else catches our fancy.  Ideally, we would locate our readings and movies on maps and a timeline, but we have never yet been successful at this so it may not happen.

One thing about a literature-based study is that the best learning comes from a variety of books: academic tomes, primary source documents, award-winning picture books, exciting novels (both teen and adult), sober biographies, historical photography, poetry, and current activism. Therefore I’m looking at authors such as Pierre Berton and Barbara Greenwood; scholarly sites like Early Canadiana Online;  series such as the Touchwood Classics West Collection and The Canadians; visual books ranging from children’s picture books to studies of the Group of Seven and Karsh; and much more. Individual titles I’m considering include Everyday Life in the Wilds of North America by Ballantyne (a bit gruesome, but with lots of geography and history), some of the books by Catharine Parr Traill or her sister Susannah Moodie, Severin’s The Brendan Voyage, or  North For Adventure, the story of Samuel Hearne.  As long as the quality of the book is high, there is nothing ‘too easy’ or ‘too advanced’ to learn from, and I suppose that is one of the definitions of a living book.

A few of these books I will read aloud, many of them I will leave lying around, and some I will assign.

Canada is full of museums and many of them are celebrating our country’s 150th birthday.  We hope to visit or revisit many of those within driving distance.  Some people recommend writing reports on museum visits; I prefer discussions and narrations, but if a report is necessary for learning to happen, we will do that.  Of course, we can also do living-museum activities at home, looking at heritage recipes, skills, crafts, and more, and I suspect we may end up with heirloom chickens and pots of herbal concoctions.

Relevant movies are legion and I expect to discover many new treasures this year.  Movies to re-watch include John Robson’s documentary on the Magna Carta, Two Sisters in the Wilderness, Summer on Ross FarmQueen and Skipper about The Bluenose and the 1948 thriller about the start of the cold war, The Iron Curtain.

As citizens of Canada, we also want to look at the current Canadian scene from a Christian point of view.  Some resources we use for this include ARPA Canada, which provides both information and practical ways to become involved, and  CARDUS, which is a Christian public policy think tank.  This year we also plan to study Michael Wagner’s book, The Christian Citizenship Guide. Two other books, The Culture War by Jonathan van Maren and Power in Service by Ouweneel, look helpful but may not meet our needs for this course, so I will need to pre-read them.

Canadian History Resources:

I find many of my Canadian history resources at our public library, but I also search

Please, if you have any resource recommendations for Canada’s 150th birthday, do let me know in the comments.

Disclosure:  As always, I am not compensated for recommending any of these resources

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