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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.

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