Thinking Like a Historian

Student in social studies classroom.Last week I was reading some posts on a Social Studies teachers message board. A first-year teacher was asking for some advice for when her students ask “why do we need to know this?” As I went for a run, I spent some time thinking about what sort of advice I might give, and I kept coming back to the notion that the purpose of learning history is to “think like a historian.”  But, then, what does it mean to think like a historian? Even more important, how do we best help our students think like historians?

All Social Studies teachers use artwork and images in order to teach history. I have used such images for years to provide students a chance to engage with primary source material in order to craft meaningful, evidence-based interpretations about the past. A deep exploration of primary sources not only enlivens student learning, but also makes it authentic; that is, looking at primary sources in order to create interpretations about the past is not only what history students do, but it is what historians do. Equally important, though, is not just what sources we look at, but how we look at them. What is the process by which we open ourselves to the possibilities a source may present?

Project Zero is a research collaborative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. At the core of Project Zero’s research efforts is the question “How does understanding develop?”  The earliest Project Zero investigations focused on learning and understanding in the arts. It has since branched out to embrace all dimensions of human development, but still has its roots — its “DNA” — in the arts. A number of Project Zero projects have developed a variety of pedagogical approaches to facilitate deep engagement with art. Of particular value to me and my teaching has been a “thinking routine” called See, Think, Wonder.

Though See, Think, Wonder is a deceptively simple technique that is relatively straight-forward to implement, it yields wonderful results; deep, rich “uncoverage” of a work of art or a historical source. The routine begins by asking students simply to observe everything they can about a piece of art or an image. We tell students not to try and make sense of it — in fact, we work hard to avoid jumping to “interpretation” too quickly so we don’t close ourselves off to potential avenues of meaning. We ask students to describe everything they see, change their perspective (very easy to do with the iPad!) and look again, look again, and keep looking. Every time we use this routine, students find additional layers of detail and complexity they did not see upon first inspection. Only after we’ve seen everything that we can will we move on to “think”, that is, interpreting and offering explanations derived from our observations to make sense of the image or artifact. Because students begin the routine by slowing down and looking at the source very closely and examining it for every detail, they always produce deeper and richer interpretations of the image or artifact, and thus more meaningfully connect it to prior learning about the history we are studying. We finish the routine by asking students about their “wonders” — what puzzles or questions arise when considering the source? This “pulls” the learning forward and creates opportunities for further investigation.

A routine like See, Think, Wonder shows that it is important that we think not only about the “what” of student learning, but also about the “how.”  The routine invites students to slow down, look closely, change perspectives, look again, offer explanations and interpretations, consider alternative viewpoints, and raise questions for further inquiry. This approach not only helps students build understanding about the past and develop the skills of the historian — that is, think like a historian — but also build dispositions that are valuable across disciplines. The routine builds patience, openness to new ideas, a sensitivity and awareness of the viewpoints of others, comfort with complexity, and an understanding that learning is an active process of making meaning. Indeed, students are not only thinking like historians, they are thinking like fully engaged citizens. That is the real purpose of learning history, to develop future citizens with the skills and dispositions to continue the project of making the world a better place.

Maybe I’ll head on over to that Social Studies teachers message board and to see if I can offer that first-year teacher some advice  . . .

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About Brian Cook

Brian Cook is the Social Studies Department Head and Cross Country Head Coach. He joined the school in 2013.

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