Bringing out historical thinking

Tutoring often has the benefit of putting me in the way of assignments designed by teachers devoted to helping their students think creatively.  These assignments interest me especially when they do two things: 1) ask students to apply skills and knowledge across disciplines and 2) allow for choice and ingenuity in application.  Because students and educators alike resist memorizing dates and events as ways of learning history, these types of assignments mobilize historical thinking skills that allow students to develop sophisticated understandings of historical information.

I recently encountered two of these smart assignments that I will summarize briefly here.

The first came as a question on a forum, with a student asking for advice on a question her teacher had posed.  She asked: “Is it possible to apply Newton’s Laws of Physics to interpreting history?”  I thought about this for awhile—though I certainly understood these scientific laws at some point during school, I was never the most intuitive of science students.  It seemed to me that the question must be metaphorical, asking something more like: how can we use the relationships that Newton posed between forces, actions, reactions, and so on to understand the forces that guide how historical events come into being?  In that sense, for example, the Third Law, in which “every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” suggests a particular way of looking at cause-and-effect relationships to determine how events beget other events and multiply outward into historical memory. 

The second came during an in-person tutoring session, where I was asked to help a student write a paper that required him to choose a historical object.  The student was then asked to use this object to stand in for an entire historical era.  By discussing the characteristics of the object, its uses, and how it came into being, a well-chosen object could therefore explain the most important trends in thought during its era and present an argument about how that era’s historical events transpired.  The example provided by the teacher used signs from nuclear fallout shelters in the 1950s to illuminate the events of the Cold War—by describing the circumstances in which it became necessary to build fallout shelters and label them with those signs, a student could make an argument about how the threat of communism actively influenced daily life for Americans during that era.  This assignment was, in fact, a research paper for an English class—but one grounded in the object-based inquiry that characterizes Museum Studies or Art History courses and which students usually don’t encounter until much later in their educations.

With assignments like these and careful guidance, students naturalize so many useful thought processes.  They begin to understand not only the nuts-and-bolts elements of history (the people, places, things, and dates), but also how events reach across time and bleed into each other and create influence.  They learn how arguments can be crafted through evidence and logic.  Consequently, they (hopefully) come to understand which sources are better than others, how to extract information from them, and also how to vet this evidence to make sure it is reliable.  These are skills that cross far beyond disciplinary boundaries, and when arguments are made about the importance of the humanities in any society, these broadly applicable skills bolster those arguments.  By moving between specific details and broad issues, by learning to make decisions and interpret information, these are the kinds of assignments that assert the necessity of historical thinking for all students.