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Martin, Daisy A. “Teaching for Historical Thinking: Teacher Conceptions, Practices, and Constraints.” Ph.D. Diss., Stanford University, 2005.


Learning history is not an exercise is memorizing and dictated particulars. It requires asking questions of sources, understanding evidentiary arguments and other vital ways of thinking. These themes are explored through the study’s guiding research questions: What do experienced history teachers know and do to help their students think historically? This question is followed by secondary questions: what are some conception(s) of history that include teaching for historical thinking; how are these conceptions formed and maintained; and how do experienced history teachers assess for historical thinking?

The primary unit of analysis for this study is the teacher and her classroom. Data was collected from three history classrooms and teachers, two at the secondary level and one at the university level. Using qualitative methods, data was collected on teaching practices through observing, audio-taping and taking field notes in class. Documents and resources were also collected and each teacher was repeatedly interviewed to learn more about their practices and conceptions. Overall, approximately fifty hours were spent observing each high school teacher’s lessons and twenty-two hours observing the college professor. This translated into about 25% and 50% of each focal course.

This study finds that the three teachers in question varied in their conceptions of historical thinking, and suggested that this was connected to their professional settings. The historical concept perspective was common to both high school classrooms, but the concept of historical context has a less obvious presence. Other contextual factors identified as important to shaping teacher practice include professional expectations and colleagues, the students they teach, their teaching load, the time they lack, and for the high school teachers, state curricular and testing mandates. This study also finds that there are key aspects to representing history as an interpretive way of knowing in a history course and curriculum, including: historical reading and writing, using sources that can prompt and inform different analyses, and requiring that particular disciplinary conventions be attended to in student tasks.

This study begins with five assertions: historical thinking exists; young people are capable of it; teaching matters in its development; history teachers’ knowledge and beliefs influence instructional choices and moves; and particular types of instruction constitute “teaching for historical thinking.” It also includes a discussion of: relevant literature concerning history education and historical thinking.

Considering that this study looks at only three teachers teaching in fairly different contexts, the findings are limited in their scope and serve more to push forward the thinking of those interested in history education rather than making convincing claims about the state of the field, suggestions for reform, or the success of particular practices. More research on teachers’ practices is also warranted. This study suggests that there are instructional practices that history teachers may use routinely, e.g. current events, use of video and film, perspective-taking exercises, but little is known about how they are used in the classroom or what the goals, successes and challenges are in their use.

Mary Chaktsiris