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Chowen, Brent William. “Teaching Historical Thinking: What Happened in a Secondary School World History Classroom.” PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2005.


This study was designed to examine the results of teaching students to use historical thinking and higher-level thinking skills in a secondary school world history classroom in suburban Texas.

Using an interpretivist framework, this study examined a variety of sources (lesson activities, instructional methods, student questionnaires, student interviews, think-aloud sessions and classroom discussions) in an effort to determine the extent and nature of historical thinking that occurred during the second semester of a year-long world history course. Historical thinking is generally defined as a process of using historical information, such as deciphering context, perspective, point of view, and perceived facts, to understand the past. Data were collected in the classroom of the researcher, positioning the teacher as both participant and researcher. The study was conducted in a suburban high school district in Texas adjacent to a major city in a large metropolitan area. The course was Pre-AP world history and enrolled twenty tenth-grade students (twelve female and eight male students).

Interpretations of the data revealed that students exhibited signs of historical thinking and critical thinking skills in guided classroom discussions and activities. Students expressed that they felt most comfortable and successful during classroom activities where the teacher guided them through the processes of historical thinking. Several times during class discussions, when presented with guided questions, students exhibited higher level thinking skills. Although students often skimmed documents or misread them, class discussions showed that with guidance, students could develop the ability to look at critical factors to assess the reliability of primary source documents. However, independent student work showed a decrease in the signs of historical thinking. In written assignments, students did not generally use the information gathered through class discussions and activities to develop historical arguments. Students appeared unable, or unwilling, to reference or cite documents outside of their textbooks and instead preferred to make general statements about people or the past without providing any evidence to support their claims.

Students’ efforts in both written surveys and class discussions also revealed a perceived disconnect between their work and the work of professional historians. Based on individual written survey responses and group class discussions, students displayed the belief that a historian is a career professional who studies history professionally and publishes within that field. Following this line of reasoning, the tenth-grade students in this study did not identify the skills they used in classroom work as those used by professional historians.

The study includes a discussion of the role of history in the U.S. school curriculum, and a summary of research in history education. Also discussed is the movement towards historical thinking and its role in the classroom, teacher preparation, and the impact of testing on students and curriculum.

Students are not professional historians. However, the practice of teaching students to think like historians implies that students and historians can find common ground. If students consistently view historians as professionals with no connections to students, students will continue to view historians’ skills as unattainable and useless in practical situations. What appeared to be lacking in students’ responses was the connection between their work with documents and the concepts of historical thinking. Students also failed to understand the connection between historical thinking and their own skill level working with documents. Future study could explore why students fail to utilize primary source documents in essays or how history education practices could be tailored towards connecting historical thinking in the classroom with the role of the historian. Research is also needed to determine why some students choose not to actively participate in class. Interviews with these students may help researchers determine whether these students choose not to participate due to a lack of understanding, or whether other factors are present that influence their decisions. Examples of these factors include the influence of gender roles, racial diversity, student personality, or past experiences with teachers or history. This type of study would also help teachers to determine how best to engage and assist students who choose not to participate before proceeding with the activity.

Mary Chaktsiris