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Engaging Students' Imaginations in the History Classroom

Posted by Katherine Ireland
4 November 2013 - 5:04pm

Imagination in history “requires two somewhat complementary but incongruent elements: (1) an appreciation for different perspectives on human activities and beliefs; and (2) an acknowledgment of a shared humanity that transcends time, space, and culture” (Lévesque, 2011, p. 131). The role of imagination in young children’s historical thinking is not discussed in much detail in relation to the historical thinking concepts, although several researchers suggest that it is significant, some in terms of specific concepts, others in terms of historical consciousness more generally. Wineburg (2001) suggests that a sense of wonder is what motivates learners to engage in historical inquiry. Lee (2005) calls the historical thinking concepts the tools of historical imagination (p. 71). Like Wineburg, he discusses the mystery, strangeness, and adventure that comes with history that the teacher can bring to life for students, as well as the excitement that comes from knowing something in-depth (p. 72).

Lévesque (2011; 2008), Portal (1987) and VanSledright (2002) also describe the role of the imagination in historical thinking as a sort of tool. Lévesque (2011; 2008) states that historical imagination allows us to mentally recreate history, and suggests that this is particularly important for students to engage in perspective taking. Portal (1987) suggests: “empathy is a way of thinking imaginatively which needs to be used in conjunction with other cognitive skills in order to see significant human values in history” (p. 89). VanSledright (2002) suggests that the imagination fills in the gaps in evidence, positioning it as a key component of historical thinking, and one that subsumes the procedural concepts.

von Heyking (2013), VanSledright (2002), and Nichol and Dean (1997) argue that students imagining themselves to be history detectives is an entry point that helps students engage in historical inquiry. VanSledright (2002) notes that some students lose interest in certain activities because they no longer see them as mysteries and thus are no longer curious; this is consistent with Wineburg’s and Lee’s beliefs that wonder is key to historical inquiry. This suggests that greater attention needs to be paid to the role of imagination in children’s historical thinking as well as to how teachers can maximize imaginative engagement with history without losing disciplinary integrity.

Nichol and Dean (1997) appear to be the only researchers in children’s historical thinking to emphasize imagination, which they suggest is required for children to translate the sources they investigate into a form they can understand (p. 66). They highlight five facets of imaginative thinking: 1) imaging, “the ability to picture and present what the past was like”; 2) sensing, “the smells, tastes, sounds and feeling of people in the past”; 3) inferring, “filling in gaps in the historical record through suggesting what might have been, and checking this against the existing evidence”; 4) association, “making links between different, separate pieces of evidence so as to build up a plausible explanation”; and 5) empathy, “to try and understand, no matter how inadequately, what people in the past were thinking and feeling” (p. 68). These approaches to thinking are inextricably linked with the five Concepts of History and Teaching Approaches (CHATA). These facets of imaginative thinking are not positioned as add-ons, but as the ways that are necessary to think about history is a sophisticated manner. Like Nichol and Dean, Booth (1987) argues that in order for students to reach a sophisticated level of historical thinking, history cannot be thought of as a technical pursuit, but as a creative, imaginative one (p. 27).

Imagination appears in the National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS) History Standards as well as the English National Curriculum. In the NCHS History Standards, imagination is positioned as an approach to thinking historically. Students are expected to demonstrate the ability to: “Read historical narratives imaginatively, taking into account what the narrative reveals of the humanity of the individuals and groups involved--their probable values, outlook, motives, hopes, fears, strengths, and weaknesses” (NCHS Historical Thinking Standard 2). In the National Curriculum, history is viewed as a vehicle for sparking the imagination: “History fires pupils' curiosity and imagination, moving and inspiring them with the dilemmas, choices and beliefs of people in the past” (History: Programme of Study, Department for Education). In neither of these is imagination a requirement for or a fundamental facet of this thinking as Nichol and Dean suggest (1997). Interestingly, in The Big Six (Seixas & Morton, 2013), which has a more most comprehensive approach to assessment than CHATA or the NCHS standards, the role of imagination is not made explicit at all.

When children’s imaginations are engaged in learning, it involves far more than simply “making things up”. Although imaginative play, where children have the opportunity to explore the what-ifs and might-have-beens of history without concern for historical accuracy, is a great way to encourage very young children in particular to talk historically, imaginative history teaching should move beyond play. The type of history teaching that largely appears to be missing in classrooms as well as models of historical thinking is the type that considers the major role a child’s imagination plays in their learning in order to develop quality instruction.

 What skills do students already possess and what perspectives do they have on the world that they can bring to the material that will make it exciting and mysterious, rather than simply another set of facts to be learned and tucked away? What approaches bring history alive for students? Approaches that engage the imagination, treating the material as a great story to be told rather than merely a set of outcomes to be achieved. More explicit attention to the imagination in models and resources for history education may provide a key component to successful adoption in classrooms, particularly in the earlier grades.

How do you incorporate imaginative play and move beyond it, in your history lessons?

Photo: Author's photo.


Booth, M. (1987). Ages and concepts: a critique of the Piagetian approach to history teaching. In C. Portal (Ed.), The history curriculum for teachers (pp. 22- 38). London: Falmer.

Lee, P. J. (2005). Putting principles into practice: understanding history. In S. Donovan & J. Bransford (Eds.), How students learn: history in the classroom (pp. 31- 78). Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Lévesque, S. (2011). What it means to think historically. In P. Clark (Ed.), New possibilities for the past, Shaping history education in Canada (pp. 115-138). Vancouver, BC: UBC Press. 

Lévesque, S. (2008). Thinking historically: Educating students for the twenty-first century. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

NCHS History Standards. (1996). Available online:

Nichol, J., & Dean, J. (1997). History 7-11: developing primary teaching skills. London; New York: Routledge.

Portal, C. (1987). Empathy as an objective for history teaching. In C. Portal (Ed.), The history curriculum for teachers (pp. 89-99). London: Falmer.

Seixas, P., & Morton, T. (2013). The big six: historical thinking concepts. Toronto, ON: Nelson Education.

VanSledright, B. (2002a). Fifth graders investigating history in the classroom: Results from a researcher-practitioner design experiment. Elementary school journal, 103(2), 131-160.

von Heyking, A. (2013). Teaching elementary students to think historically. In R. Case, & P. Clark. The anthology of social studies: issues and strategies for elementary teachers (pp. 35-64). Vancouver, BC: Pacific Educational Press.

Wineburg, S. (2001). Historical thinking and other unnatural acts: Charting the future of teaching the past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.