Thinking Like a Historian

By Sophia Gifas

Did you know the Global History Regents is taking on a new format? The current freshmen are going to be the first ones to experience the new exam in June of 2018 when they are sophomores. The exam will be centered around historical thinking skills, such as creating arguments from historical evidence, chronological reasoning, contextualization, and corroboration. The new Global History Regents will contain more stimulus-based multiple choice questions with reading passages, charts, and images, which students will be asked to answer questions based upon, instead of just recalling memorized facts. What effect will this change have on the students?

When asked about this topic, Jen Laden, the chairperson of Byram Hills’ Social Studies department, responded, “this change will benefit students because the Regents will be more about ‘can I think’ as opposed to ‘can I memorize’ and critical thinking is a skill that comes more naturally to high school kids. Overall, kids will have a better experience with history.”

You may wonder, if history has already happened, what’s there to argue about? Plenty. For instance, you may wonder, was the Cold War really a conflict of democracy versus communism or was it a struggle between two superpowers for dominance? Historians argue about the past’s meaning and what it can tell us about today as well as the future. By approaching primary sources with a list of questions about the author, his or her bias, the context, and the time period in which the document was written, we can further develop conclusions and learn more about the world in which we live.

Students working in groups as they “think like historians.” (Photo by Emily Cott)

So, why is it necessary for students to be taught to “think like historians” and use these historical thinking skills in their history classes? Students need to be taught how historians think not necessarily because they will become professional historians, but rather for them to gain a better understanding of the past and to develop more advanced conclusions. In this day and age, it is more useful to have the ability to create an argument by evaluating evidence, remaining skeptical of the potential bias, and checking the information with other sources, rather than having the ability to memorize certain facts that can bed searched for on the internet. These skills will not only help people in history classes, but they will also help people in life by teaching them how to think more elaborately and intricately and develop greater and more accurate conclusions.

Therefore, it is crucial for students to discovery history themselves by approaching the information like a professional historian, putting their skills of reasoning, periodization, contextualization, and corroboration to use. Remember, don’t just absorb facts, evaluate and form conclusions. History without thinking is meaningless.