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Learning Historical
“To think historically is essentially to be
a critical thinker when it comes to the
study of history.”
Peter Seixas,
University of British Columbia
6 Concepts of Historical Thinking
 Significance
 Evidence
 Continuity & Change
 Cause & Consequence
 Historical Perspective-taking
 The Moral Dimension (Judgment)
 Events, people or developments have historical
significance if they resulted in change. That is they had
deep consequences, for many people, over a long period
of time.
 Events, people or developments have historical
significance if they are revealing over a long period of
time. That is they shed light on enduring or emerging
issues in history or contemporary life.
 Historical significance is constructive. That is Events,
people or developments meet the criteria for historical
significance only when they are shown to occupy a
meaningful place in a narrative.
 Historical significance varies over time and from group to
 Problem: the past is gone. So, how do we know about it?
Through evidence.
History is an interpretation based on inferences made from
primary sources. Primary sources are made from accounts
but they can also be traces, relics, or records.
Asking good questions about a source can turn it into
Sourcing often begins before a sources is read, with
questions about who created it and when it was created. It
involves inferring from the source the author’s or creator’s
purposes, values and worldview, either conscious or
A source should be analyzed in relation to the context of its
historical setting: the conditions and worldviews prevalent at
the time in question.
Inferences made from one source can never stand alone.
Continuity and Change
 Continuity and change are interwoven: both can
exist together.
 Change is a process with varying paces and
patterns. Turning points are moments when the
process of change shifts in direction or pace.
 Progress and decline are broad evaluations of
change over time. Depending on the impacts of
change, progress for one people may be decline
for another.
The IBM 7094, a typical mainframe computer [photo courtesy of IBM]
Cause & Consequence
 Change is driven by multiple causes and is
driven by multiple consequences.
 The causes that lead to a particular historical
event vary in their influence, with some being
more important than others.
 Events result from the interplay of two types of
1. Historical actors, who are people (individual or
groups) who take actions that cause historical
events, and
2. The social, political, economic and cultural
conditions within which the actors operate.
Cause and Consequence
 The events in history were not inevitable,
any more than those of the future are.
Alter a single action or condition, and an
event might have turned out differently.
 unintended consequences
 Part II
 Part III
Marilyn Manson
Historical Perspective
 Presentism is the opposite of historical
perspective. Presentism is when you
examine the past through today’s
understandings (values, norms,
technological understanding)
 The goal, when thinking
historically, is to avoid presentism.
Moral Judgment
 Authors make ethical judgments in writing
historical narratives.
 Reasoned ethical judgments of past actions are
made by taking into account the historical
context of the actors in question.
 When making ethical judgments it is important to
be cautious about imposing contemporary
standards of right and wrong on the past.
 A fair assessment of ethical implications of
history can inform us of our responsibility to
remember and to respond to the contributions,
sacrifices and injustices of the past.
What about local history?
Thinking historically …
 Make inferences about life around town at
that time
 Consider the societal, economic, &
technological environment
 Compare with photos of the same place today
 Identify a list of things that have changed and
stayed the same