Building Blocks of History: How Historical Skills Shape Our Understanding

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History skills are the building blocks to understanding our past. Historical thinking skills allow us to look at events like a historian. We first learn the basics, including how events change over time. As we develop as historians, we then begin to examine sources, historical context (setting), what stays the same (continuity), and changes over time. Historical reasoning allows us to make connections and organize events. We have the tools to make sound arguments and express them clearly and in a convincing fashion.  

A Close Reading of History  

History is the study of our past. Historians record and analyze what people have thought, said, and done. It is often a fascinating ride. A careful reading will help provide a full understanding. 

We should not treat history as only dates, facts, and significant people. Doing so is not only the road to boredom. It is the path to confusion. Some historical skills will do wonders.

History skills involve thinking and reasoning. We closely read the material and look for specific details and context. A good historian can understand patterns. They can compare and contrast different events. They can research and explain what they learned.

Basic History Skills 

Students can learn basic history skills from an early age. These building blocks are essential when older students apply more complex concepts. You have to walk before you run.

A basic understanding of history includes the past, present, and future. Students learn how events took place over time. The past is different from the present. 

Historical chronology refers to the arrangement of historical events in the order in which they occurred. A timeline helps to organize historical events. We can use it to help arraign diverse details. Students learn historical facts. They then discover how they all fit together.  

Students should also be able to explain what happened. They will learn how to read documents critically, picking out significant details. Students will examine sources of information. They will become comfortable with charts, maps, pictures, and other historical tools.  

We learn at an early age the ability to step in the shoes of others. “Historical empathy” is a form of pretend. We are no longer ourselves. How would a historical figure think or act?  

Junior historians learn facts but also how to explain what happened. Teachers assist them in speaking and writing well. Good history requires an ability to explain yourself well.  

Historical Thinking Skills 

A budding historian will learn how to identify and explain historical concepts. 

There are primary (eyewitnesses) and secondary sources. Sources have points of view, including perspectives and biases. Different sources have specific details. A letter, photograph, or political cartoon has separate aspects. Each source has a purpose, audience, and context. 

Historical context is the setting for a particular document, idea, or event. Historical analysis is not only about specific events. We examine the political, social, cultural, and economic setting. Historical context makes us aware that different people understand things differently. 

A timeline is the first step in understanding continuity and change. What remains the same between historical periods? What changed?  Can we explain why things changed or did not? We learn to analyze patterns and connections between different people, events, and periods. 

The various tools provide the building blocks of a historical essay. Different facts fit together to explain a thesis statement (“Nationalism Was A Major Cause of World War I”).  We can support the argument with evidence using well-developed historical reasoning.  

Historical Reasoning 

We have to examine history objectively. We should not let our biases interfere with an honest and accurate interpretation. Good historians ask questions and think things through.   

Comparison is the ability to describe, compare, contrast, and evaluate two or more historical events, concepts, or individuals. Who was the better leader: Julius Caesar or Augustus? What are the similarities and differences between the two world wars?  

A historian has to identify, analyze, and evaluate the reason (cause) things occurred. What causes are the most important (primary)? Careful analysis usually shows many interrelated explanations are in place. We have to weigh the significance of each.  

Sometimes, events take place at the same time but are not related. A person happy on a specific Tuesday does not mean they are always cheerful on Tuesday. A historian has to provide convincing evidence to prove cause and effect. They have to avoid false assumptions.  

Historical Themes 

Comparison and causation are helpful tools in analyzing continuity and change. 

We can examine patterns and classify them. Four basic categories are political (government), economic (money), social (everyday life), and technology (inventions). 

If we apply these themes, we can think about historical ideas and trends across time. Basic history skills will help us better understand the fascinating continuing story of our existence.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.