AP Summer Institute






A Brief Guide to the Historical Thinking Skills

            As both a historian and a high school teacher, I have always stressed to my students that history is fundamentally and inevitably interpretive, that the first step in studying history is learning how to identify an author's interpretation.   The second, I have consistently emphasized, is locating the author's evidence and then comparing his/her interpretation with the evidence--the author's own and that gathered from outside sources.   Only then can a student decide whether an author's interpretation is or is not well supported by the available evidence.  
           Comparing this long accepted practice with the terminology adopted In the new curriculum framework, we find several striking similarities.   For example, one crucial term, "Skill 8: Interpretation," a crucial component of "Skill Type IV: Historical Interpretation and Synthesis," is defined as " the ability to describe, analyze, evaluate, and create diverse interpretations of the past -- as revealed through primary and secondary historical sources -- by analyzing evidence, reasoning, contexts, points of view, and frames of reference."   A second equally critical term, "Skill 7: Appropriate use of relevant historical evidence," is classified as a component of "Skill Type III: Crafting Historical Arguments from Historical Evidence," and defined as "the ability to identify, describe, and evaluate evidence about the past from diverse sources. . . with respect to content, authorship, purpose, format, and audience."   This "involves the ability to extract useful information, make supportable inferences, and draw appropriate conclusions from historical evidence," as well as "the ability to understand such evidence in its context, recognize its limitations, and assess the points of view that it reflects."  
           Clearly, "Interpretation" and "Appropriate use of relevant historical evidence" pervade every aspect of studying and doing history and should be consistently emphasized in teaching the redesigned AP US History survey.   "Appropriate use of relevant historical evidence," is doubly important because it also plays a crucial role in conjunction with "Skill 6: Historical Argumentation," crafting historical arguments.   As students transition from identifying and analyzing an author's interpretation to crafting their own historical arguments, they must be taught how to formulate "a clear, comprehensive, and analytical thesis" and support it with "relevant historical evidence--not simply evidence that supports a preferred or preconceived position."   Students must also learn to "describe, analyze, and evaluate the arguments of others in the light of available evidence."  
           The most sophisticated of the nine historical thinking skills is "Skill 9: Synthesis," defined as "the ability to develop meaningful and persuasive new understandings of the past by applying all of the other historical thinking skills, by drawing appropriately on ideas and methods from different fields of inquiry or disciplines, and by creatively fusing disparate, relevant, and sometimes contradictory evidence from primary and secondary works."   Only our best students can be expected to completely master this most impressive historical skill.  
           The other five historical thinking skills--"Historical Causation," "Patterns of Continuity and Change over Time," Periodization," "Comparison," and "Contextualization"--are important primarily in the context of questions on the AP exam.   Students must learn to: 1) "identify, analyze, and evaluate the relationships among multiple historical causes and effects, distinguishing between those that are long-term and proximate, and among coincidence, causation and correlation;" 2) "recognize, analyze, and evaluate the dynamics of historical continuity and change over periods of time of varying lengths, as well as the ability to relate these patterns to larger historical processes or themes;" 3) "describe, analyze, evaluate, and construct models that historians use to organize history into discrete periods," identifying turning points and recognizing the significance of the choice of specific beginning and ending dates; 4) "describe, compare, and evaluate multiple historical developments within one society, one or more developments across or between different societies, and in various chronological and geographical contexts," to "identify, compare and evaluate multiple perspectives on a given historical experience;" and 5) "connect historical events and processes to specific circumstances of time and place and to broader regional, national, or global processes."   As instructors we need to learn to identify which of these five historical thinking skills or historical argumentation or appropriate use of historical evidence is being tested in an exam question and how to construct our own practice questions that specifically address one or more of these historical thinking skills.  

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