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Historical Thinking
Lesson 1: Theoretical Background

Note: Many of the websites linked in these lessons are only available in English.

Suggested Level:  Grades 11, 12, and undergraduate

Suggested Time: 1 hour

Description of Lesson 1:

In this lesson, students will explore the six concepts of Historical Thinking as presented in Peter Seixa’s The Historical Thinking Project

Lesson 1 : Theoretical Background

The instructor is encouraged to present the theoretical material in an interactive way, by asking the listed questions to the students and projecting the Historical Thinking Project’s website on the screen.

Activity 1: What is Historical Thinking? (Activate)

Brainstorm with the class, write key concepts that the students suggest on the board, here you can also create a mind map or wordcloud. Mentimeter is a great resource to creating wordclouds collaboratively.

Activity 2: Definition and the six concepts of Historical Thinking (Acquire)

A) Provide this definition to your students. 


 A definition by Trombino in Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning:


“Historical thinking is associated with the craft of the historian. It involves the use of critical thinking skills to process information from the past. These skills include strategies that historians use to construct meaning of past events by comparing and contrasting sources of information. For instance, one may view visual materials such as art, maps, and political cartoons. One may also analyze various types of written material beyond a textbook, in addition to auditory and electronic items. Part of this process focuses on active learning and discussion, as well as metacognition, critical thinking, and literacy skills. Sorting evidence from multiple sources is one distinct feature of historical thinking. To actively engage with sources, historians rely on three heuristics: sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization (Wineburg 1991a) ”


Trombino, D.L., Bol, L. (2012). Historical Thinking. In: Seel, N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer,                Boston, MA. 

B) Introduce the Six Concepts of Historical Thinking.


Peter Seixas, Professor and Canada Research Chair in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia, introduced 6 main concepts of historical thinking.

  1. Establish historical significance

  2. Use primary source evidence

  3. Identify continuity and change

  4. Analyze cause and consequence

  5. Take historical perspectives, and

  6. Understand the ethical dimension of historical interpretations.

“Taken together, these concepts tie “historical thinking” to competencies in “historical literacy.” In this case, “historical literacy” means gaining a deep understanding of historical events and processes through active engagement with historical texts.”


Activity 3: Deepen the understanding of three concepts (Acquire)

For this lesson series we will focus on three main concepts:

  1.  Historical Significance

  2. Primary Source Evidence

  3. Continuity and Change.


Share these descriptions from The Historical Thinking Project  with your students

A) Establishing historical significance: 

“The past is everything that ever happened to anyone anywhere. There is much too much history to remember all of it. So how do we make choices about what is worth remembering? Significant events include those that resulted in great change over long periods of time for large numbers of people. World War II passes the test for historical significance in this sense. But what could be significant about the life of a worker or a slave? What about my own ancestors, who are clearly significant to me, but not necessarily to others? Significance depends upon one’s perspective and purpose. A historical person or event can acquire significance if we, the historians, can link it to larger trends and stories that reveal something important for us today. For example, the story of an individual worker in Winnipeg in 1918, however insignificant in the World War II sense, may become significant if it is recounted in a way that makes it a part of a larger history of workers’ struggles, economic development, or post-war adjustment and discontent. In that case, the “insignificant” life reveals something important to us, and thus becomes significant. Both “It is significant because it is in the history book,” and “It is significant because I am interested in it,” are inadequate explanations of historical significance.”


B) Using primary sources:

“The litter of history —letters, documents, records, diaries, drawings, newspaper accounts and other bits and pieces left behind by those who have passed on — are treasures to the historian. These are primary sources that can give up the secrets of life in the past. Historians learn to read these sources.

But reading a source for evidence demands a different approach than reading a source for information. The contrast may be seen in an extreme way in the difference between reading a phone book — for information — and examining a boot-print in the snow outside a murder scene —for evidence. When we look up a phone number, we don’t ask ourselves, “who wrote this phonebook?” or “what impact did it have on its readers?” We read it at face value. The boot print, on the other hand, is a trace of the past that does not allow a comparable reading. Once we establish what it is, we examine it to see if it offers clues about the person who was wearing the boot, when the print was made, which direction the person was headed, and what else was going on at that time.

A history textbook is generally used more like a phone book: it is a place to look up information. Primary sources must be read differently. To use them well, we set them in their historical contexts and make inferences from them to help us understand more about what was going on when they were created.” 


C) Identifying continuity and change:

“Students sometimes misunderstand history as a list of events. Once they start to understand history as a complex mix of continuity and change, they reach a fundamentally different sense of the past.

There were lots of things going on at any one time in the past. Some changed rapidly while others remained relatively continuous. The decade of the 1910s in Canada, for instance, saw profound change in many aspects of life, but not much change in its forms of government. If students say, “nothing happened in 1911” they are thinking of the past as a list of events.

One of the keys to continuity and change is looking for change where common sense suggests that there has been none and looking for continuities where we assumed that there was change. Judgments of continuity and change can be made on the basis of comparisons between some point in the past and the present, or between two points in the past, such as before and after Confederation in Canada. We evaluate change over time using the ideas of progress and decline.”


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