Towards an Effective Professional Development Model to Deepen History Teachers’ Understanding of Historical Concepts, pp. 2 of 16

Yet, many history education researchers (especially in the US and the UK) have found that historical thinking is counter-intuitive (Lee, 1999; Wineburg, 2001). Thinking historically about the past is not something that can be achieved naturally, and does not arise out of ordinary or everyday thinking. Having a firm grasp of history entails understanding historical concepts, as well as the disposition to think about the past in ways that can move students beyond everyday conceptions and explanations. Some everyday ideas are completely incompatible with history; many students, for example, believe that we can only know something about an event by having direct experience with it. Other students believe that since there is only one past event (or a series of events) that actually occurred, there can only be one true description of it (Lee and Carretero, 2014). Students also are likely to view people in the past as being fundamentally similar to people today (for example in terms of values and beliefs) and as such are predisposed to explain human action and behaviour through their own lenses or present-day sets of values or beliefs. Such “presentist” way of thinking and everyday notions of how things work may not help them make sense of human actions and events that occurred in the distant past.

Additionally, historical thinking as a cognitive activity is far more sophisticated and demanding than mastering substantive (content) knowledge (Levesque, 2009). The disposition to think historically requires more than the ability to know or reproduce historical knowledge; it also expects the learner to acquire the competency in, and having a keen understanding of, the procedures used to investigate different aspects of history or the competing interpretations that arise from a study of the past. While helping students think historically about the past is a challenging endeavour and one that is not without its problems, developing students’ dispositions and ability to view the past on its own terms has merit. In preparing students for the 21st century and equipping them with the necessary skills, knowledge and dispositions to manage the challenges of “new times”, learning history should move beyond simply recounting facts or knowing a given/fixed narrative; it should also engage students with the ability to think critically and inventively about the past. As Levstik and Barton argued, 

“If history helps us think about who we are and to picture possible futures, we cannot afford a history curriculum mired in trivia and limited to a chronological recounting of events. We need a vibrant history curriculum that engages children in investigating significant themes and questions, with people, their values, and the choices they make as the central focus” (Levstik & Barton, 2011)

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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