Thinking Critically about History

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by Lukas Morel

Critical Thinking is not a new concept. In the days of ancient Greece, Socrates and his students Plato and Aristotle were already working with the Socratic Method: the idea of asking and answering questions to examine presumptions and understanding. Much more recently, many philosophers, psychologists, educators, and other researchers of all stripes have put time and effort into examining CT, and in particular, the teaching of CT skills at the high school level. For the purposes of this article, CT will be discussed in the context of a history or social studies course because of their unique suitability to the fostering of CT skills, as will be shown below. However, the skills and lesson suggestions discussed are not limited to the study of history. CT can and does apply to all fields of study, and all of the applications of CT provided below can be adapted to any subject.

What is Critical Thinking, and why use it?

According to the most recent draft of the BC Curriculum's Critical Thinking Competency Profile, "Critical thinking involves making judgments based on reasoning: students consider options; analyze these using specific criteria; and draw conclusions and make judgments[1] . Critical thinking competency encompasses a set of abilities that students use to examine their own thinking, and that of others, about information that they receive through observation, experience, and various forms of communication." A more formal definition was proposed by Scriven & Paul in 1992 at the Critical Thinking Conference in Atlanta, Georgia: "[Critical Thinking is] the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action" (as cited by Huitt, 1998)[2].

The choice of words used by both of these versions was quite possibly inspired Bloom's Taxonomy of learning domains[3]. This groundbreaking and now ubiquitous taxonomy broke down cognitive thought into a six-level hierarchy: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Anderson et al. revised Bloom’s work and converted his nouns into verbs, resulting revised taxonomy appeared like this: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating[4]. Conventionally, these six levels are routinely divided into two groups and dubbed "Lower-Order Thinking Skills" (LOTS) for remembering, understanding, and applying, and "Higher-Order Thinking Skills" (HOTS) for analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Progressing in thought processes from LOTS to HOTS is typically seen as required to achieve critical thought: "Failing to engage analytical thinking beyond knowing, understanding, and applying a concept presents a barrier to the learning process"[5].

Specifically in the case of social studies and history, the age-old paradigm of the teacher-centered, "teach-to-the-test" course with endless dates, facts, events, names, etc. to memorize is alive and well. Still today, “students are not being taught how to think critically in assessing the validity of various statements that pertain to a variety of issues, events, individuals, and/or ideas”[6]. However, these subject areas are uniquely suited to the task of CT instruction. Indeed, "reasoning with information about the past can be considered as an important cultural practice of societies. It has been incorporated into the history curriculum in several countries and is considered to empower students to understand history, as well as social life in general"[7]. The study of history is ideal for advancing students more complex and advanced cognitive skills. For instance, the availability of sources in an online world demand that students learn the process of how to asses and vet them. The gathering and evaluating of primary and secondary sources as evidence to examine and analyze the past is ideally suited for the application and practice of critical thinking skills[8][6][9]. In a slightly more real-world example, critical thinking can be seen as a social responsibility, with these skills providing students the ability to challenge ideas and reach judgements based on evidence, not just on sanctioned or publicized versions of events[8]. Without a doubt, the fostering of CT skills is as relevant as ever in today's environment of volatile and partisan political discourse. As Yogev (2013) puts it: "Those who seek a free society made up of free and responsible individual cannot but make every effort – educational, cultural, philosophical and more – to foster critical thinking and an effective historical consciousness among young people."[10]

The current setting

According to Lindquist (2012), students are not being taught how to think, with "the lecture method [continuing] to dominate high school history courses."[9] This leads to "the student often [becoming] a passive receiver of more information than one could ever hope to comprehend, analyze, and encode"[11] History courses have typically focused on the learning and memorization of often disconnected or even meaningless facts and details. If critical thinking is deemed an important skill to be taught in schools, and if history is seen as an ideal subject for students to learn and build their proficiency in cognitive thought processes, then this old paradigm of the history course needs to be examined and replaced with some new strategies that will foster and nurture these abilities.

Thinking Critically

The first essential task is the need to ask the right questions. The ideal questioning technique on the part of the teacher can inspire curiosity and motivate critical thinking in the classroom. Teacher questioning has a profound impact on student thinking, and the level of student thinking is directly proportional to the level of questions asked (Classen & Bonk's 1990 book "Teachers Tackle Thinking", as cited in [12]. However, questioning is not just a skill for teachers. If students are able to pose the right questions, not only can they incite more profound discussions of their own, but students will be able to better prepare for assessments by planting their own questions into their notes and acquire a better understanding of the content as they answer them. Duron et al. name two types of questions in relation to Bloom's taxonomy: "convergent questions", which correspond to LOTS and which seek "one or more very specific answers", while "divergent questions" are open-ended question that correspond to HOTS and that "seek a wide variety of correct answers". In the case of divergent questions, the critical thinking and reasoning is as important, if not more so, than the answer. Often, no correct answer is even necessary. These questions are slightly ambiguous by design, and compel students to confront multiple points of view and build arguments for choosing among them [13]. Students develop their thinking skills as they analyze and evaluate the information in front of them and synthesize their own conclusions. The other key to working with CT is practicing, improving, and refining, where students complete successive active learning tasks that make them think and reflect on what they are doing. This practice can take a number of forms, such as the analysis and assessment of primary and secondary sources, carrying out observations and simulations, and completing tasks that allow for construction or composition of arguments such as papers, dialogues, or portfolios. As with any skill, repetition and practice are essential to developing proficiency, and critical thinking is no exception[14].

A Practical example

In order to imagine how these steps might appear in a classroom, consider for instance a unit on the building of Canada's first trans-continental railway in British Columbia’s new Social Studies 9 curriculum. According to the corresponding BC Ministry of Education curriculum documents, students are expected to assess primary and secondary sources, compare and contrast, and evaluate and organize collected data, to name but a few of the long list of expected curricular competencies (Social Studies 9).

Asking the right questions

The right divergent question(See:Creative Thinking) can set the stage for the contents of the entire unit, whereas a convergent question can limit a student’s conception of the scope of the unit[12]. An example of a convergent question for such a unit could be "What did John A. MacDonald do to make sure the Trans-Canada Railroad got built?" While this type of question asks for very specific details, it doesn’t ask students to think much about those details. These details could be drawn from a textbook, a webpage, or an encyclopedia, and jotted down with little consideration for their value or meaning. On the other hand, open or divergent question for an equivalent unit might be "Was John A. MacDonald justified in his persecution and prosecution of Louis Riel?" This divergent question is open-ended, and has no single correct answer since at the very least it depends on the point of view of the different actors involved. Different students might come to different conclusions as to how justified MacDonald was or wasn’t. However, their value judgement on MacDonald’s actions is secondary to the fact that students would have to have studied what MacDonald did or said, or what his contemporaries would have had to say about his actions, and the fallout of those actions, etc. in order to arrive at their conclusions. Through a series of classroom activities, students would practice critical thinking as they refine their ideas and deepen their understanding. For instance, they might engage in a search for relevant primary and secondary sources, or perhaps simply analyze and evaluated some pre-selected sources to determine if and how they qualify as evidence (depending on the scarcity or availability of primary or secondary source materials). Next, they might use some graphical or visual argument representation to build their arguments and determine their position vis-à-vis the unit’s primary divergent question. Finally, they might engage in some form of dialogue to present and defend their conclusions. A dialogue activity like this could range from group discussions to online discussion forums or even a full in-class debate. All of these activities would lead students to have a much more thorough and deeper understanding of the circumstances of this crucial moment in Canadian history, all the while using Bloom’s HOTS to engage in critical thinking.


The formulation of the central unit question sets the stage for the tone and scope of the unit. However, students must then engage in the investigation required to answer this question to the best of their abilities. One vital aspect of this investigation is the vetting of primary and secondary sources. Thanks to the efforts by organizations like the US National Archives, primary sources of all kinds are being digitized and made available online. These digital sources are viewed by some as being favorable to hard copy originals. For instance, according to Tally & Goldenberg, “the multimedia nature of most digital archives…offers students with diverse learning styles multiple pathways into thinking about historical and cultural problems.”[15] There are far too many online primary or secondary source repositories to list here. However, here are some of the larger or more prominent ones:

Canadian Sources

American sources

Here again, asking good questions about a source is key to making the insights and inferences about available sources, instead of showing “an unexamined faith in [their] trustworthiness” [16]. Teachers may offer prompts to help students arrive at the questions they need to be asking. These prompts may include “This clearly shows that…?”, or “From [detail] we can infer that…”[16]. Students should also ask “when and why the source was created, and by whom.” Finally, sources should be corroborated by other sources, both primary and secondary, and these sources should be contextualized to the conditions and worldviews that existed at the time of the source’s creation.


When confronted with a wide variety of information, sources, perspectives, etc., it is important that students have a way of sorting and organizing everything in order to build their arguments. Visual representations are a common educational tool for developing critical thought processes, whether digitally or physically. Indeed, Tim van Gelder asserts that particularly with the advantages afforded by digital techniques and services, arguments should now be displayed in the form of argument maps whenever feasible[14], and several free websites now offer such services. For instance, Coggle is a free website that allows the user to develop custom mind-maps where students can graphically illustrate links between different pieces of information. The website also allows users to upload and integrate illustrations or photos in the mind-map, which will allow students to include non-text-based source materials directly into the map. Another such service, Debategraph, offers a more structured and formal approach to building argument maps. This site is a free and powerful tool that incorporates a wide variety of visualization options, the ability for multiple students to collaborate on the same document, and even the ability to label the different map elements, such as “supportive/opposing argument” and “Position” among others.

Engaging in Dialogue

Another vital part of this unit (or virtually any unit for that matter), is the practicing of reasoned and logical discourse. Indeed, the concept of sharing ideas is of course central to our entire society, regardless of the form it takes, be it social or professional, casual or formal, concrete or abstract, or objective or subjective. In education, dialogue is also frequently put forward as a means of furthering critical thought[17][18][6][19][13]. Whether in pairs or groups, whether synchronous or asynchronous, and even regardless of field of study, the sharing of ideas allows students to "appreciate and learn from the struggles, the missteps, and the successes of their peers"[18]. In a classroom, this has often been accomplished through debates, think-pair-share tasks, or group discussions, to name but a few of a multitude of activities out there. However, the key to this dialogue, whichever form it takes, is to allow for differing opinions and points of view to be shared and heard. Further, “unlike writing assignments, discussion forces students to confront multiple alternative viewpoints” (Hansen and Salemi, 1990, as cited by Greenlaw & DeLoach, 2003, p.37)[13].

Successful discussion is a challenging endeavor. According to Deana Kuhn in her 1991 book The Skills of Argument, the majority of people are unable to exhibit basic reasoning and argumentation skills, even when prompted (as cited by van Gelder[14]). Van Gelder further states that most if not all students would benefit from some lessons on basic argumentation principles, but that argumentation is a skill that requires much practice to be effective. These discussions, though perhaps not of the highest caliber at first, still allow for this practice, all the while allowing students to share their ideas or points of view in relation to the divergent question posed by the teacher. Modern technology offers some new affordances when it comes to learning how to share and defend ideas. For instance, In the case of online asynchronous discussions, participants have “time to reflect on what others have said and how they wish to respond”[13]. In this case, one of the major affordances of the online discussion medium is the ability of students to take the time to consider their evidence, and compose their arguments or counter-arguments. By comparison, in his 1996 book, John Bean points out that a non-digital discussion medium (such as an in-class debate) would put pressure on students to rush to contribute, and not every participant might get the chance to be heard (as cited by Greenlaw & DeLoach[13]).

Fortunately, when it comes to digital platforms, the internet provides a wide assortment of vehicles for online discussions, even in a public school environment where funds for website subscriptions may be limited or non-existent. For asynchronous discussion, options include well-known services like Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365 as well as lesser known discussion platforms like and Each of these services have their own pros and cons, but between them and many others like them, most classroom teachers should have little to no problem finding a service or platform to suit their needs. Though free and practical, neither Google Docs nor MS Office 365 offer a true discussion platform. Rather, these platforms are ideally suited to acting as a sounding board of sorts, where individual students or teams can lay out their thoughts, claims, arguments, or evidence. If the OneNote Classroom function of MS Office 365 is being used, then teachers, could even have easy access to observe and provide direct and immediate feedback to students as they flesh out their ideas. or, on the other hand, are two strong platforms for asynchronous discussion. Both are both entirely free bulletin board-style services, including forums, private discussions, user profiles, etc., though they both require users to download and install a software package to join the discussion.

“Critical thinking is hard”[14]. However, left to itself, the natural process of thinking is often biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, and potentially prejudiced[12]. Critical Thinking is a basic skill that is important in the workplace, in personal or spiritual life, and can be helpful in avoiding social problems that come from failing to evaluate people, policies, or institutions (Hatcher and Spencer, 2005, as cited by Duron et al.[12]). It therefore behooves us all to learn to think and question. School provides an ideal environment to practice these skills. Across the curriculum, there exist countless activities that can be assigned to students to help them develop their critical thinking skills. The key, however, is that they are doing them.


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