Preparing History Teachers to Develop Young People's Historical Thinking

Terrie Epstein, May 2012

During the past 20 years, research on learning and teaching history has grown exponentially. In a 2007 review of the research on history education, Keith C. Barton found over 200 empirical studies on young people's historical understanding, ranging in topics from how young people make sense of primary and secondary history sources to how sociocultural contexts and identities shape their interpretations of historical concepts and content.1 Research in the area of historical cognition has illustrated that for most young people, historical thinking is an "unnatural act,"2 something counterintuitive to their assumptions about how historians reconstruct the past.

In this article, I discuss four of the most common misconceptions that young people bring to historical inquiry, as well as some pedagogical strategies that researchers have employed to correct or complicate young people's ideas. In summarizing the research, I've also simplified it. Therefore, please take into account these caveats: at every age, students' historical understandings range in sophistication, although older students generally have more complex ideas than do younger. And with sustained instruction, which challenges students' misconceptions, young people can develop more complex ideas about the nature of historical investigation.

Misconceptions about Historical Knowledge

Perhaps the most significant misunderstanding held by young people about history relates to the nature of historical knowledge. Many children and adolescents think of historical narratives as true or objective accounts of the past, with little or no room for ambiguity or contestation. Many see the historian's task simply as accumulating and piecing together evidence from the past, with little understanding of the leap taken from analyzing evidence to constructing interpretive accounts. They consider history textbooks to be complete and authoritative because they're written by experts; similar to other accounts; or validated by photographs—and they often read them uncritically, without raising questions.

When researchers gave young people diverse accounts of the same event and asked why they differed, students have suggested that the authors have limited knowledge, incorrect information, or personal biases. A few have recognized that the historian's perspective or framework influenced his or her account, and that two different, even competing accounts, may be valid. Many young people have determined the validity of competing historical accounts by privileging those that are more concrete, include more facts or details, or are more recently published, while more sophisticated students cite the consistency of an argument or comprehensiveness of an interpretation.3

Overall, without prompting from researchers or instruction to the contrary, young people rarely take time to consider their conceptions (or misconceptions) of history. When they are asked to comment on the nature of historical accounts, most consider history to be an objective recording of the past, assembled from a clear and complete body of information. Few think of historical narratives as interpretive reconstructions of the past, assembled from fragmentary, sometimes contradictory traces.

Misconceptions about Primary Sources

Children and adolescents also have a limited grasp of the credibility of primary sources, and even less of the process by which those sources are evaluated and synthesized. Many consider primary sources to have greater credibility than secondary sources because the creators of primary sources were "there at the time." Young people also interpret primary sources uncritically, often taking the text as fact or at face value. Few take into account how authors' perspectives or intentions shape their representations, and even more sophisticated students interpret primary sources uncritically, taking into account only the most obvious examples of author bias. Most can barely analyze or critique one primary source in relation to another, nor can they adequately evaluate and synthesize primary sources with conflicting information. And studies that examined high school students' use of primary sources to construct historical arguments have produced mixed findings about whether students can use evidence to support their explanations.

Even when students recognize that primary sources provide partial and perspectival information, they have difficulty understanding how historians make the leap from the analysis of evidence to synthesis and interpretation. Some assume that once there is enough evidence to complete a fairly comprehensive picture, the historian simply organizes it and writes up an account. Others believe that historians create accounts from conflicting primary sources by adding up the evidence for and against a particular claim, adopting the assertion for which there is the most evidence, and disregarding that which runs contrary. Few high school students comprehend the role that historians' perspectives or frameworks play in evaluating and synthesizing primary source evidence to construct historical interpretations.4

Misconceptions about Human Motivation and Action

Researchers consistently have found that young people possess a limited understanding of historical actors' and groups' motivations and actions. When asked to explain why historical actors or groups believed or behaved as they did, students describe people in the past as less intelligent than people today, or even "stupid." Young people also rely on presentism, that is, they project themselves into a historical period, recognizing that circumstances were different than they are now, but responding to a specific situation from a contemporary standpoint. Students also tend to be very judgmental of historical actors, critically asking, for example, why enslaved people "didn't just run away" or how people "voted for a crook like Nixon."5

Misconceptions about Historical Change and Consequence

Young people also hold simplistic ideas about the complexity and effects of historical change. When asked why things in the past changed, many credited singular leaders or causes, explaining their influence in straightforward and linear ways. This is especially the case for young people in the United States, who overestimate the significance of great individuals as forces for change. Young people also have difficulty comprehending complex relationships between or among individuals, groups, processes or events, and rarely credit large-scale economic, political or social factors for change. In explaining the transformation in status for people of color or women, for example, many suggest that shifts in individual or group attitudes—rather than economic, political or legal shifts—are the driving factors of change.

Similarly, young people think of historical consequences and effects primarily in relation to individuals or groups. They often discuss how processes or events changed people's conditions or beliefs for better or worse, but rarely examine how events like the Civil War transformed the economy, political alignments and social relations. In considering historical causes and effects, older students are typically more capable than younger students of explaining how multiple causes and consequences have shaped the past.6

Teaching History as Inquiry and Interpretation

By reorganizing traditional teaching practices, even in small ways, teachers can provide experiences for students to comprehend and construct historical accounts in more credible and complex ways. By organizing lessons around open-ended questions, rather than definitive texts, teachers can begin to reshape young people's views of the objective and authoritative nature of historical accounts. Questions that require students to evaluate the revolutionary consequences of the American Revolution or the progressive nature of the Progressive Era, for example, encourage young people to challenge their (and textbooks') assumptions about neat categorizations. Students who confront different historical accounts of the same actors or events can compare the questions, evidence conclusions authors drew. Through these exercises, teachers can enable young people to see history more as an investigation into a past shaped at least as much by the nature of the questions posed and methodologies employed as the answers generated.7

Teachers who have taught students to interpret primary sources have had some success. Students who've been encouraged to question authors' identities and intentions have become more critical in their interpretations of primary sources. Teachers also have organized lessons around historical questions, provided primary sources to address those questions, and challenged and extended students' interpretations and syntheses of the sources. These methods have enabled students to craft historically sound explanations and create more inclusive and complex interpretations as they've learned to handle more challenging primary sources.8

More ambitious attempts to challenge students' misconceptions have involved organizing entire courses around teaching young people to interpret evidence to answer historical questions. Teachers also have modeled—and had students continually practice through oral presentation and written texts—evaluating one or more primary sources, and/or synthesizing primary sources to generate evidence and construct historical accounts. Key elements of these interventions included sustained instruction over the course of a semester or year in historical analysis, synthesis, and argumentation.9

Teachers who have focused instruction around particular goals, such as enabling young people to construct more sophisticated ideas about human motivation or cause and effect, also have had some positive impact. Successful teachers have included materials that illustrate the complexity of human intentions and actions. They've required students to reference evidence when making claims about historical actors' thoughts and actions, and challenged implausible or ahistoric explanations. Teachers also have chipped away at students' presentist views of human motivation and action by explaining how the historical contexts in which ideas and actions unfolded make some explanations more plausible than others. Similarly, teachers who have taught about multiple and interrelated historical causes and consequences, as well as the reasons for and effects of large-scale economic, political and social change, have enabled young people to move beyond naming or explaining singular and simple causes and effects.10

While it's never been an easy task to teach young people to think as historians do, it is possible and desirable to challenge their misconceptions about how we come to understand the past. While most may never acquire the subtle and complex understanding of historical epistemology that years of graduate training and professional practice make possible, all young people can become better educated about how history is practiced and historical accounts are produced.

Terrie Epstein is a Professor of Education at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of Interpreting National History: Race, Identity and Pedagogy in Classrooms and Communities and co-author (with Diana Turk, Rachel Mattson and Robert Cohen) of Teaching U. S. History: Dialogs among Social Studies Teachers and Historians, both published in 2009 by Routledge Press She recently has been awarded a Fulbright Scholar Research Award, to be completed during the Spring 2013 semester, for the project, "How the Past Informs the Present: New Zealand Adolescents' Views of the Treaty of Waitangi."


1. Keith C. Barton, "Research on Students' Ideas about History," in Handbook of Research in Social Studies Education, ed. Linda S. Levstik and Cynthia A. Tyson (New York: Routledge Press, 2008).

2. Sam Wineburg, "Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts," Phi Delta Kappan 80 (1999): 488-499.

3.Bruce A. VanSledright and Christine Kelly, "Reading American History: The Influence of Multiple Sources on Six Fifth Graders," Elementary School Journal, 98 (1998): 239–265; Richard Paxton, "A Deafening Silence: History Textbooks and the Students who Read Them," Review of Educational Research, 69 (1999): 315–339; Stuart J. Foster and Elizabeth A. Yeager, "'You Just Got to Put the Pieces Together: English Twelve Year Olds Encounter and Learn from Historical Evidence," Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 14 (1999): 286–317; Yi-Mei Hsiao, "Taiwanese Students' Understanding of Differences in History Textbook Accounts," in Rosalyn Ashby, Peter Gordon and Peter Lee, Understanding History: Recent Research in History Education, vol. 4 of International Review of History Education (London: Routledge Press, 2004): 54–67; Isabel Barca, "'Till New Facts are Discovered': Students' Ideas about Objectivity in History," in Ashby, Gordon and Lee, Understanding History, 68–82.

4. Samuel S. Wineburg, "On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach between School and Academy," American Educational Research Journal 28 (1991): 495–519; Marcy Gabella, "Beyond the Looking Glass: Bringing Students Into the Conversation of Historical Inquiry," Theory and Research in Social Education 22 (1994): 340–363; VanSledright and Kelly, "Reading American History;" Elizabeth Yeager, Stuart Foster, Sean Maley, Tom Anderson and James Morris, "Why People in the Past Acted as They Did: An Exploratory Study in Historical Empathy," International Journal in Social Education 13 (1998): 8–14; Gaea Leinhardt and Kathleen M. Young, "Writing from Primary Documents," Written Communication 15 (1998): 25–68; Keith C. Barton, "Primary Children's Understanding of Historical Evidence: Comparisons Between the United States and Northern Ireland," International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research, 1 (2001), 21–30; Peter Lee, "History in an Information Culture," International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research 1 (2001); Marilia Gago, "Children's Understanding of Historical Narrative in Portugal," in Ashby, Gordon and Lee, Understanding History, 83–97; Jade Kohlmeier, "'Couldn't She Just Leave?' The Relationship between Consistently Using Class Discussions and the Development of Historical Empathy in a Ninth Grade World History Course," Theory and Research in Social Education 34 (2006): 34–57 .

5.Dennis Shemilt, "Adolescent Ideas about Evidence and Methodology in History," in The History Curriculum for Teachers, ed. Christopher Portal (London: Heinemann, 1987): 39–61; Rosalyn Ahsby and Peter Lee, "Children's Concepts of Empathy and Understanding of History," in The History Curriculum for Teachers, ed. Portal, 62–88; Kohlmeier, "Couldn't She Just Leave?"; Peter Lee and Rosalyn Ashby, "Empathy, Perspective Taking and Rational Understanding," in Historical Empathy and Perspective Taking in the Social Studies, ed. O. L. Davis, Elizabeth Yeager and Stuart Foster (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001): 199–222; Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press: 2000); Terrie Epstein, Edwin Mayorga and Joseph Nelson, "Teaching about Race in an Urban History Class: The Effects of Culturally Relevant Teaching," Journal of Social Studies Research 35 (2011): 1-28.

6.John Wills, "Who Needs Multicultural Education? White Students, U. S. History and the Construction of a Usable Past," Anthropology and Education Quarterly 27 (1996): 365–389; Keith C. Barton, "'Bossed Around by the Queen': Elementary Students' Understanding of Individuals and Institutions in History," Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 12 (1997): 290–214; Keith C. Barton, "A Sociocultural Perspective on Children's Understanding of Change: Comparative Findings from Northern Ireland and the United States," American Educational Research Journal 38 (2001): 881–913; Lee and Ashby, "Empathy, Perspective Taking and Rational Understanding."

7. Robert H. Bain, "Into the Breach: Using Research and Theory to Shape History Instruction," in Knowing, Teaching and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, ed. Peter Stearns, Peter Seixas and Sam Wineburg (New York: NYU Press, 2000): 331–352; Bruce A. VanSledright, In Search of America's Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002); Linda S. Levstik and Keith C. Barton, Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2005); Kohlmeier, "Couldn't She Just Leave?"; Diana Turk, Rachel Mattson, Terrie Epstein and Robert Cohen, eds., Teaching U. S. History: Dialogs among Social Studies Teachers and Historians (New York: Routledge Press, 2009); Chauncey Monte-Sano, " Beyond Reading Comprehension and Summary: Learning to Read and Write in History by Focusing on Evidence, Perspective and Interpretation," Curriculum Inquiry 41 (2011); 212–248.

8. Fred Newmann, "Higher Order Thinking in Teaching Social Studies: A Rationale for the Assessment of Classroom Thoughtfulness," Journal of Curriculum Studies 22 (1990): 41–56; Terrie Epstein, "The Arts of History: An Analysis of Secondary Students' Interpretations of the Arts in Historical Contexts," Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 9 (1994): 174–194; Marcy Gabella, "The Arts of Historical Sense" Journal of Curriculum Studies 27 (1994): 139–163; Elizabeth Yeager and O. L. Davis, "Classroom Teachers' Thinking about Historical Texts: An Exploratory Study," Theory and Research in Social Education 24 (1996): 146–166; Foster and Yeager, "'You Just Got to Put the Pieces Together'" ; Keith C. Barton, "'I Just Kinda Know': Elementary Students' Ideas about Historical Evidence," Theory and Research in Social Education 25 (1997): 407–430; VanSledright, In Search of America's Past; Rosalyn Ashby, "Developing a Concept of Historical Evidence: Students' Ideas about Testing Singular Factual Claims," International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research 4 (2004); Monte-Sano, "Beyond Reading Comprehension and Summary."

9. See Note 8.

10. Dennis Shemilt, History Evaluation 13–16 Evaluation Study (Edinburgh: Holmes McDougall, 1980); Newmann, "Higher Order Thinking"; Jere Brophy, "Elementary Students Learn about Native Americans: The Development of Knowledge and Empathy," Social Education 63 (1999): 38–45; Barton, "A Sociocultural Perspective"; Linda S. Levstik and Jeanette Groth, "Ruled by Our Own People: Ghanian Adolescents' Conceptions of Citizenship," Teachers College Press 107 (2005): 563–586; Kohlmeier, "Couldn't She Just Leave?"; Epstein, Mayorga and Nelson, "Teaching about Race in an Urban History Class."