Elisa Litvin
From Historical Ways of Knowing to Teacher Pedagogy to Student Practice

Elisa A. Litvin
Curriculum Documentation & Reporting Leader at St Aloysius College
President, History Teachers' Association of Victoria

A few years ago, I was teaching Year 8 History, and one of my students, as they do, asked, “Ms Litvin, what are we doing today?” “We are going to watch A Knight’s Tale,” I replied.

After watching the first 50 minutes, I stopped the film for a class discussion. We discussed what the film showed about life for a medieval knight and the character of Geoffrey Chaucer (who is based on the real historical figure) and how and why the filmmaker had chosen to interpret this time in history. They were able to compare what they knew about the different levels of medieval society, knighthood, and Chaucer to the film. They loved the film (most had not seen it before), and they quickly recognised that there were several anachronisms in it. I pointed out that the filmmaker had done that deliberately for multiple reasons. My students were analysing a historical interpretation of a period of historical significance, discussing the primary sources that may have been used to inform the interpretation, and identifying the different historical perspectives that informed the characters, using the significant amount of historical knowledge they had amassed over the semester. I asked them if their observations would have been the same if we had watched the film at the start of our study of the Middle Ages. One student said, “No, because we didn’t know enough at the start of the semester.” We were able to have this discussion because I had taught them to use the same habits of mind that historians use in their own practice. Those habits of mind have come to be known as historical thinking concepts.

The historical thinking concepts that underpin the Victorian Curriculum History from Foundation through to VCE are based in large part on the work of Peter Seixas. In his key text The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts, Seixas and his co-author Tom Morton defined six key historical thinking concepts as the core for developing students historical understanding:

  1. Historical significance: How do we decide what is important to learn about the past?
  2. Evidence: How do we know what we know about the past?
  3. Continuity and change: How can we make sense of the complex flow of history?
  4. Cause and consequence: Why do events happen, and what are their impacts?
  5. Historical perspective-taking: How can we better understand the people of the past?
  6. The ethical dimension: How can history help us to live in the present?[i]

Seixas’ aim in developing these concepts was to enable students to develop their “understanding of how to handle the different and sometimes conflicting stories of the past”.[ii] The advantage of this way of learning about the past is that students develop the ability to critically engage with the fact that history is not a static narrative of the past but a constructed conversation with it.[iii] All of these concepts, with the exception of the ethical dimension, have become the foundational skills of the Victorian history curriculum from Foundation to Year 12.

The ongoing challenge for history teachers is first to understand these historical thinking concepts and then to adapt their pedagogy to incorporate these new ways of teaching and learning history. Because, this is a different way of approaching history. This is not a simple amassing of historical knowledge. It also requires students to develop the ability to deeply engage with that historical knowledge, to think critically about the past and construct their own meaning of it. Even as a teacher who considers myself to be a trained historian, explicitly implementing these concepts into my practice has required me to engage in professional learning and reading for over ten years. This professional learning has provided me with a deeper understanding of best practice in embedding historical thinking in my classroom.

During one of my most helpful professional learning experiences, I was privileged to be able to spend a week with history educators from Canada deeply exploring each of Seixas’ historical thinking concepts. One of the most valuable insights that I was given was that the historical thinking concepts should not be viewed as separate skills to be taught to the students, but interconnected circles that work together:

When I saw this model, I thought about juggling as a metaphor for historical thinking. The best historians juggle all six balls at once. History teachers and students do not need to achieve the feat of juggling all of the balls every lesson, but once they are good at juggling one or two balls, they can add another, and another, and soon they will be able to juggle multiple balls at once. The key is to be explicit: name the balls that are being juggled in any one lesson and clearly explain how they fit together. For example, if you are discussing the historical significance of an event, you may want to also discuss ideas of continuity and change: Is the event significant because it was a turning point? Did the event lead to progress of one group or decline for another? What evidence are students using to support their reasoning? Now, this ability to “juggle” does not take place overnight. Like any new skill, it takes practice. And juggling is an apt metaphor. Anyone who juggles will tell you that they did not start out juggling five, or four, or three balls at once. They started with one, then added another, and built up from there. Let me demonstrate how this would work using the Eureka Rebellion as an example topic. Exploring this topic using historical thinking concepts could cover three key knowledge points in the Level 9-10 Australia and Asia unit.[i]

Evidence and Interpretation

Evidence and interpretation are always at the centre. It is the foundational “ball”. That means that the knowledge from sources of all kinds (primary sources and historical interpretations) is the base students use to engage with the other concepts. Without evidence and interpretations, history students cannot “do history”. Students need to understand that almost any source they encounter is a product of human interpretation. Let’s start with historical interpretations a teacher could use. Most schools use one textbook. Have your students interrogate it as a source using the criteria below. Then find the section on Eureka from other textbooks and have them interrogate those. Add in excerpts from books for different historians, such as Clare Wright’s We Are the Rebels: The Women and Men Who Made Eureka. When using secondary accounts, including textbooks, students should assess them on whether or not the author’s conclusions are justifiable.

The first question students are meant to ask of interpretations is about the dependability of primary sources. Any good historian provides the means to trace the sources they have used.

Our students can also engage with those primary sources, especially now that many archives have scanned their collections and put them online. For example, students could read an article related to the Eureka Rebellion published in the Argus from 21 December 1854 through Trove. Primary accounts can be assessed for credibility.

In the case of primary sources, it is often better for a teacher to curate a set of sources for students based on the lesson of the day, unless research itself is the objective of the lesson.

Historical Significance

While evidence and interpretations are the foundation of historical thinking, historical significance is the key, the hook, the “second ball”. Without it, you are not juggling, you are simply tossing a ball in the air and catching it. Historical significance addresses the question of why something is worth studying. Using historical inquiry questions can help students grasp the nature of historical significance. In a history classroom, historical inquiry questions can be powerful ways of framing lessons or units, often more powerful than simply stated learning intentions and success criteria. A historical inquiry questions should engage students, provides guidance, and results in students being able to generate an answer to the question at the end of the lesson or series of lessons. For example: “Was the Eureka Rebellion really an attempt to overthrow the British Government in Victoria?” Exploring this question and unpacking all facets of it would allow students to determine the historical significance of Eureka by assessing the change it led to, the issues it shed light on, how its narrative has been constructed by historians, and how its significance has varied over time. Even though I say that historical significance is the “second ball”, an inquiry question should be the first thing introduced to the students. It becomes the foundation of the unit of work and should be posted and referred to at the start of every lesson.

Continuity and Change

The third “ball” is continuity and change. Continuity and change are two halves of the process of history. They are intertwined and simultaneous. Although the Victorian Curriculum F-10 separates Chronology from Continuity and Change in its list of historical thinking skills, Seixas places chronology within continuity and change as a way to demonstrate the intertwined nature of this historical thinking concept.[ii] In fact, he emphasises the use of chronology (timelines) as an active means for engaging with continuity and change. For example, in creating a Eureka timeline, students can have on it both the key events marking change (discovery of gold, the burning of miners’ licenses, the building of the stockade, etc.) and other aspects of history that demonstrate continuity running along the bottom (British rule over Victoria, etc.). Students could use timelines to indicate the pace of a particular change and note key turning points that may have altered the direction of that change. For example, the discovery of gold led to the rapid development of Melbourne. They could add a vertical axis to their timelines and note whether events led to progress for one group of people and decline for another group.

Cause and Consequence

The cause and consequence “ball” works well with continuity and change. This is because historical change/a historical event happens due to multiple causes, both long-term and short-term, of varying influence. Events happen because of both the actions of people (individuals and groups) in the past and the political, social, economic, and cultural conditions they found themselves in. Those actions led to intended and unintended consequences. Using our example of the Eureka Rebellion, students could examine the political, social, and economic conditions existing at the start of the gold rush, and how those conditions led to an influx of immigrants from all over the world to Victoria. They could also explore the actions of the Victorian government in issuing miners’ licences and what the intended consequences (collecting taxes to fund governmental spending) and unintended consequences (miners rebelling) were. Students can also rank the different causes investigated, discussing the varying levels of influence each cause had on the rebellion.

Historical Perspective

Historical perspective is often the most difficult historical thinking concept for teachers and students to grapple with. It is the slipperiest ball to juggle. It requires understanding the gulf between the worldviews of people today and those in the past and avoiding presentism (the imposition of present values and beliefs on people in the past). This requires teachers and students to firmly place people in their historical context: why did they believe what they did? To do this, it is best to use evidence to infer those beliefs, motivations, and values. Teachers and students also need to recognise that in the past, as in the present, people had different perspectives on events. For example, not all miners would have held the same view of miners’ licenses. Historical perspective is mentioned as a subset of the ‘Historical Sources as Evidence’ historical thinking skill. Seixas has historical perspective as a separate historical thinking concept, but he writes that evidence “is a dependable route to understand why the people of the past experienced the world differently than we do today.”[iii]

We history teachers ask our students to do highly complex mental juggling every time they enter our classrooms. For students to demonstrate these skills, we teachers have to be able to incorporate them into the pedagogy of their history classrooms. For teachers to be able to incorporate them into the pedagogy of their history classrooms, we need to understand the historical thinking concepts clearly and deeply. But, like learning to juggle 5 balls at once, historical thinking can be mastered through explicit teaching and continual practice.

Suggestions for further professional reading:

Allender, Tim, Anna Clark, and Robert Parkes. Historical Thinking for History Teachers. London: Routledge, 2019.

Ercikan, Kadriye and Peter Seixas. New Directions in Assessing Historical Thinking. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Seixas, Peter and Tom Morton. The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts. Toronto: Nelson, 2013.

Stipp, Stefan, Lindsay Gibson, Mike Denos, Roland Case, and James Miles. Teaching Historical Thinking. Vancouver, BC: The Critical Thinking Consortium, 2017.

The Historical Thinking Project, https://historicalthinking.ca/

This article is adapted from one that was published in Agora vol. 57 no. 1 (2022)

[i] Peter Seixas and Tom Morton, The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts (Toronto: Nelson, 2013), 10-11
[ii] Peter Seixas, “A Modest Proposal for Change in Canadian History Education,” Teaching History, 137 (December 2009): 30
[iii] Peter Seixas, “A Model of Historical Thinking,” Educational Philosophy and Theory 46, No. 6 (2017): 597-598
[iv] Victorian Curriculum History F-10”, Victorian Curriculum, VCAA, accessed on 3 December 2021, https://victoriancurriculum.vcaa.vic.edu.au/the-humanities/history/curriculum/f-10
[v] Peter Seixas and Tom Morton, The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts (Toronto: Nelson, 2013), 86
[vi] Peter Seixas and Tom Morton, The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts (Toronto: Nelson, 2013), 143