What elements of historical thinking have remained at the heart of history teaching over the decades?

The core elements that have remained constant in the ongoing scholarly conversations on the teaching of historical thinking have been historical empathy, historical significance, continuity and change, evidence. I would like to explore them, but through the lens of the historical empathy, that is, the ability to recognize and empathize with the perspectives and contexts of past societies.

Calder and Steffes describe the critical role that historical empathy plays in the teaching of historical thinking: “A historical consciousness fosters perspective taking and empathy, and, because it requires students to wrestle with the limits of knowledge, historical thinking is a training ground for solving problems when definitive answers are elusive.” The desire to instill empathic strategies to help students understand past historical events is not something new, as it has been vocalized in scholarly circles since the early 1900s.

On his AHA (1931) presidential address, Carl L. Becker speaks of Mr. Everyone’s ability to live and possess history through an imaginative reconstruction, one that “brings it alive in consciousness.” Historical empathy is performative, requiring the individual to recall and anticipate, and to weave the “blend of facts and fancy” into the present. Mr. Everyday may not have been present to observe past events, but through living history, he remembered, he re-visited, and he gave the gathered “blend of facts and fancy” a substance-form that worked for his present.

Many of the sustained conversations on teaching historical empathy revolve on the idea of mediating the tensions between the familiar and strange, between what is proximate and what is distant. For Wineburg, we need to alienate ourselves in order to “locate our own place in the stream of time and solidify our identity in the present.” The teaching of historical thinking throughout the past century has been about helping learners articulate history from those familiar-strange tension points. According to Miles Kelly, alienation would allow learners to un-cling themselves from hegemonic narratives, to position themselves in the larger picture of the past through the evaluation of evidence, and to expand their own perspectives by seeing that past as a not-so-foreign country.

Even though teachers and historians have been recognizing all along the need to instill historical thinking in K-12 classrooms, they have struggled reaching consensus on a framework with a shared set of history learning outcomes. In addition to the differences and disconnects in their approaches, they had to abide by a nation-building agenda that promoted “memory-history” as part of the U.S. school system curricula. This method, which is based on the memorization of facts, does not allow for the development of historical empathy.

The situation was no different in the 1960s and 70s, where, even though teachers were able to present more diversified content, they had to condense their already busy curricula to accommodate this additional content. By this period, they also had to subscribe to the tradition of “persistent instruction”, one driven by politics, the textbook monopoly, and the pervasiveness of large-scale testing. In “Crazy for History”, Wineburg points out some of the shortcomings of having standardized testing as the measure of students’ understanding of history. In terms historical empathy, “norm-referenced” testing solidified the focus of instruction to memorizing facts and names, which did not allow for time to teach history through perspective-taking activities.

The scholarship from early 2000 presents a more favorable situation in higher education, an academic arena where it’s easier to present history as a discipline to equip majors with historical thinking skills.  Calder and Steffes address the need for students to destabilize what they know as their present in order to understand the context and perspectives of those who came before them: “Mediating between the pastness of the past and the presentness of the past gives people with a historical perspective a reflective self-awareness that actively searches for the plausibility of beliefs and actions different from their own.”  Developing this empathic view of the past in order to develop a critical perspective of the present, was also explored by Levesque, who also believes in the notion of transporting ourselves to the past in order to avoid “intuitive presentist judgments of past actors.” (37)

Initiatives, such as the AHA Tuning Project, have rehearsed collaborative efforts to frame the teaching of historical thinking skills. Empathy plays a large role in the overarching aim of AHA’s core competencies and learning outcomes, in particular, when it comes to the competency of developing historical methods.


Becker, Carl L. “Everyman His Own Historian.” American Historical Review 37, no. 2. December 29, 1931. p. 221–36

Calder, Lendol and Tracy Steffes. “Measuring College Learning in History.” Social Science Research Council. May 2016.

Hyde, Anne. “AHA History Tuning Project: 2016 History Discipline Core.” American Historical Association

Kelly, T. Mills. “Thinking: How Students Learn About the Past” in Teaching History in the Digital Age 2013.

Lévesque, Stéphane. Thinking Historically. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008

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