What is Historical Thinking?


Watch this introductory video (or download the transcript) for an overview of ways of thinking inherent in knowing and doing history. Historical thinking is complex and multi-faceted; we focus on five key aspects particularly relevant to the K-12 classroom. These are:

  1. Multiple Accounts & Perspectives
  2. Analysis of Primary Sources
  3. Sourcing
  4. Context
  5. Claim-evidence Connection

What resources are available to help with understanding these facets and teaching them to students of all ages? Below are a few of our favorite such resources at Teachinghistory.org.

Multiple Accounts & Perspectives

The textbook’s account is the one that students encounter most frequently and routinely in their history classrooms. Use the ideas in our Teaching with Textbooks section to plan lessons that extend and complicate the textbook’s oversimplified story. For example, juxtapose it with additional sources. Check out our Beyond the Textbook feature to learn how textbooks get particular historical stories wrong and find primary and secondary sources that will help you and your students build a fuller and more accurate picture of the past. Explore our Lesson Plan Review section to find exemplar lessons for every grade level that use multiple accounts.

Analysis of Primary Sources

Using multiple accounts highlights the necessity of analyzing those accounts and students need explicit instruction in how to analyze primary sources. Explore our Using Primary Sources feature to find resources for helping you accomplish this. Try the worksheets for help with creating analytic questions and establishing thinking routines. And look here for help with locating primary sources. This teaching guide will help you prepare these sources so they are more accessible to your students and this guide explains one method for engaging secondary students in this analysis to answer larger historical questions—the ultimate purpose of analyzing multiple accounts.


When we “source” a document—a word originally coined by researcher Sam Wineburg—it means that we consider its origins to help us make sense of it. Check out this flashmovie at Historicalthinkingmatters.org to get a more extensive explanation and modeling of sourcing. To see lessons where students must source to understand the historical topic, see this review of a Civil Rights Era lesson or try this one where elementary students source antebellum posters and broadsides to understand attitudes about slavery.


Context is at the core of historical thinking and it requires, among other things, making connections between historical eras and circumstances and particular events and accounts. To better understand this idea, watch historian David Jaffee contextualize three colonial objects. Explore this entry to learn how one teacher helps fifth graders contextualize colonial events. Maps and timelines are indispensible tools for helping students learn contextualization. For ideas for teaching with timelines, see this elementary-level guide and this blog. Use our search function to find maps for your topic. To update your background knowledge for more accurate contextualization, search our Website reviews to find helpful resources.

Claim-Evidence Connection

Historical arguments and stories rest on evidence and students need to be taught this essential fact. Many of our reviewed Lesson Plans include activities and tools for prompting students to support historical claims with evidence as our Rubric for those plans includes that criterion. For help with teaching students how to make historical claims, see this guide on writing thesis statements or this entry about helping English Language Learners with cause and effect claims. Finally, look at this blog for useful frameworks for making historical thinking explicit for your students that differ from our five key aspects. These are just a small sample of our resources. Make sure you check out examples of historical thinking that can clarify what these important habits of mind look like, and the Digital Classroom for digital resources that can enliven the teaching of historical thinking.

Image Credits
  • Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
  • Birmingham Public Library
  • Caroline Makein, Fife Rootsearch
  • Charles Moore
  • Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
  • Denver Public Library, Western History Collection
  • Dial B for Blog
  • Farmworker Movement Online Gallery
  • Florida Memory
  • Google Books
  • Harper's Weekly
  • John Kouns
  • Kansas Memory
  • Learn NC
  • Library of Congress
  • Library of Congress, Manuscript Division
  • Massachusetts Historical Society
  • Mellon Collection
  • Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri
  • Montgomery Public Archives
  • National Archives and Records Administration
  • New York Public Library Digital Gallery
  • Prelinger Archive
  • U.S. Army Signal Corps