Big Ideas in Literacy
The Historian's Habits of Mind
Because historians investigate the past, much of what they do is detective work—they search for evidence and clues that will help answer questions they consider worthy or significant. They pore over documents, texts, and artifacts in order to re-create and make sense of a past event. They work with emerging ideas and develop hunches along the way, making connections between the past and present. To do this kind of work, historians think in certain ways. Such ways of thinking are habitual for historians and are called habits of mind.
While there are many habits of mind that a historian might possess while doing history, these units focus on a few that relate to teaching history using methods that promote literacy:
- An orientation toward inquiry and asking questions
- The role of interpretation and argument or narrative
- The use of sources as evidence for making claims
History is an inquiry into events and people in the past, which are unfamiliar to those in the present and must be understood through research. History, as undertaken by historians, is not simply the study of dates and facts, although knowing such background information is important. Rather, history is a process of asking questions about the past and making reasoned conclusions about what is known. By doing so, historians can begin to understand why people in the past acted the way they did or why certain events happened.
What one historian might write about the past is not necessarily the same as what another might write. Since evidence of every perspective and every detail of the past simply does not exist, historians are limited to working with what artifacts do remain. Therefore, they write different arguments—sometimes in the form of narratives—because of their differing interpretations of evidence within the historical record. In doing so, historians note the causes of past events, what has changed or remained the same over time, how people of the past viewed their world, and significant turning points that affected the decisions people made in the past. By doing all of this, historians develop interpretations about the past—what happened and why—and communicate them to others.