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Historical Reasoning in the Classroom

Historical scholarship is a rich practice of reading, thinking, discussing and writing. Paul (2011) argues that philosophers of history should study this ‘scholarship in action’, in order to answer the question what historians do when they perform their research. How historians read, think, discuss and write is also of interest to history education researchers. Several scholars argued that historical thinking or reasoning is a key aspect of doing history (e.g., Barton & Levstik, 2004; Lee, 2005; Levesque, 2008; Schreiber, Korber, Von Borries, Krammer, & Leutner-Ramme, 2006; Seixas & Morton, 2012; Van Boxtel & Van Drie, 2013; Van Drie & Van Boxtel, 2008; VanSledright, 2010). We use the term historical reasoning because it is an activity (reasoning as a process) and an outcome (the reasoning that is constructed) that we can more easily identify in students’ speech or writing in the classroom. A reasoning contains statements in which historical phenomena are interrelated and arguments that support those statements.

But what does historical reasoning looks like in the classroom? We define historical reasoning in the classroom, in speech and writing, by specifying the type of reasoning that is constructed and the activities that together constitute the reasoning. Based upon literature on how experts in the field of history think and reason, empirical research literature on how students reason about the past and our own analyses of students’ reasoning in the classroom (in written products, but also in small groups and whole-class discussions), we identified three types and six components of historical reasoning (Van Drie & Van Boxtel, 2008). Historical reasoning can involve the analysis and evaluation of patterns of continuity and change over time; the identification, analysis and evaluation of causes and consequences of historical phenomena and the actions of people in the past or the comparison of historical developments and phenomena across place, time or different societies. In order to construct a historical reasoning one (a) asks historical questions, (b) connects events, developments and actions of people in the past to specific circumstances and characteristics of time, place and broader developments (contextualization), (c) uses substantive historical concepts (facts, concepts and chronology) and (d) meta-concepts (and related strategies) of history, (e) puts forward claims supported with arguments which are (f) based on evidence from critically evaluated sources. When constructing a reasoning one does not only construct temporal and causal relations, but also needs to make a case for assertions about change and continuity, causes and consequences or differences and communalities. A historical argument is developed through analysis and critical evaluation of other historical interpretations and historical evidence (see also Monte-Sano & De La Paz, 2012).

Whether or not and how students engage in historical reasoning is shaped by their interest, substantive and meta-conceptual knowledge and beliefs about history (Van Boxtel, 2014; Van Boxtel & Van Drie, 2013). Students must be motivated to better understand a particular historical phenomenon and feel a need to engage in reasoning. Experts have a well-developed interest in the domain and therefore intrinsic motivation to explore possible explanations, analyze aspects of change and continuity and make comparisons. Most students, however, do not have this intrinsic motivation in history, so their historical interest needs to be triggered. This situational interest enhances the asking of historical questions which can be considered an engine of historical reasoning (Logtenberg, Van Boxtel, & Van Hout-Wolters, 2011). Students’ interest in history is also shaped by their identity (e.g., Grever, Haydn, & Ribbens, 2008). Research showed that students’ identity influences their perception of the significance of historical issues, the way they evaluate and interpret historical evidence and construct a historical argumentation (see Goldberg, Schwarz, & Porat, 2008).

Several scholars have pointed out that second-order or meta-concepts of history, such as evidence, cause and historical significance, provide the basis of historical thinking and reasoning (e.g., Lee, 2005; Levesque, 2008; Limon, 2002; Seixas & Morton, 2012; VanSledright, 2010). A deeper understanding of causation in history, for example, supports the ability to analyze causes and consequences. Although in literature on historical thinking and reasoning, it is commonly acknowledged that content knowledge is important for historical reasoning, it still is somewhat neglected in research on historical thinking and reasoning. The acquisition of knowledge of historical facts, concepts and chronology, should not be an end in itself, but students must be able to productively use this knowledge to analyze processes of change and continuity, explain and compare. It is only on the basis of profound (instead of superficial) knowledge that students can construct such reasoning. In history, for example, colligatory concepts, such as the Renaissance or the Cold War, are often used to interpret processes of change and continuity and to make comparisons between historical phenomena and periods. Although these abstract concepts are difficult to appropriate for students, they are powerful tools for historical thinking and reasoning. Furthermore, the way students’ substantive knowledge is framed, for example in a national ‘grand narrative’ or a narrative of progression, will also shape students’ reasoning and the ability to critically analyze the reasoning of others.

Finally, development of more sophisticated epistemological beliefs can enhance historical reasoning. Students differ in their beliefs about the complexity of historical knowledge, the source of and certainty of this knowledge, and whether there can be competing interpretations attempting to explain the same historical phenomenon. These epistemological beliefs affect learning and reasoning (e.g., Mason & Boscolo, 2004). For example, students who believe that knowledge consists of interconnected ideas (rather than a disconnected series of facts) better understand texts presenting alternative positions on controversial ideas (Kardash & Scholes, 1996). Kuhn and Weinstock (2002) described how students move from the idea that assertions about the past are copies of reality and are either correct or incorrect facts (realist or absolutist epistemology) to the idea that assertions are opinions (multiplist epistemology), and finally to the idea that assertions are judgments based on weighing arguments (evaluativist epistemology). Recently, in the domain of history, it is argued that students’ epistemological beliefs affect their ability and inclination to reason historically (Havekes et al., 2012; Maggioni et al., 2009; VanSledright & Limon, 2006). When students perceive history as ‘what happened in the past’ and not as an interpretation and an answer to the questions we ask, it doesn’t make much sense to engage in critical examination of historical sources and historical argumentation. In a lesson unit meant to enhance students’ causal historical reasoning, we tried to define the implications of different epistemic stances (Stoel et al., 2015). Students who are in the so-called ‘copier’ stance might consider causes as ‘things’ that can be ‘found’ in the sources. Students who are in the subjectivist stance understand that the selection of causes and the construction of an explanation is subject to interpretation and that multiple interpretations are possible, but are not able to use criteria for the use of evidence and argumentation for judging the strength of a historical explanation. Students in the criterialist stance are able to do that.

Thus, in order to provoke and improve students’ historical reasoning, we also need to trigger historical interest, promote the application of substantive knowledge and meta-concepts in reasoning (both in talk and writing) and enhance reflection on how historical knowledge is constructed. Furthermore, we need to be aware of how students’ identity might be at play during historical reasoning and how the narratives in which their historical knowledge is framed might affect their reasoning.

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