Historical Thinking and Reorientation of Reading Historical Texts

Too Much Expectation? Reconsidering Debates on Historical Thinking

From the early 1990s, history education as a nascent field of research was mainly focused on the curriculum and textbook issues; it then extended its purview by introducing the debates and controversies on the Piaget-Peel-Hallam model in Britain and the USA (Wineburg, 1996). Since this time, historical thinking has become one of the most important research issues in history teaching and learning in Korea. This trend reflected the attempt to confer proper value and meaning on teaching history by examining the nature and procedure of historical knowledge production.

The concept of historical thinking was not unfamiliar in Korea. Tholfsen emphasized in his book, Historical Thinking, the uniqueness of the concept of historical thinking by quoting L.P. Hartley’s famous phrase, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” (Tholfsen, 1967). As was the case in other countries, it was widely accepted belief that history teaching should encourage and promote students’ active thinking rather than limit knowledge acquisition to the mere remembering of names, dates, and other historical facts. First, historical consciousness was considered as a useful conceptual tool to renovate this inactive history teaching. Not clearly distinguished from historical thinking, historical consciousness was a heuristic tool for students to learn and achieve. For example, in the 1970s, historical consciousness was broadly defined as a “critical awareness of one’s own belonging to and positioning in time and space”. This consciousness ranged from a lower-level of consciousness, recognizing the simple distinction between the past and the present, to the higher-level consciousness, understanding historical periodization such as ancient, medieval, and modern (Kang, 1978). The implication of defining and categorizing historical consciousness was that students could be provided with appropriate topics and materials according to their developmental levels, which was theoretically, but not yet experimentally, established.

In contrast to this static and fixed stage of historical consciousness, historical thinking—a revised theoretical construction that eclipsed the Piaget-Peel- Hallam model controversy—drew Korean researchers’ attention because of its emphasis on students’ active thinking process. Thus, the important research topics were as follows: how do you promote this thinking ability or attitude, and what is the special nature of historical thinking once it adheres to this new paradigm? The short answer to these questions would be: historical thinking is the subject-engaged and domain-specific thought process in which practicing historians can read historical texts. Students were supposed to learn to read like a historian (Wineburg, Martin, & Monte-Sano, 2012). The adoption of such methodology was considered aphoristically as “doing history”.

However, in accepting the concept of historical thinking, it was often categorized as thinking skills, as was done in the National Standards in the USA (National Center for History in Schools, 1994). In this vein, many papers tried to categorize thinking skills systematically in order to establish the hierarchy of each component and to match specified skills to appropriate historical contents (Choi, 2000). Some Korean researchers and educational policy makers, in order to evade ideological tensions surrounding the continuing debates on the national history textbook content, tended to diminish the ideological implications of teaching history by stressing these thinking skills as value neutral. According to them, students are to learn basic historical facts and frames of the official national history. It is only after reaching maturity that they are expected to have the appropriate interpretative and evaluative skills to fully cognize controversial historical issues. Of course, this seemingly neutral position was aimed to fend off the alternative views on the nationalized or authorized textbook content.

Thus, it was indicated that researchers on historical thinking rather tended to emphasize thinking skills instead of investigating the meaning of the term “historical” in historical thinking. Peter Lee (2010) pointed out that, in teaching history, “skills are not unproblematic generic terms, which can be easily practiced or easily transferred”. According to Lee, what matters in learning history is learning “to handle new concepts and think in different ways” (2010: xiii). In a similar vein, Rosalyn Ashby and Christopher Edwards (2010) indicated that “doing what historians do” or behaving like “mini-historians” has shifted attention away “from the understanding of historical knowledge towards a skills and activities history”.

This shift has in some instances been accompanied by a belief that their own historical claims take priority, with students being encouraged to believe that everyone is entitled to an opinion in a subject that has no answers. While history may not work with right answers, it does work with an understanding of validity, and within a context of public scrutiny where claims about the past are held to account within a field of expertise. (Ashby & Edwards, 2010: 39)

The assumptions and premises about historical thinking were also criticized in relation to its disciplinary basis. If the nature and procedure of history, as a discipline and a historians’ specific way of knowing things respectively, are taken to be the basis or model for historical thinking, then what are the disciplinary aspects and to which historians does this actually refer (Yang, 2003)? Most research does not often question the disciplinary nature of history nor the positions and interests of historians as they pursue their research; nevertheless, different views and voices cast doubt upon the epistemological foundations of a conventional and disciplined history. According to Joan Scott (1989), we should problematize the historical and social context in which the knowledge and theories are produced and articulated. This “problematization” also entails criticism of the social and linguistic conventions by which the specific knowledge is defined. In advocating for the “critical approach”, distinguished from the disciplinary approach, Avner Segall (2006) also insists that “history is produced by the socially constructed operations and mechanism of a discipline, thus the production of meaning in history is always human and mutable”. According to Segall, it is important to ask students to first examine any given historical interpretation “according to what conventional and methodological practices, whose discourse, whose standards, whose past?” so that they can “consider why and how different discursive communities produce different truths about a supposedly common past” (2006: 138-139).

Thus, historical thinking gradually came to be defined and approached not as a kind of thinking skill but as something to be attained as a conceptual apparatus, while more and more emphasis was laid on reading historical texts. This change in the research focus, in part, was influenced by the introduction of postmodern perspectives on historical epistemology.

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