HM - Sept. 2013 - Lesh

History's Habits of Mind


Navigating Stormy Seas 
by Bruce Lesh
Maryland State Social Studies Coordinator
Past NCHE Board Member
Author of "Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer"

As a classroom teacher of history, I often wonder exactly what it is that I am supposed to achieve with my students.  Am I to be the purveyor of facts about the past, the conveyor of an agreed-upon (or more likely debated) heritage story, or the facilitator of college- and career-ready skills? I know in my heart-of-hearts that my students are not destined to become history professors, nor are they even likely to major in the discipline. I also know that in many instances they need to pass some external test that evaluates their knowledge of the past and increasingly is used to measure my efficacy as a teacher. I understand these realities and yet awake everyday in love with the ideas, events, and individuals that populate the past.
For me, The National Council for History Education’s “History’s Habits of Mind” have always served as a beacon for how I make my way through the sea of demands I face as a classroom teacher.  By focusing on the outcomes enumerated in the Habits I am able to successfully navigate through the assessment and curriculum requirements and still help my students gain an appreciation of the core beliefs of my discipline.
Unlike specific rubrics and heuristics related to historical literacy, History’s Habits of Mind speak to the broader byproducts of an effective history education by empowering and enabling individuals to:
  • Grasp the significance of the past in shaping the present;
  • Perceive past events and issues as they might have been experienced by the people of the time, with historical empathy rather than present-mindedness;
  • Read critically, to discern differences between evidence and assertion and to frame useful and appropriate questions about the past;
  • Interrogate texts and artifacts, posing questions about the past that foster informed discussion, reasoned debate and evidence-based interpretation;
  • Recognize that history is an evolving narrative constructed from available sources, cogent inferences and changing interpretations;
  • Appreciate the diversity of cultures and variety of historical contexts, as well as to distinguish elements of our shared humanity;
  • Understand the impact made by individuals, groups and institutions at local, national and global levels both in effecting change and in ensuring continuity;
  • Realize that all individuals are decision makers, but that personal and public choices are often restricted by time, place and circumstance;
  • Negotiate a complex, often uncertain and ambiguous world, equipped with the appreciation for multiple perspectives;
  • Engage in patient reflection and constant reexamination of the past and present.
Although the “measurability” of the Habits might be too complex to be quantified via a multiple-choice question, or even a well-designed Document Based Question (DBQ), these are nonetheless the true and lasting by-products of an effective history education. For curriculum writers or classroom teachers, History’s Habits of Mind serve as an important tool in the preservation and perpetuation of History in the K-16 curriculum.