Historical Habits of Mind

February 10, 2011 at 11:19 AM Leave a comment

Came across a wonderful set of “habits of mind” for historical thinking that was developed by the Bradley Commission on History in Schools on behalf of the National Council for History Education. Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools was published in 1995 and continues to be influential in curriculum design. Highlights are provided below. 


Historical Habits of Mind


  • Understand the significance of the past to one’s own life and to society.
  • Distinguish between what is important or not, to develop the “discriminating memory” needed for judgment in public and personal life.
  • Perceive past events and issues as they were experienced by people at the time, to develop historical empathy as opposed to present-mindedness.
  • Comprehend that diverse cultures and shared humanity exist at the same time.
  • Understand how things happen and how things change, how human intentions matter, but also how their consequences are shaped by the means of carrying them out, in a tangle of purpose and process.
  • Comprehend the interplay of change and continuity, and avoid assuming that either is somehow more natural, or more to be expected, than the other.
  • Prepare to live with uncertainties and exasperating, even perilous, unfinished business, realizing that not all problems have solutions.
  • Grasp the complexity of historical causation, respect uniqueness, and avoid excessively abstract generalizations.
  • Appreciate the often tentative nature of judgments about the past, and thereby avoid the temptation to seize upon particular “lessons” of history as cures for present ills.
  • Recognize the importance of individuals who have made a difference in history, and the significance of personal character for both good and ill.
  • Appreciate the force of the non-rational, the irrational, and the accidental, in history and human affairs.
  • Understand the relationship between geography and history as a matrix of time and place, and as a context for events.
  • Read widely and critically in order to recognize the difference between fact and conjecture, between evidence and assertion, and thereby to frame useful questions.

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