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  • Writer's pictureTim Burke

A Teacher's Guide For Studying History

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

I used this 10 point guide for studying history with my students for more than two decades. Each year I tweaked it a bit as my understanding of history and teaching changed, though the heart and soul of it remained consistent. It really is the underpinning of how I taught history and can be understood as my philosophy for teaching history though it is not presented in that way.

A 10 Point Guide to Studying History (2018)

1. We are studying the past to understand the present! <An understanding of the past will help us to decode the present <Just as you are the sum total of your past, a country is the sum total of its past.

2. Studying history has at least as much to do with interpreting the past as with gathering the facts. <History is not just about memorizing facts. <Understanding the significance of the facts is critical. <Analysis is the avenue to interpretation which means asking: how and why, making comparisons, or looking for cause and effect relationships <Sometimes there are disagreements among historians about the meaning of the facts.

3. Knowledge matters! <While history is not all about the facts, the more facts you know the greater your opportunity to accurately interpret an event, era or document. <Knowledge helps to create context which smart phones don’t provide.

4. One of the most important things historians study is causation. <We are interested in cause and effect relationships. < There is a tendency to confuse an explanation of causes with a justification or acceptance of results. < This happens when the results or causes clash with one’s values or desires and is more of an emotional response than a rational response. <The goal is understanding the cause -not justifying the result.

5. History is often concerned with continuity and change. <Why or how did things change? <What continues to remain the same – values, ideals, behaviors or systems that continue on from generation to generation or across eras and time frames. <This rule is closely linked with rule # 6.

6. When things happened is important! < Most dates are not worth memorizing. <There are however, a handful of significant dates and years you must memorize (marker dates). < Understanding chronological order is far more important than memorizing dates. <Events don’t happen in isolation – the ability to relate an event to an era & understand what characterizes that era allows greater understanding or insight (sometimes referred to as periodization). 7. Where things happened is important! <Geography plays an important part in understanding history. <Things like climate, natural resources & proximity explain a lot about an economy & society (Why & How).

8. Where there is no record (evidence) there is no history. < We can draw conclusions where we do not have evidence BUT this can only be labeled speculation nothing more. < Our rule is evidence, evidence, evidence. <Coincidences are not enough. <evidence, evidence, evidence

9. History is almost always complex! <Events often have multiple causes. <Societies involve a mix of good and bad. <History involves both change and continuity. < Contradictions happen (We will try to explain these but sometimes we can’t).

10. To understand the present we must look at economic, social and political history. <Economic history involves business, agriculture, trade, technology. <Social history looks at society- social class, urbanization, religion, gender, ethnicity and how people go about life. <Political history examines government, law, power and how power is exercised. <Understanding how these three facets of history connect can lead to a deeper understanding of the past and the present.

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