Historical Thinking in the Secondary School Classroom

By Lindsay Gibson

What has changed and what has remained the same about historical thinking in secondary schools since Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006 (also happens to be the same year the Historical Thinking Project began)?

It is difficult to make generalizations about historical thinking in secondary school classrooms across Canada because there are differences in curricula, teachers, and students in each province and territory. Furthermore, as a secondary school social studies teacher in B.C. for the past twelve years I have limited experience in secondary school classrooms outside of B.C. beyond attending and presenting at national, regional and provincial social studies and history conferences, meetings, and workshops. In order to make any substantive claims about historical thinking in secondary schools it would be necessary to conduct a contemporary version of the pan-Canadian research study led by Hodgetts (1968), who investigated the teaching of Canadian history, social studies, and civics in schools across Canada.[1] Regardless of these difficulties, in this essay I highlight the achievements that have been made in embedding historical thinking in secondary school classrooms, and discuss the obstacles to increasing the uptake of historical thinking in secondary classrooms across Canada.

The Historical Thinking Project (hereafter HTP) aimed to reform history education by focusing on four interrelated areas: rewriting of provincial curricula, classroom materials, professional development, and valid and efficient assessment strategies. As highlighted by Peter Seixas in a recent article for the Canadian Historical Association, the HTP experienced several successes from 2006-2014.

Two of Canada’s largest provinces, B.C. and Ontario recently adopted historical thinking concepts as important parts of their curricula. Ontario recently implemented a new K-12 curriculum that embedded historical thinking concepts in the history program, and British Columbia released a draft K-9 social studies curriculum that included the six historical thinking concepts as cross-curricular competencies. Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, and Nova Scotia also embedded the six historical thinking concepts in courses and curricula.

Since 2007 all major Canadian educational presses have published history and social studies textbooks that explicitly embedded the historical thinking concepts, some more successfully and substantively than others. Other publishers have also created a variety of print and online resources, lessons, teaching materials, and videos designed to help teachers embed historical thinking in their teaching practice. There are also a variety of books written in both English and French intended to help teachers understand and teach the six concepts.

One of the keys to any educational reform is professional development, and the HTP has presented hundreds of teacher workshops across the country since 2006. Beginning in 2010 the HTP offered annual summer institutes in different cities across Canada designed to prepare teachers, professors, and museum educators to teach others about historical thinking.   Beginning in 2008 the HTP also began to host an annual general meeting of key people from provincial and territorial ministries of education, presidents of provincial social studies teachers’ associations, textbook publishers, museum educators, teachers, and history educators, all with the purpose of building a national network of individuals committed to promoting “critical historical thinking for the 21st century.”

Although the HTP experienced many successes in reforming history education in secondary schools, many secondary school teachers across Canada are unaware of historical thinking and the six historical thinking concepts and have little idea about how to apply them to their teaching practice. Despite the inclusion of historical thinking in curriculum documents across Canada, there is still a large gap between what is written in the curriculum documents and how teachers teach history, and there can be little doubt there is still too much didactic teaching and student memorization of historical content. To improve teachers’ understanding of historical thinking, it is important that history faculties, teacher education programs, provincial social studies teachers’ associations, and ministries of education offer professional development opportunities and financial support for teachers to apply historical thinking to their practice.

Despite increased focus on assessing historical thinking at the 2012 HTP national meeting and the upcoming book on assessing historical thinking in 2015, the development of valid and efficient assessments of historical thinking still remains a major impediment to the teaching of historical thinking in secondary schools. Assessing students’ understanding and recall of historical content is relatively straightforward, but assessing the progression of students’ historical thinking is much more challenging. No provincial and territorial ministry of education have successfully built efficient and reliable assessments of historical thinking. If students’ knowledge and recall of historical content continues to be assessed on mandated exams and standardized assessments, it is likely that teachers will continue to focus their instruction on helping students acquire and memorize content.

Although much has been accomplished in terms of embedding historical thinking in secondary history teaching, there are several significant obstacles to overcome if historical thinking is going to become common practice in Canadian secondary history classrooms. Although the end of the HTP is a major setback for the uptake of historical thinking in secondary schools across Canada, the best hope for the continued focus on historical thinking is the national network of individuals committed to promoting historical thinking in our nation’s schools. As Peter Seixas stated in his written announcement of the closure, “Le projet de la pensée historique est mort, vive la pensée historique!”

Lindsay Gibson is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia where he is currently completing his dissertation research on historical thinking. He also works as a teacher in School District #23 (Kelowna, British Columbia) were he has taught secondary school history and social studies for twelve years and currently is a member of the Instructional Leadership Team. Lindsay has also worked as writer and editor for a variety of The Critical Thinking Consortium (TC2) history education projects.

This week ActiveHistory.ca is running a series of 11 essays marking the end of the Historical Thinking Project. Click here to see a list of all the papers published during this theme week.


Hodgetts, A. B. What Culture? What Heritage? A Study of Civic Education in Canada. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1968.

[1] I called for an updated version of Hodgett’s study in the article “The Canadian Heritage Committee Kerfuffle: A History Educator’s Take” that was published in Canadian Social Studies Volume 46, No. 1, (2013).    http://www.educ.ualberta.ca/css/Css_46_1/Gibson-CSS-Vol-46-1-pp44-51.pdf

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