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Thinking Historically

Deborah Smith Johnston


     The new AP World History Course framework seeks to provide teachers with more clarity on what the specific content expectations embody. It also hopes to better articulate how students can successfully prepare for the content and skills they will need to demonstrate in the exam. Both the wonder and the challenge of teaching world history are realized by the sheer scope of what is possible.

     A change in the framework is the inclusion of charts that speak to student achievement levels. Using these charts throughout the year will demonstrate to students their own achievement levels on the identified skills. In speaking with teachers about the new Achievement Level Descriptions ADLS) , the first response has been that this is what we have been doing in the classroom already through our own rubrics and assessments. What these do is to make more concrete the content and skills expectations in order to align with the test itself. Most helpful perhaps is the affirmation that not only do students need to know the content to do well on the AP exam but they need to be able to think independently like a historian. One chart emphasizes that it is the students who are able to think historically without additional cues and prompts who will find the highest success on the test.

     The skills being identified here are ones that are already implicit within the rubrics we use for scoring writing currently on the AP exam and are ones that we ask students to think about in our classes. For example, using historical evidence to make arguments is a skill that we evaluate when we read thesis statements but is made more concrete through the ALDs by recognizing that superior students will not only construct meaningful interpretations but also evaluate and synthesize competing views, beyond simply describing what may be found in the text. Additionally, comparison is a skill that I think we have seen done reasonably well in the AP essays (when students know the material). However, the ADL lays out the need for students to compare not only the similarities and differences between multiple societies but also to explain and evaluate those comparisons within regions and nations as viewed from different perspectives. It is all the more important now to make sure that primary sources are utilized that look at an event from multiple perspectives.

     It is my feeling that helping students develop sophisticated context skills is an ability that will help provide them with an overall framework in world history. Students will be able to more easily explain the reasons why something happens if they can understand what else is happening in the world at the same time. This provides them with the ability to perform at the higher levels.

     Chronological reasoning includes causation, change and continuity over time, and periodization are all ideas that we assess as we get students to think about cause and effect, as well as the narrative of world history. Helping students to develop this temporal construct (a mental timeline) helps them to sequence events and eliminate spurious multiple choice responses, as well as write free response questions. I like to have students sequence events that all connect to a common theme, create human timelines, and explore multiple causality, through flow charts, in order to help them develop the ability to think across time.

     Historical interpretation and synthesis culminates the sophisticated historical thinking skills that we are hoping to inculcate in students. One of the skills that I think my ninth and tenth graders develop in world history is historical empathy. Since we read primary sources so often in class they become adept at analyzing them and examining diverse points of view. Early in the year, we have them "become" the authors of those documents, debating with their peers about issues that are addressed within them, using the point of view, tone and arguments that are presented. So for example, they explore the Crusades using the chapter in Worlds of History, the Reilly reader, by reading the multiple perspectives and debating the events that occurred through those voices1. Additionally, the identification of task verbs corresponding with the level of thinking stretches the analytical edges of what we want them to do.

     I appreciate the fact that students are being directed to go beyond mere analysis, comparison and explanation, as well as assessing, evaluating and contextualizing, to synthesizing, critiquing, constructing and creating in working with historical evidence and interpretation. The good news here is that students will emphasize these same skills in each of their AP history courses since these historical thinking skills have been made uniform across the AP history offerings. Making explicit not only the skills that students need in order to be successful but the level of proficiency with those skills will aid in better preparing students for the exam, and for future history courses.

Deborah Smith Johnston teaches world history at Lakeside School in Seattle. She has been involved with the AP course since 2001 and has attended the reading every year since the course launched. Having written her dissertation in world history on the use of periodization and themes in the teaching of world history, she values the thought that has gone into the design, and redesign, of the course. She can be contacted at


1 Kevin Reilly, Worlds Of History, A Comparative Reader 3rd ed. Bedford-St.Martins Press, 2007.



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