Fun Ways to Teach Historical Thinking Skills

6 Activities & Strategies That Engage & Build Skills 

History class must be more than just studying events and figures from the past and memorizing dates- and thank gosh for that! Really exploring history and engaging students in history classes means that they genuinely explore the past and investigate, wrestle, and face the lessons of history in meaningful ways. This demands that students develop historical thinking skills.

Luckily, it can be incredibly engaging to do so. However, it can also be daunting to develop those higher order thinking skills! This can be especially challenging if you teach in an inclusion class with mixed ability learners who really struggle with critical thinking skills. These are some fun activities I have used to teach historical thinking skills and build them during the year.  I hope they help!

SKILL: Historical Interpretation & Synthesis

Historical Interpretation means that students can combine various sources and evidence to develop insight into the past and make original connections to it. It can be one of the most challenging to teach, but also the most fun!

ACTIVITY 1: Scavenger Hunt

This can be done at the end of pretty much any unit. I recently did it for a Progressive Era unit. Students did a “Progressive Era Legacy Scavenger Hunt” around campus and had to take 3 pictures of things that could be seen as having a clear connection to the progressive era.  Students made a quick powerpoint presentation and had to explain the connection. Some connections were quite a stretch- like the school garden being a legacy of Roosevelt’s conservation, but it helped them look at the present with a critical eye towards the past and its impact and develop some synthesis skills! 

SKILL: Comparison

Comparison is a skill that students develop in most of their classes but is essential for understanding history, recognizing trends, and analyzing figures, periods, and events. But to make it more meaningful to history- make sure to pull the story and personalities out of the comparison!

ACTIVITY 2: Dinner Party 

This is a fun one that seems light and easy to pull students in but will get them to really think critically about differences between historical figures and their ideas.  With a simple image of a table with four to six seats on each side of the table, have students create seating arrangements based on which people would work and get along best together and who would likely get into fierce arguments and should sit far apart. After studying any unit with multiple figures like the Renaissance, Antebellum Era, the Civil Rights Movement, or Ancient Civilizations, give students a list of people they have studied and have them make their arrangements and justify their choices.  This goes so much beyond a venn-diagram while still being a relatively simple activity to create and complete that is still fun and rigorous!

SKILL: Chronological Reasoning &  Change Over Time

History is fundamentally the story and study of change and continuity over time. While memorizing dates is not essential, understanding how events build and develop over time is a fundamental historical thinking skill.

ACTIVITY 3: Spicy Timelines

Timelines can be used all the imte in history class, but keep them interesting and spicey by mixing it up!

1) Bell Ringer Timelines:

Quick and easy- post a series of events from the unit or last class and have students make a ‘quick & dirty’ timeline. 

2) Presidential Timelines:

This could also build some ‘periodization’ skills as students not only sort events in order but organize them in order but also by President. You can give students a bank of important events and have them organize and sort them or for more advanced learners, have them work from scratch.

3) Illustrated Timelines:

As easy and fun as it sounds- students draw images for the events of the timeline to foster some creativity and deeper connections.

4) POV Timelines:

This one builds another historical thinking skill- understanding point-of-view and some historical empathy as well.  I did this last year for the “Road to Pearl Harbor” and for each event, they not only summarize it, but then there are two boxes to explain how the Japanese and Americans viewed this even differently. Two birds, one stone, and some engaging history!

BONUS: When kids really need a break and some fun- grab big chalk and do these outside on sidewalks or on the parking lot.

If you have any other awesome timeline ideas, I would love to hear them. I’m always looking to add more spicy to my timeline activities! 😉

SKILL: CAUSATION

Cause and effect are fundamental skills in the study of history and even in high school, its surprising how much students struggle with it. It took me years to realize that students actually need a lot of support in developing this skills! Here's an easy way to build this into your class any day of the year.

ACTIVITY 4: Simple Sentence Starter

This can be used for any topic and its simple but can be powerful as well.  Simply project or write this sentence frame and watch as students come up with many different effects and answers.

“If _______ never happened, than _______.” The simplicity is what makes this interesting.  For the Columbian Exchange, World War II, Neolithic Revolution, or Revolutionary War, students first have to consider what did change and then have to brainstorm how things would be different without that event. I sometimes then have students share with their neighbors or in small or groups, or even more fun- have everyone stand up and they can only sit down after reading there’s. All students can share and be successful!

Activity 5: Scaffolded Cause and Effect Chart 

For a given event, print out 3-4 causes and effects each one on a full size paper (its more fun that way!) and scramble them. Give them to students in groups and first have them sort them into cause and effects. (Starts simple!) Next, have students put them in order of greatest significance- what was the main cause and most important effect? (Building complexity). Lastly, have students justify their answers- “X was the most important cause because ____”.  This helps diverse learners build skills one step at time without being overwhelmed and while being mostly hands on it also gets students writing and thinking critically.

SKILL: SOURCING DOCUMENTS

The shift to prioritizing primary sources has been vital in enriching our social studies classes.  It really gets students wrestling with the past on its own terms! And learning how to source documents and think critically about the document itself- the elements behind the document is essential. One of the most popular ways to do this is using SOAPS- which is excellent but make sure to introduce SOAPS with a little spice!

ACTIVITY 6: Spicy SOAPS

To ensure students enjoy doing SOAPS and learn the skills involved, give students rich and accessible sources to start with.

This could be an advertisement for a Coke from the 1920s, cave paintings, a medieval knight’s armor, a receipt from a silk road merchant, or a Picasso painting, just don’t give them a long-winded convoluted text from another century! Analyzing the the Lascaux cave paintings, or a magazine ad for a coke, students will enjoy considering the Subject, Occasion (understanding context!), Audience and who would be influenced by it, Purpose, and identifying what we know about the Speaker (or artist).  If student’s first experience with an analysis strategy like SOAPS is positive, they are much more likely to enjoy it when they are given a really challenging document next time.  SOAPS could be used weekly as its a vital skill and essential to multiple historical thinking skills.

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