Skip to content

Blog post

Am I actually teaching historical thinking and reasoning?

Súsanna Margrét Gestsdóttir

Many teachers find it difficult to operationalise ideas from the literature and envisage ‘what it looks like in the classroom’. Teaching historical thinking and reasoning (HTR) is a good example of this. It has been an important educational goal for upper-secondary education in many countries for years. There is ample literature on the subject (see for example Barton & Levstik, 2003; Van Boxtel & Van Drie, 2018; Wineburg & Wilson, 2001) and good examples are available (including Seixas & Morton, 2013; and Reisman, 2012). Nevertheless, it may still seem an elusive concept. We wanted to get a fairly systematic overview of what characterises the teaching of HTR, and we hoped to gain it by developing the observation instrument Teaching-HTR.

Reflecting upon one’s own teaching practices is a valuable activity in the context of professional development, and observation instruments can facilitate this. Observation-based research on history teaching in upper secondary schools is scarce. Most observation-based research focusses on general classroom practices, mainly at primary level. Thus, few classroom observation tools are suited to the upper-secondary level, and even fewer are specifically made for the observation of history lessons.

‘The purpose of our study was to discover which teaching behaviours are characteristic of a teaching approach that stimulates historical thinking and reasoning, and to determine how it can it be observed in the classroom.’

Our recently published article in the British Educational Research Journal, ‘Teaching Historical Thinking and Reasoning: Construction of an Observation Instrument’ (Gestsdóttir, Van Boxtel & Van Drie, 2018) reports on the development of the domain-specific observation instrument Teach-HTR. It is intended to further the professionalisation of experienced history teachers who wish to foster historical thinking and reasoning, as well as to assist those who are doing their initial teacher training. In other words, this research focusses on the teachers themselves. No one is able to see themselves fully as what they are, so it is quite a challenge for teachers who claim to be firm promoters of HTR to use the observation instrument to check whether they are actually doing what they think they are. The purpose of this study was to discover which teaching behaviours are characteristic of a teaching approach that stimulates historical thinking and reasoning, and to determine how it can it be observed in the classroom.

The observation instrument was developed in several phases: from a literature review (to operationalise the dimensions of learning and teaching involved in HTR), through evaluation by a group of international experts from 11 countries, to piloting in Iceland and in the Netherlands. The final instrument consists of 33 items of teaching HTR, grouped in seven categories:

  1. Communicating objectives related to HTR.
  2. Demonstration of HTR.
  3. The use of sources to support HTR.
  4. Presenting multiple perspectives and interpretations.
  5. Explicit instructions on HTR strategies.
  6. Engaging students in individual or group tasks that require HTR.
  7. Engaging students in a whole-class discussion that asks for HTR.

When the instrument was piloted, inter-rater reliability was evaluated using intraclass correlation coefficients (ICC) and percentage of agreement. Internal consistency was evaluated using Cronbach’s alpha. In our article, the outcomes of the two pilots are described and examples are given of a lesson with high and low scores. Despite shortcomings that became clear during the process, Teach-HTR immediately revealed a considerable difference between lessons. It was very easy to spot the lessons in which historical thinking and reasoning were promoted and those in which this was hardly visible. We also found differences in the way and the extent to which history teachers exhibited the behaviour that we defined as teaching HTR. Our findings show that the instrument has the potential to identify teachers’ strengths and where they have room for development. The identification of concrete examples of teaching HTR can help teachers to work on their ability to teach HTR and integrate it into more lessons, should they so wish.

We want to emphasise that the instrument is not meant to assess teachers’ ability to teach historical thinking and reasoning. More research would be necessary to determine how many lessons need to be observed in order to draw valid conclusions about the teaching of an individual teacher, or to investigate how the teaching of HTR correlates with teacher beliefs or student performance and interest in history. However, it is easy to envisage that in future research Teach-HTR might also be used to make comparisons between countries. Building upon the promising results of this study, we hope to further develop the Teach-HTR observation instrument as a useful tool for teachers who want to improve their teaching of historical thinking and reasoning.

This blog post is based on the article, ‘Teaching historical thinking and reasoning: Construction of an observation instrument’, by Súsanna Margrét Gestsdóttir, Carla van Boxtel and Jannet van Drie, which is published in the British Educational Research Journal. It is free-to-view for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


Barton, K. & Levstik, L. S. (2003). Why Don’t More History Teachers Engage Students in Interpretation? Social Education, 67(6), 358–361.

Gestsdóttir, S.M., Van Boxtel, C. & Van Drie, J. (2018). Teaching Historical Thinking and Reasoning: Construction of an Observation Instrument. British Educational Research Journal. Advance online publication.

Reisman, A. (2012). Reading like a historian: A document-based history curriculum intervention in urban high schools. Cognition and Instruction, 30(1), 86–112.

Seixas, P. & Morton, T. (2013). The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts. Toronto: Nelson Education.

Van Boxtel, C. & van Drie, J. (2018). Historical Reasoning: Conceptualizations and Educational Applications. In: S. Metzger & L. Harris (Eds.), International Handbook of History Teaching and Learning (pp. 149-176). New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Wineburg, S. & Wilson, S. M. (2001). Models of Wisdom in the Teaching of History. In S. Wineburg (Ed.), Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (pp. 155-172). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.