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Observing the strategies of historians

What are the strategies associated with historical inquiry and historical thinking, and how have these strategies been identified? Following a tradition of research comparing strategic process of experts and novices (see, for example, Chase & Simon’s 1973 comparison of chess players), Wineburg (1991) pioneered research on historians’ reading processes. Using think aloud protocols he observed historians as they analyzed a collection of texts associated with the Battle of Lexington. He watched advanced high school students making sense of the same documents. Wineburg found that historians paid attention to the source of the text—seeking source information, noticing the genre, making inferences about the author(s), considering the audience and purpose, and evaluating its reliability and usefulness based upon its source. He labeled this strategy sourcing. Additionally, historians noticed similarities and differences between texts. They bounced between documents, cross-checking information. For instance, the historians questioned the accuracy of a textbook account, given the evidence in primary sources included in the document set. Wineburg called this strategy corroboration. Further, historians imaginatively considered the physical and social environment, a strategy Wineburg labeled contextualization. Students’ failure to engage in such thinking supported Wineburg’s conclusion that sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization were strategies that distinguished historians as readers. In broader terms, he suggested that experts in different fields may use different strategic processes—a basic assumption of this book.

It should not come as a surprise that professionally trained historians, with advanced degrees and years of experience, read differently than novices. Wineburg contended that this difference was linked to the nature of historical inquiry. Historians understand, for example, that texts represent human accounts and that historical knowledge is constructed by interrogating such evidence. Rouet et al. (1997) tested this hypothesis by comparing the reading of graduate students in psychology and history. In their study, the “novices” were comparable to the “experts” in age, general reading abilities, and academic expertise. These researchers found that individuals’ reading strategies differed based upon their purposes for reading. Historians approached the texts as evidence to be interpreted, whereas the psychologists focused on learning basic historical facts. Historians engaged in critical analysis (i.e., sourcing) whereas psychologists engaged in remembering (i.e., paraphrasing).

Building upon Wineburgs (1991) work, other researchers explored strategies that distinguish historians. Shanahan and his colleagues (2008, 2011) met with historians, mathematicians, chemists, and teacher educators and secondary school teachers in these fields for two years. They observed and spoke with them about their reading, seeking implications for classroom instruction and teacher preparation. Like Wineburg, these researchers found that historians thought deeply about the source of the text and evaluated that source’s credibility. In addition, historians approached a reading task with mild skepticism—viewing texts as fallible and positioned accounts, rather than as bearers of unadulterated information.

Wineburg (1998), too, had questions about the influence of historians’ content knowledge on their use of strategies, particularly contextualization. He hypothesized that contextualization required a detailed awareness of historical settings. He wondered whether historians could engage in contextualization in a content area for which they lacked background knowledge. He asked two historians, one with expertise on Lincoln and another without, to use a collection of documents to consider Lincoln’s views on race. Wineburg found that the historian who lacked expertise was originally perplexed by the evidence but was gradually able to construct an adequate understanding of the historical context from the content of the documents. This research indicated that rich background knowledge was not a prerequisite for contextualization but that readers could seek out contextual information. Historians are inclined to do so.

Seeking to further understand historians’ reading, Leinhardt and Young (1996) observed three historians read two documents—one closely related to their field of expertise and one unrelated. These researchers’ purpose was to differentiate historians’ textual reading of the document (i.e., comprehending word meanings) from their historical reading (i.e., engaging in interpretation). They hypothesized that historians would first identify the document, categorize it, and employ sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization to evaluate its reliability. Historians would then interpret the document through a textual and a historical read. The researchers found that historians did not consciously employ strategies, as such, but relied on procedural schema— scripts for identifying and interpreting evidence. For example, historians classify text genre, and based on this knowledge, use specific reading processes that guide how they read. After classifying a text as a letter, for instance, a historian notes the sender, recipient, and date before reading the body of the message.

Baron (2012) looked at the strategies historians use in a non-traditional setting, considering their analysis of a historical building. She asked five historians to “make meaning of the building” and observed them as they thought aloud during a tour of Bostons Old North Church. Baron identified five strategies that the historians used in that setting. Historians reflected on the origins of the church, how it looked originally, its original purpose, who constructed it, and why its location had been chosen. Baron called this strategy origination. Second, these historians used their knowledge of other church buildings to understand the distinctiveness of this particular church, a strategy Baron labeled intersectionality. Because the church had been in continual use, it had experienced modifications, renovations, and restorations through the years. Historians considered its multiple contexts, a strategy labeled stratification. Additionally, some historians lacked background knowledge about the church, yet used observations to make evidence-based inferences about it. Baron called this heuristic supposition, a strategy similar to the contextualization engaged in by the non-expert in Wineburgs 1998 study. Finally, Baron found that some historians engaged in empathetic insight, imagining the feelings of historical characters as events unfolded there. Little has been done to follow up on these strategies or to investigate other contexts when historians might employ them. The most important implication of this study is that historians’ sense-making strategies appear to be influenced by the nature of the documents they investigate. And because historians use a wide array of evidence (Collingwood, 2005/1993), there may be numerous strategies as yet unidentified associated with the reading of diverse forms of evidence, such as motion pictures, quantitative evidence (e.g., historical records), or photographs.

Just as historians use different strategies for working with different types of evidence, some researchers suggest that they employ different organizing structures within different fields of specialty. For example, Harris (2012) considered whether unique cognitive skills existed for the study of world history. She analyzed articles published in the Journal of World History to identify frameworks for considering topics in world history. She determined three tools useful to world historians. First, world historians use multiple, sometimes nested, periodization schemes, linking periods of continuity segmented by turning points in a manner that constructs meaning out of networks of events. Second, world historians use fluid geographic boundaries that allow comparisons across regions and connections between disparate groups. World historians situate case studies within larger global trends and highlight transregional contacts. Third, world historians engage in cross-disciplinary methodologies, incorporating climate science, anthropology, linguistics, archeology, and other disciplines. The use of these frameworks to conceptualize and study the past represent strategies unique to inquiry in world history. Further evidence exists for the idiosyncratic use of strategies based upon other specializations. For example, in one study, a historian who researched ancient cuneiform tablets, which never explicitly afford source information, did not rely on the source information provided by researchers. Instead, with uncanny accuracy, he used the content of documents to infer their sources (Nokes & Keiser-Lund, 2019). It may be that other fields of history such as family history or social history use unique frameworks and strategies to conduct their investigations.

Nokes and Kesler-Lund’s recent study (2019) has replicated and elaborated on many of the findings from Wineburgs (1991) research. In their study, small groups of historians were observed as they collaboratively engaged in a historical investigation, analyzing evidence then writing about the Bear River Massacre. During the early phases of reading, historians spontaneously and quickly evaluated the plausibility of their peers’ ideas, building a plethora of possible, though conflicting, interpretations. Nokes and Kesler-Lund labeled historians’ strategy exploring—the tendency to hold multiple competing, plausible interpretations in mind simultaneously. After some discussion, they began to use evidence to rule out some interpretations and to collectively construct a final, though admittedly tentative, conclusion. In contrast, elementary and secondary students who engaged in the same activity were much less likely to consider plausible explanations that did not match their emerging interpretation. Instead, they honed in on a single interpretation that was resistant to change, even in the face of conflicting evidence and their peers’ criticism (Nokes & Keiser-Lund, 2018).

These researchers also highlighted historians’ humility, a disposition that allowed them to adjust their interpretations in light of new evidence or their peers’ insights. Their humility distinguished them from students who engaged in the same activity and were much more certain of the correctness of their conclusions after a much less skillful analysis of the evidence (Nokes & Keiser-Lund, 2018). Leinhardt and Young (1996) found a similar humility in the historians they observed. When historians lacked the knowledge needed to interpret an unfamiliar document, they admitted their inadequacy.

In addition, Nokes and Keiser-Lund (2019) found a connection between historians’ reading and writing strategies. They suggested that historians approach a reading task with their written product in mind. The strategies associated with reading (i.e., sourcing) are indistinguishable from pre-writing strategies, as historians formulate a plan for using primary source evidence to defend their interpretation. The same strategies associated with constructing an interpretation (reading) are subsequently used to defend their conclusions (writing/speaking). Further, historians’ ways of thinking about a task influenced both their reading and writing in similar ways. For instance, when sourcing, historians considered the intended audience of a document. Similarly, when writing, historians considered the potential audience(s) of their account. Audience-awareness distinguished historian readers/writers from elementary and secondary students (Nokes & Keiser-Lund, 2018). Additionally, historians approached texts with mild skepticism, a disposition highlighted by others (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; Wineburg, 1991). Authors of the documents carried a burden of proof—they had to convince the historians to believe their accounts. As Wineburg (1994) theorized, historians possessed a “line item veto” with the tendency to believe or to discount any tidbit of information based upon their evaluation of the documents.

In sum, and across these studies, historians demonstrate a plethora of strategies such as sourcing, corroboration, contextualization, classification, supposition, skepticism, humility. Table 12.1 lists and defines their strategies, highlights the observational studies that identified the strategies, and cites related intervention research, where existing. Historians are metacognitive in their reading and writing processes (Nokes & Keiser-Lund, 2019). They are goal driven, with a range of strategies to draw from as needs arise. In addition, historians, understanding that the purpose for their work is to

Table 12.1 Historical Reading, Thinking, and Writing Strategies of Historians, and as Found in Intervention Studies


Using information about the source of a document (i.e., its author, audience, purpose, genre) to comprehend and evaluate its content

Wineburg (1991); Shanahan & Shanahan (2008); Shanahan, Shanahan, & Misichia (2011)

Young & Leinhardt (1998); Britt & Aglinskas (2002); De La Paz (2005); Nokes et al. (2007); Goldberg, Schwarz, & Porat (2008); Reisman (2012); De La Paz et al. (2014, 2017); Wissinger & De La Paz (2016); De La

Paz & Wissinger (2017)


Comparing, contrasting, and cross-checking evidence found in one document with evidence found in other documents

Wineburg (1991)

Britt & Aglinskas (2002); De La Paz (2005); Nokes et al. (2007); Reisman (2012); De La Paz et al. (2014; 2017); Wissinger & De La Paz (2016)


Imagining the physical, social, political, and technological setting to understand an event and related evidence

Wineburg (1991,1998)

Britt & Aglinskas (2002); De La Paz (2005); Nokes et al. (2007); Reisman (2012); van Boxtel & van Drie (2012); De La Paz et al. 2014, 2017); Wissinger & De La Paz (2016)


Identifying the genre of a text such as a letter, journal entry, or public address, and adjusting reading accordingly

Leinhardt & Young (1996)

Approaching a text with mild skepticism

Viewing texts as extensions of imperfect and positioned individuals rather than as bearers of unadulterated information

Wineburg (1991); Shanahan & Shanahan (2008); Shanahan et al. (2011)


Supporting interpretive claims with vetted historical evidence

Goldberg, Schwarz, & Porat (2011)

De La Paz & Felton (2010); De La Paz et al. (2014; 2017); Wissinger & De La Paz (2016);

De La Paz & Wissinger (2017); Stoel et al.


Building-reading strategies (origination, intersectionality, stratification, supposition, empathetic insight)

Reading buildings as products of a time and setting, comparing them to other buildings, considering how they have changed over time, making inferences based on their features, and considering the feelings of those who used them

Baron (2012)


Holding interpretations as tentative, considering alternative interpretations, adjusting interpretations in the face of new evidence

Nokes & Keiser-Lund (2019)


Gathering multiple plausible though conflicting interpretations simultaneously with the intent to later narrow things down to a single interpretation

Nokes & Keiser-Lund (2019)

Historical empathy or empathetic insight

Attempting to understand the decisions of historical actors by imagining their contexts and anticipating their emotions

Baron (2012)

Levesque (2008)

Structuring inquiries and writing through conceptual frameworks

Using multiple, nested periodization1 schemes or other structures to impose order and make sense of historical events

Harris (2012)

Young & Leinhardt (1998); Lee (2005);

Stoel, van Drie, &van Boxtel (2017)

1 In studies, teachers attempted to make this visible through the use of syntactic markers (e.g., causal structures or qualifiers) or organizational structures to convey understandings.

construct new interpretations, do so by including perspectives from previously marginalized groups or by looking at old evidence in new ways. Thus, the job of a historian is to raise, then answer, questions, with insights that are both justified and yet still open to further question.

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