"Histories are the stories we tell about the past."
—Peter Seixas and Tom Morton, 1
Why the Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts?
Peter Seixas and Tom Morton, both historians and educators, recently published The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts. It is a framework for teaching historical thinking—or developing competencies that enable individuals to think like historians.
The big six are historical thinking concepts designed to be integrated into all aspects of teaching, from writing objectives, to selecting resources, to deciding on strategies, and to assessment. More than skills or outcomes, the big six historical thinking concepts are habits of mind.
Seixas and Morton explain that because history is comprised of stories, there are inherent problems in its production. The most fundamental problem is the relationship between a historian and the past she or he is researching. This is because historians bring their own interpretive lenses to historical inquiries. Historians also make choices in order to draw coherence and make meaning from the past. This is another problem because different historians may make different choices, depending on their unique interpretive lenses. The distance between a historian's present time and the specific past she or he is researching is also problematic, because of the quality and type of evidence she or he is able to find.
History arises from historians grappling with these problems—it “emerges from the tension between the historian’s creativity and the fragmentary traces of the past that anchor it” (Seixas and Morton 2). These traces of the past are the pieces of evidence that historians find—perhaps archival, architectural or archaeological materials—and then select as foundations to their historical arguments and storytelling.
Historical thinking is the creative process undertaken by historians when they interpret evidence from the past and produce stories of history. It is a specific way of thinking and working, and it can be taught.
Teaching historical thinking implies paying attention to the ways historians do their craft, rather than only to their final product, which is the story they tell. The six historical thinking concepts framework helps students and teachers think about how historians create history from the past, and to then begin creating history themselves.
The first of the big six historical thinking concepts is Historical Significance. Historians decide what is significant, or important to learn about, from the past, and they always do this in context. For example, Antigua’s Spring Gardens Moravian Mission is significant to the story of Mary Prince because she was a member of that congregation, but the Mission may not be significant to the story of other historical actors.
The second concept is Primary Source Evidence. Making a historical claim that others can justifiably believe requires finding, selecting, contextualizing, interpreting, and corroborating sources that will be the foundation for an historical argument. This website includes many primary sources for exploration that corroborate Mary Prince’s story. These are, for example, pages from Slave Registers of former British Colonial Dependencies for both Antigua and the Bahamas, and pages from A Complete Catalogue of all the Brethren and Sisters, who served in the Mission of the United Brethren at Antigua, and also of their Children, born in this Island.
The third concept is Continuity and Change. Some things change over time, but others stay the same, or are modified. Take enslavement, for instance. Enslavement officially ended in the British Empire 1 August 1834, but, as of today, enslavement has not ended worldwide. Perhaps the clothing we wear, or the food we eat, was completely, or partially, fabricated or grown by modern day slaves.
The fourth concept is Cause and Consequence. How has the interaction of human agency, coupled with the conditions of a specific time, shaped the course of events? For example, in the case of Mary Prince and her story, what was the consequence of the work of the collaborative storytelling, compiling, and editing team that brought The History of Mary Prince to print in 1831? Were there short-term consequences? Were there long-term consequences?
The fifth concept is Historical Perspectives. Using evidence-based inferences, is it possible to “see through the eyes” of an historical actor without engaging in presentism? Presentism is when we impose today’s (the present time’s) thoughts, beliefs, and values onto historical actors. Can we, for example, use evidence to explain what it might have been like growing up as a wealthy Bermudian slave-owner’s son, with slaves of his own age also growing up in the same household?
The sixth concept is The Ethical Dimension. This is tricky because in the face of past injustices—such as the transatlantic slave trade and colonial enslavement—an ethical stance is unavoidable. However, as with Historical Perspectives, where we must avoid engaging in presentism, we can tread carefully. We can ask these questions: “How should we judge historical actors? What are the implications for us, today, of the horrors and heroisms of the past? How can we use the study of the past to inform judgments and actions on controversial issues in the present?” (Seixas and Morton 6). For example, in the context of Mary Prince and her story, are we in any way informed about modern day enslavement? Do Mary Prince and her story invite actions regarding modern day enslavement?
My goal in including the big six historical thinking concepts with this website is twofold. First, it is to introduce students and educators to the very important work of Seixas and Morton. Secondly, it is to provide a set of first stepping-stones for students to start thinking historically—like historians. For some, it might be the beginning of seeing our world in a new way.