Learning From the First Try

Risa Gluskin

Risa Gluskin has been teaching at York Mills C.I. in Toronto for the past 13 years. She is Assistant Curriculum Leader of Canadian and World Studies. Her favourite courses are grade 11 World History covering everything from Paleolithic times to the Middle Ages in Europe, grade 12 World History, covering everything else from the Renaissance on, and Challenge and Change in Society, a social science course that studies fascinating issues through the lenses of psychology, sociology and anthropology. 

For my first try in using historical thinking concepts (HTCs) more explicitly in my lessons during my grade 12 history class in first semester of this year, I took a lesson-by-lesson approach with no real guiding plan. While I had no plan, I did have twin goals: to be more direct about using HTCs and to build my students’ critical thinking capacity. I did two things at the beginning of the semester that proved to be very helpful; I prepared a handout for students that described each HTC and noted many of the guideposts, and I had the Historical Thinking Project posters prominently displayed in my classroom for easy reference. The approach I took first time round sometimes worked, even with little effort. But often it didn’t, and below I will outline the main pitfalls of my trial and error approach.

The first problem was that I often got caught up in criteria and guideposts without first giving students an easy and accessible way to understand the historical thinking concept in question. My proposed remedy for this is inspired by The Big Six, which contains many excellent strategies for teaching the basic concepts by using students’ personal lives. I never bought into this need to personalize before because I thought my students were above that. Now I have so such delusions. One of the first things I ask my new students to do is fill in a questionnaire about themselves. This semester, I had my grade 11 students answer two seemingly random questions: name one thing about yourself that has changed recently; name one thing about yourself that has been the same for a long time. When it came time to introduce continuity and change in the course, I could refer students back to their answers to the personal questions, reminding them that continuity and change are intertwined rather than opposite.

The second problem with my implementation of HTCs was that I didn’t always have a direction. I might have had an end goal but it was so abstract that I couldn’t successfully bring my students to it. Thus the lessons felt very experimental, even weaving and winding, confusing to the students. There was a stretch of time during my fourth unit where students were learning about modern China when I took them on such a confusing journey that they didn’t even know what I wanted them to do. My proposed remedy for this is to pay more attention to the teaching of each of the six HTCs at the beginning of the course. I will do this by tweaking my course outline, identifying areas where I want to incorporate each HTC, in a particular order. My implementation will thus be less haphazard.

Certainly there were challenging times mainly caused by over-reaching on the first try; I needn’t have placed so much pressure on myself. Now, having marked the final exams, I can clearly see that despite my errors many of my students did improve their critical thinking capacities through applying HTCs. We try to teach our students to be resilient; so too must we remind ourselves that trying something new is not always going to result in the perfect lesson.

What I’ve recognized is that, like many teachers, I did use aspects of historical thinking concepts in my previous teaching. However, I didn’t do so explicitly, and therefore, I didn’t push the boundaries of critical thinking far enough. Having seen the results in only one semester, I can definitely attest to a measurable and palpable rise in critical thinking power amongst my students.

To use a sports analogy, I say no pain, no gain. But it’s really not painful at all. Try it.