Historical Thinking Concepts on the First Day of Class

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. 

I am a strong believer that the first class sets the tone for the course. Therefore, in this introductory lesson I laid out the foundations of historical thinking concepts (HTCs) in my grade 11 world history class.


Knowing that I wanted to introduce students to HTCs from the very beginning I created a Power Point presentation to integrate the basic principles with the first topic in my course, Paleolithic society. I started with a photo of a Paleolithic element from Neil McGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (BBC has a website where they give details about many of the artifacts from the book, all from the British Museum). Together the class and I explored the object, a 13 000 year old carving of swimming reindeer. My next slide presented a carefully chosen quote from the description of the carving. The title of the slide was interpretation.


The artist has depicted the reindeer as they look in autumn. At this time of year the meat, skin and antlers are at their best for use as food, clothing and materials for making equipment. Showing the reindeer swimming may suggest migration or a moment when the animals were easy prey for their human hunters. Was this sculpture a means of communicating with the supernatural world or a charm to guarantee a successful hunt at the start of a bitterly cold Ice Age winter? (British Museum/ BBC, A History of the World, Swimming Reindeer, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/DyfP6g6dRN6WdwdnbIVbPw (Feb. 2, 2013)).


Then I took the students through a series of slides in which I defined what I think to be the most important words related to HTCs: interpretation, inference, evidence, context; I told the students not to worry about memorizing these definitions as they’d soon get very familiar with them. I asked students what they thought the previous quote revealed about the world of the carving 13 000 years ago. Students came up with excellent inferences that we eventually connected to some of the characteristics of Paleolithic society, such as hunting-gathering, nomadism, importance of seasons and familiarity with nature. I then had students return to the quote and discuss what the underlined portions of the quote had in common. Again the students were very quick to notice that the author was interpreting and inferring based on available evidence; there was no certainty. They seemed to get this because when probed they understood that we don’t have written records from the artist telling us exactly he/she meant to convey by carving this depiction of swimming reindeer.

I then proceeded with the rest of the first lesson on Paleolithic society.

What I Would Do Differently:

Honestly, I would use this lesson again, exactly as I did it the first time as it flowed well and the students were introduced to core vocabulary words to use whenever discussing HTCs.


It is well worth the time to develop an introductory activity for your course that combines HTCs with your first topic or an overview of your course. Since it all starts with evidence you should choose images or quotes that are central to your course or your first topic.