Secret Language of History

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. 

The secret language of history is something that has been on my mind lately as I regularly strive to incorporate more historical thinking concepts (HTCs) into my history teaching. As a person who has an extensive background in history, I am certainly aware of the concepts that form the foundation for history learning (e.g., historical significance, use of evidence, historical-perspective taking). It occurred to me that as a social science teacher who is not a trained social scientist I don’t know the secret language of the social science disciplines. I wonder how my lessons in social science classes would differ if I did? This made me think about how to approach historical thinking. Since many history teachers don’t have an extensive background in history we need to bring the secret language out into the open. A mind-map was my attempt to do so.


In any given history lesson I will invariably use one or more HTC. What I am working on this semester is being much more direct about pointing out when and where an HTC is applicable. To enable me to do this I constantly seek my own personal clarification of the six concepts. I recently made myself a mind-map that graphically shows both what the six concepts are and how they relate to each other via arrows thanks to graphic mapping software.

During the first lesson of the second unit of the course, I showed my mind-map to my history class on the projector. I did caution them that it was a bit messy, like looking inside my head.

I’m not sure that the mind-map made an impact visually. From students’ perspective it probably looked like a muddle of information. I did take a few minutes to discuss some pertinent HTC connections related to primary source evidence; the arrows led from there to change and continuity, where I worked in ideas about breaking down context for primary source evidence into the sub-categories of political, social, economic and cultural contexts.

I am paying much more direct attention to showing the link between primary source evidence and context in my unit two lessons. It’s a helpful place to do it as we are studying the enlightenment and the French Revolution at this moment. The students certainly see how the French Revolution would make no sense at all if they hadn’t learned about the enlightenment first. From time to time to make sure I am direct about using HTCs I refer to my mind-map in my planning and I try to use it in class as well.


If I had this process to do all over again, I would have taken the time at the beginning of unit two to have students make their own HTC mind-maps. From there they could have created templates that could be used during any unit or topic of study.

I am the role model; as I found it very useful for myself, I’d expect my students to benefit from the same experience.


Using HTCs on a daily basis can be confusing for students if teachers don’t stop to check for understanding. I therefore suggest that after the first unit, or first test, or even after a potentially confusing lesson involving HTCs, the teacher has each student create his or her own mind-map of HTCs. For lower grades, including grade 10 history, I would incorporate only a few. Even for grade 12s I find that they are easily confused by all six at a time. Three at a time seems an appropriate amount.

Yes, the mind-map process takes time. But it is time well spent. It’s not busy work; it’s not drawing time. It’s application time. Students can personalize their learning, learn from each other and from the teacher’s modelling.