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Teaching the Skill of Historical Interpretation

Sharon Cohen


     It goes without saying that history teachers try to help students improve their reading, writing, and analytical skills.  I would argue, however, that many of us neglect the development of the skill of historical interpretation, especially with regard to historiography.  Perhaps it is only natural in survey courses and high school classes that most of us focus on giving our students "just the facts" within our historical interpretations that may not be obvious to students.  In this article, I will suggest a few reasons that historical interpretation should get more attention and offer some suggestions for teaching that skill even to our younger or less-prepared students.

     First, let me offer a definition of the term "historical interpretation" as I will use it in this article.  Of course what historians do is interpret the past and that can be called "historical interpretation," so many of the articles in this journal and other peer-reviewed journals as well as the countless monographs published in the field of history present historians' interpretations.  Why then do many of us neglect to teach the skill of historical interpretation?  Perhaps it is because, as, as Stanford University Professor Sam Wineburg has so aptly said, what historians do is an "unnatural act." I think many history teachers would agree that most of our students do not naturally know how to interpret the past on their own much less identify the interpretations of historians.  Therefore, how do we history teachers move beyond the simple definition of what historians do to a description of historical interpretation that lends itself to teaching the skill? 

     If we accept that history teachers want to encourage students to improve their reading, writing, and analytical skills, then guiding students toward recognizing that historical interpretations should be seen as another way of thinking and problem solving, rather than just memorizing "the facts", could be another important skill for students to acquire. Before our students are able to recognize a historian's argument or interpretation, we usually need to give them some historical background on the topic and how a historian's argument will compare to previous interpretations.  This is where historiography plays a role.  We need to show our students that all historical interpretations are rooted in what has already been argued about that historical question (what many of us would recognize as the literature review).  The challenge that we face is that many students in our survey courses find it difficult to accept that historians do not work in a vacuum or just present the "truth".  Thus, in order for our students to learn how to recognize a historian's argument in an article or monograph, they have to accept that what historians do is interpretation.  By showing how historians construct their arguments within the context of other interpretations, we will be helping our students toward a more complex way of thinking and problem solving about other issues they confront in their lives.  Our goals should be to guide students toward asking "naturally" about the context of anyone's argument whether about the past or about current issues.

     Now that I have offered some reasons why teaching historical interpretation as a skill is important, I will offer a few suggestions on how to teach the skill.  Most of us who teach high school or college survey courses are pressed for time "to cover" the chronological periods or themes of our course.  It would seem that we have no extra time to address the skill of historical interpretation. I would argue that we are constantly presenting our own historical interpretations in the selection of the order of the content, the historical questions we deem important enough to address, and the types of primary sources we require our students to analyze.  As a small step toward helping students learn the skill of historical interpretation, why not be more open with them about the historians whose interpretations influenced our selection process?  While it is not necessary to start every lecture or class with an admission of the influences on us, we could choose to share two or three major articles or monographs by historians who shaped our approach to the past.  We also can be explicit about linking the historical background we present in our class with the secondary sources we ask students to analyze on their own.  Many students in survey courses do not easily connect what they hear us say in class with what they encounter in secondary sources. 

     Let me share a few secondary sources (beyond the textbook) in which my students find it relatively easy to identify the historical interpretations.  It may help to know that I teach a one-year (two-semester) world history course for high school juniors about half of whom are trying a challenging history course for the first time.  I follow the Advanced Placement World History curriculum, starting with the Neolithic Revolution and ending up somewhere in the present. 

     The first time I explicitly teach historical interpretation is during the first week of the course when I have students read the first chapter of Guns, Germs and Steel to assess Jared Diamond's theory about the environment or geography being the main determining factor for technological development and wealth in the modern world.  I ask students to identify the other theories about the cause of inequality in wealth that Diamond dismisses in favor of his own theory.  Next, I require students to decide provisionally if they find Diamond's theory more convincing than the racist ones he dismisses.  And, finally, we discuss if they think Diamond's theory will hold true for all of the states and peoples we will be discussing during the year.  For the eleven years I have taught this curriculum, students actively engage in debating the theories he dismisses as well as his theory and recall later in the year that this exercise opened their eyes to how theories can be applied to interpreting the past.

     The second secondary source I want to recommend is Gregory Guzman's "Were the Barbarians a Negative or Positive Factor in Ancient and Medieval History?" which Kevin Reilly included in his third edition of Worlds of History, A Comparative Reader.  Guzman uses fairly simple language to demonstrate that barbarians got a bad reputation from ancient historians writing for "civilized" audiences. First, I ask students to predict if they will agree with Guzman's article based on his title.  Second, I ask students to repeat the method they used to figure out Diamond's interpretations by first identifying the arguments that Guzman rails against in the first two pages of his article.  Finally, students must assess Guzman's evidence for the causes of the pastoral migrations that led to conflict with sedentary states and empires.  On the basis of this exercise, students become a bit more sensitive to the use of words like "barbarian" and "civilized" throughout the rest of the course.

     The third historical interpretation exercise my students engage in has to do with Janet Abu-Lughod's monograph Before European Hegemony:  The World System A.D. 1250 –1350.  After we have identified, simulated, and discussed the continuities and changes in the most active trade systems in the post-classical period up to about 1200 C.E. in the eastern hemisphere: Silk Roads, Indian Ocean routes, Trans-Saharan routes, Viking routes (west and east), as well as the Mediterranean routes, I give my students an excerpt from Abu-Lughod's introduction, some of her maps, and a few questions to lead them toward identifying how her historical interpretations are based in part on world-systems analysis.  To assess their skill of identifying historians' interpretation, I then give them two maps of trade routes from some world history textbooks that favor a more Mediterranean or European-dominant hemispheric trade system by the time of the Black Death and ask students if they think the cartographers accepted or rejected Abu-Lughod's work.  After this exercise, students begin to look at even the maps in their textbooks as examples of historical interpretation.

     I follow up this assignment a few weeks later with one focused on excerpts from Valerie Hansen's monograph The Open Empire.  I help students see how Hansen debunks the classic Western view of the "isolated" Chinese system through her exhaustive examples of open borders in China from the time of the Shang dynasty to 1600.  I give students a short quiz to make sure they can identify the arguments that Hansen challenges.  They then have to predict the reactions Hansen's book might get in 1965 from Chinese Communist Party leaders or American conservative news commentators compared to how government officials in those two countries today might view the concept of China being "isolated" in the past.

     The last teaching idea I want to share for helping students build their skills in identifying historical interpretations has to do with pirates.  Toward the end of the first semester, my students can identify some of the major commodities and merchants in the transoceanic trade system of the 1600s, so they are ready to read and analyze the role of pirates.  Before I ask them to practice identifying historians' interpretations of pirates, I let students share what they already know about pirates, and invariably they list various images and facts they have gleaned from films, cartoons, or video games.  A few students will have heard whatever the latest news has been on pirates, or even sometimes they have seen some television program on pirates.  We also discuss briefly the difference between smugglers and pirates after they read an excerpt from Alan Karras' book, Smuggling: Contraband and Corruption in World History, to help them distinguish between merchants breaking the law to make profits and thieves stealing goods or people.  Based on these background-building discussions, my students are prepared to predict what the historian Tonio Andrade will argue in his article "The Company's Chinese Pirates: How the Dutch East India Company Tried to Lead a Coalition of Pirates to War against China, 1621–1662".  Usually students can predict that Andrade will be arguing for a more complex view of pirates.  Although this conclusion about how Andrade will explain pirates' activities in the early modern period may seem obvious and trite to our experienced eyes, for my students it is an intellectual leap to read the article looking for Andrade's interpretation of pirates' roles in the early modern world rather than expecting the article to entertain or merely inform them.

     It was my goal in this article to encourage teachers to show their students historical interpretations outside the main textbook they might use.  There are many, many possible secondary sources available to world history teachers.  One easy place to search is the Journal of World History or you could use the articles in this free online journal.  For example, here are a few ideas on how to use the articles in the "Environment Forum" of this June 2011 issue to give students some experience with identifying historical interpretations [ Editor's note: at this author's suggestion, they have also been incorporated as means to explore the pedagogical value of the Forum on Environment in World History in this issue.] 

  1. Sam White, Middle East Environmental History: Ideas from an Emerging Field.  —Students first could list all of the references Professor White makes to other scholars and then identify each of the main points he says they make.  Students should then be able to identify how his thesis fits in with the main points of the other scholars.

  2. Richard P. Tucker, "War and the Environment" —Students could explain if they agree that invading armies caused both the destruction of eco-systems as well as the restoration of ecological diversity as human populations migrated away from the military conflicts.

  3. Tait Keller, "Modernizing Mountains" —Students could write a short response to Keller's ideas about how social hierarchies or prejudices were reflected in the use of the parks systems.

  4. Stephen Cote, "Drilling for Oil and Constructing Difference in Eastern Bolivia" —Students could rank the issues Cote identifies with developing the oil industry in Bolivia, explain their criteria for ranking and whether Cote would agree with their rankings.

     For your own world history classrooms, you might bring different secondary sources to your students' attention and you might use different approaches to teaching the skill of recognizing historical interpretations, but hopefully we share the goal of helping students apply that skill beyond the classroom.  In my classroom by the end of each first semester, I am quite pleased when students realize that historians' interpretations take into account the work of other historians as well as new historical information.  I also find satisfaction in their increasing abilities to recognize that the historians' national identity, life experiences, educational training, and political ideologies might affect the research questions they ask or the methodologies they might use. These are the skills of historical interpretation that I hope my students will transfer to other ways they think about their world.  Ultimately, I imagine my students being able to identify the difference between a reasonably argued interpretation and a rant that is merely someone's opinion; it seems an important enough skill to find time to develop for the civic society of their futures.

Sharon Cohen teaches Advanced Placement World History and International Baccalaureate History at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland.  She can be contacted at:


Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250–1350. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Andrade, Tonio. The Company's Chinese Pirates: How the Dutch East India Company Tried to Lead a Coalition of Pirates to War against China, 1621–1662. Journal of World History 15, Number 4, (December 2004), .

Guzman, Gregory G. Were the barbarians a negative or positive factor in ancient and medieval history? The Historian 50 (1988), 568–70

Hansen, Valerie.  The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. By Valerie Hansen. pp. ixx, 458. 17 maps, 70 illustrations. New York and London, W. W. Norton, 2000.

Karras, Alan. Smuggling: Contraband and Corruption in World History. Rowan and Littlefield, 2009.

Wineburg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.


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