Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts

Charting the Future of Teaching the Past

Sam Wineburg
Winner of the Frederic W. Ness Award, The Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2002
Book Cover

PB: $30.95
EAN: 978-1-56639-856-5
Publication: Mar 01

Ebook: $30.95
EAN: 978-1-4399-0301-8
Publication: Mar 01

272 pages
6 x 9
8 tables 3 figures 3 halftones

How do historians know what they know?


Since ancient times, the pundits have lamented young people's lack of historical knowledge and warned that ignorance of the past surely condemns humanity to repeating its mistakes. In the contemporary United States, this dire outlook drives a contentious debate about what key events, nations, and people are essential for history students. Sam Wineburg says that we are asking the wrong questions. This book demolishes the conventional notion that there is one true history and one best way to teach it.

Although most of us think of history—and learn it—as a conglomeration of facts, dates, and key figures, for professional historians it is a way of knowing, a method for developing an understanding about the relationships of peoples and events in the past. A cognitive psychologist, Wineburg has been engaged in studying what is intrinsic to historical thinking, how it might be taught, and why most students still adhere to the "one damned thing after another" concept of history.

Whether he is comparing how students and historians interpret documentary evidence or analyzing children's drawings, Wineburg's essays offer "rough maps of how ordinary people think about the past and use it to understand the present." Arguing that we all absorb lessons about history in many settings—in kitchen table conversations, at the movies, or on the world-wide web, for instance—these essays acknowledge the role of collective memory in filtering what we learn in school and shaping our historical thinking.


"Sam Wineburg has not merely contributed to our understanding of how history is created, taught and learned; he has nearly singlehandedly forged a distinctive field of research and a new educational literature. This volume brings together a decade-long record of conceptual invention and methodological creativity."
Lee S. Shulman, President, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus, Stanford University

"With this volume, Sam Wineburg firmly established his place as the pre-eminent North American researcher in history education. His chapters range from insightful scholarly mediations to innovative empirical studies. He examines the knowledge and practices of historians, history teachers, and young people, as well as the vibrant field of research that has recently developed around these issues. Historical Thinking makes a vitally important contribution to our understanding of how we think and learn about the past."
Peter Seixas, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Education, University of Brutish Columbia

"Historical Thinking is intellectually substantive, integrative, and timely. In the midst of all the talk about new technologies, distance learning, and standardized testing, his fine-grained inquiries into learning and knowledge are a sobering reminder that educators have a lot to learn about learning."
Randy Bass, Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, Georgetown University

"This is a wide-ranging and at times inspirational work."
History of Education

"Arguing that we all absorb lessons about history in many settings—in kitchen table conversations, at the movies, or on the world-wide-web, for instance—these essays acknowledge the role of collective memory in filtering what we learn in school and shaping our historical thinking."
New York Review of Books

"Historians, especially academic historians, who normally avoid the literature on history education for its banality, thin research base, or ideological cant will overlook this book at their peril. Sam Wineburg brings both a burning concern for the state of history instruction and a wide knowledge of history to his research agenda."
The Journal of American History

"Wineburg's work is part of a broader effort to move beyond general features of teaching and learning and to examine the unique aspects of education in specific academic disciplines."
Anthropology and Education Quarterly

"This is a book that will interest not only history educators, but all in the history field who desire to communicate the importance and value of the study of history to a populace that is often less than eager to embrace it."
History News

"For Wineburg the study of history commends itself as a unique and complex way of knowing the world that must, if it is to realize its full potential as a humanistic discipline, embrace a paradox: that of seeing the past as at one and the same time familiar and strange."
The Community College Enterprise

"Using cognition as an organizing approach, the author has asked good questions and made some thoughtful forays into helping us understand why history is so important."
The History Teacher

"The author of this collection is passionate about the teaching of history. ...students are encouraged to put themselves into the shoes of the people whose actions they are studying in order to arrive at their own understanding of what they had done."
The Historian

"...the fact that Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts comprises a wide-ranging assortment of issues can be viewed as a strength of the book from the standpoint of a reflective practitioner hoping to enrich his or her understandings of the historical enterprise."
Social Education

"Teaching the Mind Good Habits" by Sam Wineburg, The Chronicle Review, 11 April 2003.

"A History of Flawed Teaching" by Sam Wineburg, Los Angeles Times, 24 February 2005.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Understanding Historical Understanding

Part I: Why Study History?
1. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts
2. The Psychology of Teaching and Learning History

Part II: Challenges for the Student
3. On the Reading of Historical Texts: Notes on the Breach Between School and Academy
4. Reading Abraham Lincoln: A Case Study in Contextualized Thinking
5. Picturing the Past

Part III: Challenges for the Teacher
6. Peering at History Through Different Lenses: The Role of Disciplinary Perspectives in Teaching History
7. Models of Wisdom in the Teaching of History
8. Wrinkles in Time and Place: Using Performance Assessments to Understand the Knowledge of History Teachers

Part IV: History as National Memory
9. Lost in Words: Moral Ambiguity in the History Classroom
10. Making (Historical) Sense in the New Millennium

About the Author(s)

Sam Wineburg is Professor of Cognitive Studies in Education and Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Washington, Seattle.


In the Series

  • Critical Perspectives on the Past edited by Susan Porter Benson, Stephen Brier, and Roy Rosenzweig

    Critical Perspectives on the Past, edited by Susan Porter Benson, Stephen Brier, and Roy Rosenzweig, is concerned with the traditional and nontraditional ways in which historical ideas are formed. In its attentiveness to issues of race, class, and gender and to the role of human agency in shaping events, the series is as critical of traditional historical method as content. Emphasizing that history is itself an interpretation of material events, the series demonstrates that the historian's choices of subject, narrative technique, and documentation are politically as well as intellectually constructed.