How to Teach Thinking Skills in Social Studies and History

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Copyright 2008 Barry K. Beyer

How to Teach Thinking Skills in Social Studies and HistoryBARRY K. BEYER

ABSTRACT. This article presents four guidelines for providing direct instruction in thinking skills in social studies and history at any grade level. The author first describes, with examples, three major components of any thinking skill that students need to know. Second, he presents teaching techniques for making these components explicit. Third, he outlines and explains two different strategies for organizing introductory skill lessons. Fourth, he describes a variety of techniques for scaffolding and cueing continuing thinking-skill practice as well as strategies for organizing different types of skill-practice lessons. He explains principles for employing these techniques and strategies throughout. He also highlights three factors teachers should consider in implementing thinking-skills instruction. The article concludes with a brief research-based rationale for infusing thinking-skills instruction with social studies and history instruction. Keywords: direct instruction, history, social studies, teaching, thinking skillsBARRY K. BEYER is a professor emeritus in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and the author of numerous books and articles on teaching thinking skills. He can be contacted at SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2008


s educators, we are committed to helping students develop the knowledge and understandings of the social studies and history we teach. To accomplish this, we engage them with course content through, among other learning activities, reading texts, documents, and other sources; making and analyzing decisions; classifying information; analyzing to establish causeand-effect relationships; evaluating sources for accuracy and bias; assessing the credibility of written sources; evaluating the strength of arguments; and so forth. These activities involve more than simply processing subject matter. They require application of various, frequently complex mental operationsor thinking skills, as we commonly call them (Beyer 2001). In fact, what our students learn, produce, and achieve in class depends considerably on how well and how consistently they apply these skills. In our classes, however, many of our students being novices or having little experience in using some of these skills when they come to usprove less than proficient at applying them (Lipman 1991; Nickerson 1989; Perkins 1992). Some of us may try to help their thinking by providing them with repeated opportunities to engage in these skills as

best they can on their own. Others may try to encourage, stimulate, or facilitate their thinking, and still others of us may even find ourselves prodding students to Think again, and then to Now, think harder! As researchers have noted, however, self-discovery techniques such as these all too often fail to improve thinking performance because they do not focus directly on teaching how to apply the thinking skills that need to be improved (Doyle 1983). As a result, such efforts usually do not produce the self-initiating, self-directing, or self-correcting thinking typical of skilled thinkers (Lipman 1991), nor do they often help students develop the subject-matter understandings and learning we may seek. A more direct focus on improving thinking-skill performance is needed. If we are serious about improving the quality of our students thinking and learning, we canand shouldactually teach them directly and explicitly how to better apply the thinking skills they need to use well in our classes but now cannot or do not. And we shouldand cando this while we are teaching social studies and history content. This article presents four researchbased guidelines we can follow to make purposeful instruction directly in any


thinking skill a reality while we are teaching social studies or history to students at any grade level, including postsecondary levels. By following these guidelines, we can, as research shows, improve the quality of not only our students thinking but also their subjectmatter learning (Beyer 2008). Guideline 1: Teach Thinking-Skill Procedures, Rules, and Information Thinking skills are not content-free or ill-defined phenomena. On the contrary, skill researchers and specialists assert that thinking skills consist of at least three key components: (1) one or more cognitive routines or procedures (usually a sequence of mental steps or moves) by which a skill is carried out; (2) rules or heuristics (general strategies or rules of thumb often used by experts) that inform and guide the application of these procedures; and (3) special skillrelated knowledge about when, why, and how to use that skill (Beyer 1997, 2008). For example, individuals adept at the skill of classifying (also known as sorting or grouping) commonly 1. Define a purpose for grouping (or classifying) the given items. 2. Scan the items to get a sense of what is there. 3. Select one item. 4. Select another item similar to the first one and pair them. 5. Label this pair with the feature they appear to have in common. 6. Scan to find other items that fit this label and add them to this pair (now making them a group). 7. Repeat steps 36 with remaining ungrouped items until as many items as possible are in groups. 8. Combine or subdivide groups as needed. Other individuals equally adept at applying this skill may employ entirely different but equally effective classifying procedures, depending on their familiarity with the items being grouped. Like this skill, most thinking skills can usually be effectively carried out by any of several procedures.

One rule or heuristic commonly used by those adept at classifying is to create a dont know or miscellaneous group into which they place items they cannot readily identify. This allows them to complete any classifying effort without getting stalled in the process by trying to figure out an items proper placement before proceeding. They find it much easier to tackle these ungrouped items once they have sorted the more familiar ones. An important type of skill-related knowledge is called conditional knowledgeknowing when or under what conditions it is appropriate to use a specific skill. For example, knowing that grouping like items together is useful when beginning to make sense of a group of mixed-up objects or data allows us to select and apply the skill of classifying whenever encountering a condition or situation like this (Beyer 1988). Criteria used in making criticalthinking judgments constitute another type of skill-related knowledge. Criteria for judging (or evaluating) the credibility of a source, for instance, include its authors reputation and the degree of his or her expertise in the topic presented (Ennis 1985). The effectiveness of all judgment-making thinking skills requires the application and therefore the knowledge of specific, widely accepted, or respected criteria (Lipman 1988). Many, if not most, students tend to be unaware of these components of the thinking skills in which they need to be more proficient. Yet, it is the knowledge of these skill components and proficiency in applying them that lead to skillful thinking. Guideline 2: Make These Skill Procedures, Rules, and Information Explicit Teaching thinking skills means, in large part, instructing students in the skill components with which they are unfamiliar and helping them to master their application of these components. Among the most effective skill-teaching techniques we can employ for these purposes are those that make these compo-

nents explicitobvious, specific, clear, and precise. When we make as explicit as possible how and why, step by step, to carry out a skill efficiently and effectively, we enable our students to become more conscious of how and why they, their peers, and experts actually do that skill. Witnessing how experts apply a skill provides a model for replicating more effective application of that skill. Listening to student explanations of how they do a particular skill allows us, as teachers, to recognize gaps and flaws in their applications of that skill so we can intervene to suggest ways to improve its application. Research shows that this also enables our students to recognize gaps or flaws in their own thinking and to adapt or adopt procedures, rules, or skill-related knowledge they hear or see others using that appear to be more efficient and effectiveor, as some students say, easier or smarterthan those they have been using (Beyer 2008). The following two techniques, metacognitive reflection and modeling, are especially valuable in making thinking explicit. Metacognitive Reflection This technique consists of three parts. First, after students have applied a thinking skill, they think-pair-share to reflect on and tell a partner what mental steps they took to apply that skill. Then, the teacher guides three or four volunteers to share with the whole class how they did it by prompting each in turn to state clearly and specifically what they believe they did mentally each step of the way and why. Finally, in a follow-up entireclass discussion, the teacher can then help students deconstruct and assess the apparent effectiveness of the procedures volunteered and consider modifications, if any, in how this skill might be more effectively applied the next time (Beyer 1997; Swartz et al. 2007). Modeling This technique consists of (1) demonstrating step by step an authentic or expert routine or procedure for applying a thinking skill, while (2) specifying andSEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2008 197


labeling each mental step as we enact it, (3) displaying a list of the steps being demonstrated, and (4) explaining the reasons for using each step as it is taken, along with any rules, heuristics, and criteria