We Believe That Students Learn Best By Doing What Historians Do

Academics and professional historians analyze and evaluate a variety of primary sources, interpret their meanings, and construct an interpretation based on the empirical evidence.

Inquiry-Guided Learning

This Inquiry-Guided Learning approach requires students to integrate different sources of information into a logical whole rather than passively memorizing the analysis of others and facilitates higher levels of critical thinking, as measured through Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Levels.

(Bloom’s Taxonomy)

Our Courses Emphasize Critical Thinking, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating. (Bloom’s three highest cognitive levels)

Primary Historical Documents

The raw material for our inquiries is a variety of primary historical documents– firsthand accounts, paintings, and photographs. These are coupled with cutting-edge academic research.

Our Thinking Approaches

We teach students to:

  • look for the “big picture” (give specific events context),
  • analyze evidence (break big issues into constituent parts),
  • critically evaluate sources (learn how to judge which are more trustworthy),
  • create their own interpretations

(Bloom’s three highest cognitive levels)

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the active, persistent, and careful consideration of a belief or form of knowledge. It includes analysis and judgments about the ideas and conditions that support beliefs and the conclusions that follow. Critical thinking involves analyzing and evaluating one’s own thinking and that of others. It is subject to intellectual standards, including clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, significance, depth, breadth, logic, and fairness.

Creative Thinking

Creative thinking is the generation of new ideas within or across disciplines. It draws upon or breaks rules and procedures in those disciplines and actively engages others in bringing together existing ideas into a new configuration, developing new properties or possibilities for something that already exists, and discovering or imagining something entirely new. Standards for judging creative thinking include originality, appropriateness, flexibility, and contribution to the domain.

The “Big Idea”

Historical study requires “big picture” conceptualizing to give specific events context and meaning.

“Nobody can be a good reasoner unless by constant practice he has realized the importance of getting hold of the big ideas and of hanging onto them like grim death.”


An idea is big if it helps us make sense of lots of otherwise meaningless, isolated, inert, or confusing facts. It’s like the picture that connects the dots or a simple rule of thumb in a complex field.

For example: “the water cycle” is a big idea for connecting seemingly discrete and one-way events (the water seems to just disappear as it evaporates). “The heroic cycle” enables us to comprehend literature from many places, cultures, and times. “Measure twice, cut once” is a profound reminder about how to avoid heartache and inefficiency in building anything.

A big idea is thus a way of seeing better and working smarter, not just a vague notion or another piece of knowledge. It is more like a lens for looking than another object seen; more like a theme than the details of a narrative; more like an active strategy in your favorite sport or reading than a specific skill. It is a theory, not a detail.

In literacy or history teaching, the important “themes” are big ideas. Why? Because, if used properly, they provide learners with mental schemas or templates that help make sense of all the details of texts that threaten to overwhelm inexperienced readers. If I am alerted to “the heroic quest” I can read and think with more control and insight. In short: think of “big” as “powerful” not as a large abstract category. 

A big idea is a way of usefully seeing connections, not just another piece of knowledge. It is more like a lens for better looking than something additionally seen; more like a theme than the facts of the story. A big idea is a powerful intellectual tool, from which we can derive more specific and helpful understandings and facts.

Historical Study

Historical study lends itself to this combination of thinking approaches. It requires critical evaluation of sources and close attention to detail (quoting primary sources faithfully, and accurately citing sources). It also requires “big picture” conceptualizing to give specific events context and meaning. Historical analysis is always a creative process, striving to offer new insights into events of the past.

Creative thinking involves searching for meaningful new connections by generating many unusual, original, and varied possibilities, as well as details that expand or enrich possibilities.

Critical thinking, on the other hand, involves examining possibilities carefully, fairly, and constructively focusing your thoughts and actions by organizing and analyzing possibilities, refining and developing the most promising possibilities, ranking or prioritizing options, and choosing certain options.

Generating many possibilities is not enough by itself to help you solve a problem. Similarly, if you rely on focusing alone, you may have too few possibilities from which to choose.

Effective problem solvers must think both creatively and critically, generating options and focusing their thinking.”

(Excerpted from Preparing Creative and Critical Thinkers by Donald J. Treffinger)

Read Our Teaching Philosophy