Historical understanding – teaching history in secondary schools | Skolforskningsinstitutet

Historical understanding – teaching history in secondary schools

This systematic research review is primarily aimed at history teachers working in compulsory and upper-secondary schools. We hope that this review will help teachers implement the goals of the syllabus in their teaching and that it will be used on teacher education programmes.

The review compiles Swedish and international research that discusses the relationship between teaching in a classroom context and historical understanding as a learning objective. In the review, we discuss methods and approaches used by teachers to promote the students’ historical understanding, as well as what types of understanding are expressed in the students’ activities. The review is based upon this question:

How can students’ historical understanding develop through interaction with the teacher in classroom situations?

Results of the review

The studies in the review include classroom observations in which the interaction between the teacher and students is of central importance. We highlight results that demonstrate the importance of this interaction for student learning regarding historical understanding. We cover challenges that may arise during teaching and show opportunities for teachers to deal with these challenges and develop students’ historical understanding.

When synthesizing the studies’ results, we discuss historical understanding as a learning objective from three perspectives: Making sense of history; Teaching methods – a focus on historical sources; Organising and staging teaching.

Making sense of history

In the first part of the results section, we discuss the history-specific epistemic beliefs (a range of beliefs about knowledge and knowing) that underlie students’ understanding of history. We cover the challenges and opportunities entailed by actor and structural perspectives in teaching, and discuss the students’ capacity for comprehending more complex explanations.

Different perceptions of knowledge in history can be described as absolutist, relativist and evaluativist. An evaluative view of knowledge presupposes insight into the way that all historical accounts consist of statements and arguments; such a view of knowledge is apparent in students’ capacity to make scientifically-grounded interpretations. The results show that students’ views tend to be absolutist, that they understand history as a correct description of the past which can be reconstructed by putting together information from different sources. Students’ epistemic beliefs also tend to reflect those manifested in teaching. To promote an evaluativist perception of history in teaching, teachers need to be aware and explicit in their teaching.

In history as a subject, students tend to be drawn to actors and explanations of motives (individualisation), but also to understanding and describing structures and processes like actors with human attributes (personification). Here, research shows there is a risk that a one-sided focus on actors will conceal structural circumstances. It is therefore important to use terms such as actor, structure and explanation, and to uncover the relationships between them when teaching. One pedagogical approach that can be used to uncover structural aspects is “stabilizing the content”, which means that teachers highlight and intervene when students lack the necessary knowledge of the historical context.

Students’ capacity to manage complex explanations presupposes that they can differentiate between perspectives on historical processes. To make it easier for students, it is important that the teacher clearly signals, develops and repeats this reasoning when teaching. Teachers can also train students in deconstructing already known historical narratives, or constructing new historical narratives, which can contribute to developing the students’ historical understanding.Dialogue with the students is important in the classroom, where shared understanding can be established through “instructional explanations” in which complex reasoning is initially simplified.

Teaching methods – a focus on historical sources

In the second part of the results chapter, we focus on methods and scaffolding tools. We pay particular attention to students’ work with historical sources and templates that can be used for this purpose. We also discuss methods such as role play, counterfactual thought experiments and timelines.

Research shows that the selection of sources and the purpose of the teaching must be well considered. Sources can bring history to life and increase student interest and engagement in various ways. In teaching, source material is often therefore based on individual life stories but, when sources are used in this way, there is a risk that the interpretive process is backgrounded and that an absolutist perception of history is confirmed. In source criticism, work with sources is always governed by the question – by starting with a specific historical question, source-based teaching can contribute to a historical understanding that encompasses structural explanations and overarching interpretations.

The studies show that templates for structuring students’ work with sources can make a complicated work process more manageable for the students. One example of this is the pedagogical division between contexts (Big C and Little C), between basic source criticism and more extensive contextualisation of the historical question. This division makes it easier for students to works with different stages, but without a loss of understanding for how these stages build upon each other.

One capacity that recurs as decisive is contextualisation. Source criticism presupposes that it is possible to anchor interpretations in a relevant historical context. One method is to stabilise the content through lectures, templates and various types of literature, to establish such a context. It is important that sources and supplementary literature are not used together without adequate consideration of how this is done.

Role play can be a useful method for developing students’ historical understanding. However, these exercises need to be grounded in an historical context to avoid anachronistic interpretations. Counterfactual reasoning can contribute to historical understanding in various ways, revealing the importance of structural explanations. Working with timelines and chronology is fundamental to students’ ability to manage historical explanations. Research shows, however, that there is a risk that students can get stuck in chronological accounts, which can inhibit more advanced causal reasoning.

Organising and staging teaching

In the final part of the results chapter, we discuss different ways of organising teaching that promotes students’ historical understanding. We show how teachers can shape classroom discussion and how this way of working can be related to elaborative or reproductive elements of teaching. We conclude by discussing how the civic-oriented aim of the history syllabus influences teaching.

Positive results have been seen for teaching that is characterised by teachers organising student activities around shared questions, preferably in combination with structured interventions by the teacher. By working to stabilise content and using modelling elements such as revoicing, teachers can guide the interaction and promote students’ historical understanding. Revoicing means that teachers reformulate the students’ reasoning, so that it becomes more precise and relevant, such as by linking what students say to more abstract concepts and evidence from historical sources.

Investigative elements in which students can problematise and pose questions must be anchored in an historical context. In research, this is usually called establishing “the historical problem space”. An important element of teaching that aims to promote historical understanding is that teachers can thus bring about a more subject-based discussion that builds upon and develops the students’ analytical skills.

Teaching in history can build upon analytical skills training as well as normative and fostering elements. However, these differing goals may counteract each other in the teaching situation. Promoting the contemporary relevance of history risks leading to presentism, in which students assume that people in the past had the same motivations as we do now. Normative approaches can reduce teachers’ opportunities to support the students’ development of historical understanding.


In chapter 4, we discuss explicit approaches to historical understanding as a learning objective. We conclude by developing a few themes that emerged in the results chapter. We highlight the identity of history as a school subject and discuss enquiry-based teaching as an overarching model for teaching in the subject, and conclude with a few comments on methods that teachers can use when teaching.

The studies show that regardless of whether teaching is based on lectures, textbooks or work with historical sources, there should be space for both reproductive and exploratory elements. This can be described as the need for a balance between narration and classroom dialogue, between contextualisation and critical reasoning. In itself, this is a mundane conclusion, but one that is not easy to manage when teaching. We wish to emphasise four concepts from the studies that, when used together, form an approach for organising and staging teaching:

  • The historical problem space.
  • Stabilizing the content.
  • Revoicing.
  • Instructional explanations.

Utilising the results

The intent is that this systematic review will help develop the teaching of historical understanding, as well as offering perspectives on the teachers’ own teaching. The studies describe classroom interaction, providing an understanding of teaching situations that teachers will be familiar with. The research shows how challenges in teaching can be managed.In each part of the results chapter, we propose reflective questions that can be used for individual reading or in the teaching team.

Selection of research

The review includes 23 research studies that were systematically selected after extensive searches in national and international research databases. Eight studies were conducted in Sweden, 13 in the US and one each in Israel and Spain.

Project Group

External researchers

Bengt Sandin, professor emeritus at the Department of Child Studies at the University of Linköping, associate professor at the Department of History at Lund University

Joakim Wendell, PhD, Department of Educational Studies, Karlstad University

From the institute

Alf Sjöblom, PhD, Project manager

Karolina Fredriksson, PhD, Assistant project manager

Lisa Jonsson, Information specialist

Catarina Melin, Project assistant