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Critical Thinking History Activities High School

Teaching history with primary sources engages students and develops critical thinking skills. As students practice reading primary sources, they learn that all accounts of the past are subjective. Students construct knowledge as they explore primary texts, forming reasoned conclusions based on evidence and synthesizing information from multiple sources.

Teaching history with primary sources encourages higher-order thinking. As students learn to think like historians, they begin to see cause-and effect-relationships, and how to fit pieces together to understand historical events as part of a whole and complex story in context.

Teaching history with primary sources is an effective way to illustrate abstract concepts and help students make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas and events. Primary texts can provide students with multiple perspectives from which they learn to recognize bias and to question the reliability of sources. By reading a variety of primary texts students discover ways to connect their historical understanding to other subjects, like geography, science, or even math, as well as their modern lives.

America in Class® from the National Humanities Center provides a wealth of primary sources that will work wonderfully with your history curriculum. The National Humanities Center presents these primary texts in classroom-ready lessons, with background information and strategies to help students dig deeper and more acutely understand the past.

Here are 10 primary source lessons our teacher experts recommend for effective student engagement:

1. Successful European Colonies in the New World
Why did some European colonies thrive while others failed? Through the cooperation and mercy of the Native Americans. This lesson uses two documents, both from the European colonists’ point of view and rife with European biases. These texts work as both a source of 17th-century American history and a provide a lens through which to study the impact of essentializing racial identities.

2. Lexington and Concord: Tipping Point of the Revolution
Four primary source documents, both public and personal, paint a vivid picture of the American colonists’ armed conflict with England. These texts also reveal how the American colonists’ values, loyalties, and ideals shifted during the conflict. This lesson takes students beyond the tale of the Boston Tea Party and explores the thoughts and emotions of individuals as they are deciding to separate from a ruling power through war.


3. Abigail Adams and “Remember the Ladies”
Did feminism exist in early American history? The letters of Abigail Adams say yes. While the primary texts of Jefferson, Paine, Henry, and others may be standard sources of the period, Mrs. Adams’s letters provide a fascinating female perspective from the 18th century, as well as an important precursor to the American women’s suffrage movement.

4. The Family Life of the Enslaved
First-person accounts by former slaves, 70 years after emancipation, offer students a view of the ways slave owners fragmented families to control the enslaved. These narratives show the strategies enslaved people adopted in order to preserve their histories and family bonds while under the power of ownership. The testimonies also show the differences in slave experiences, revealing that one individual’s history does not apply to all.

5. The Underground Railroad
Five letters between a white Quaker abolitionist and a free black man in Philadelphia reveal the intricate strategies necessary to move enslaved peoples across state borders to freedom. This lesson pairs perfectly with the primary sources of Frederick Douglass, too.


6. The Enslaved and the Civil War
So much of Civil War history focuses on the military generals and battles fought by white men. This testimony by a freed slave who was a savvy business leader and eloquent speaker illuminates the various ways enslaved men and women fought to obtain their freedom, restored the Union, and abolished slavery. This lesson also includes an exceptional graphic organizer activity that compares and contrasts empirical data and interpretative analyses of that data.

7. The Cult of Domesticity
These passages written by white middle- and upper-class women explore the social norms expected of them and the repercussions on their personal security when they broke with conformity. From articles about obedience to one’s husband to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s and Fanny Fern’s use of fiction to expose the horrors of slavery, these documents can be paired with others like the Declaration of Independence that debate the merits of freedom against the practical considerations of survival.

8. The Radio: Blessing or Curse? A 1929 Debate
Your students may be well-versed in the debates regarding use of the Internet and social media at school and at home, and they can explore how the technological innovation of radio in the 1920s brought about similar issues. Students can examine side-by-side editorials that profess that radio is either a boon or a bane to society, and the effects of new technologies on America.


9. The Moral Vision of Atticus Finch
This lesson, a close reading of chapter 11 of To Kill a Mockingbird, takes an in-depth look at some of the more questionable aspects of Atticus Finch’s “moral vision.” It is a fantastic opportunity for English teachers to analyze many of the nearly universally accepted perceptions of Finch, and for history teachers to introduce to students precursors to the civil rights movement.

10. America’s Cold War Blueprint
Why, in 1950, did the United States believe it had to confront the Soviet Union, spreading a cold war across Europe and, later, the globe? This report, requested by President Harry S. Truman of the National Security Council, guided American foreign policy for nearly 40 years. It will help students, many of whom may be learning of the Cold War for the very first time, to understand how it was grounded in American ideas of democracy.

And these are only 10 of the lessons presented! Find even more primary source history lessons at America in Class from the National Humanities Center.

25 Of The Best Resources For Teaching Critical Thinking

by TeachThought Staff

The Stanford University Center for Professional Development recently developed a course of effective classroom in the classroom, and asked us to let you know about it.

This online course consists of three online sessions, three weeks in a row. Each session includes expert video screencasts, classroom video clips, readings and resources, and assignments that will prompt participants to strengthen the curricular foundations of communication the first month of school.

Session 1: Establishing a Classroom Culture of Conversation (August 2-8) – This session provides models and suggested activities for cultivating classrooms that value learning through constructive conversation.

Session 2: Creating Effective Conversation Prompts & Tasks (August 9-15) – This session focuses on how to look at a lesson, envision the conversational opportunities, and craft effective prompts for back and forth conversations between students.

Session 3: Preparing for Effective & Efficient Formative Assessment of Conversations (August 16-22) – The session prepares participants to (1) set up an assessment plan for assessing and reflecting on observations of paired student conversations, (2) provide right-now feedback to students during their conversations, and (3) reflect on conversation assessment to improve teaching and assessment.

See Also:10 Team-Building Games That Promote Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking

As an organization, critical thinking is at the core of what we do, from essays and lists to models and teacher training. (You can check out What It Means To Think Critically for a wordier survey of the intent of critical thinking.)

For this post, we’ve gathered various critical thinking resources. As you’ll notice, conversation is a fundamental part of critical thinking, if for no other reason than the ability to identify a line of reasoning, analyze, evaluate, and respond to it accurately and thoughtfully is among the most common opportunities for critical thinking for students in every day life. Who is saying what? What’s valid and what’s not? How should I respond?

This collection includes resources for teaching critical thinking, from books and videos to graphics and models, rubrics and taxonomies to presentations and debate communities. Take a look, and let us know in the comments which you found the most–or least–useful.

25 Of The Best Resources For Teaching Critical Thinking

1. Course: Effective Conversation In The Classroom by Stanford University

2. A Collection Of Research On Critical Thinking by

3. The TeachThought Taxonomy for Understanding, a taxonomy of thinking tasks broken up into 6 categories, with 6 tasks per category

4. The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Test (it’s not free, but you can check out some samples here)

5. It’s difficult to create a collection of critical thinking resources without talking about failures in thinking, so here’s A Logical Fallacies Primer in PowerPoint format.

6. 4 Strategies for Teaching With Bloom’s Taxonomy

7. An Intro To Critical Thinking, a 10-minute video from wireless philosophy that takes given premises, and walks the viewer through valid and erroneous conclusions

8. Why Questions Are More Important Than Answers by Terry Heick

9. A Printable Flip Chart For Critical Thinking Questions (probably easier to buy one for a few bucks, but there it is nonetheless)

11. A Collection Of Bloom’s Taxonomy Posters

12. 6 Facets of Understanding by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe

13. A 3D Model of Bloom’s Taxonomy

14. Helping Students Ask Better Questions

14. Examples Of Socratic Seminar-Style Questions (including stems) from

15. 20 Questions To Guide Inquiry-Based Learning, a 4-step process to guide learning through inquiry and thought

16. Socratic Seminar Guidelines by Grant Wiggins

17. How To Bring Socratic Seminars Into Your Classroom, a 7 minute video by the Teaching Channel

18. How To Teach With The Socratic Seminar Paideia Style, a PDF document by the Paideia that overviews

19. Using The QFT Model To Guide Inquiry & Thought

20. Create Debate, a website that hosts, well, debates

21. Intelligence Squared, Oxford-style debate hosted by NPR–and in podcast format, too

22. 60 Ways To Help Students Think For Themselvesby Terry Heick

23. A Rubric To Assess Critical Thinking (they have several free rubrics, but you have to register for a free account to gain access)

24. 25 Critical Thinking Apps For Extended Student Thought

25., another “debate” community that promotes topic-driven discussion and critical thought

And for something in the way of specific training for staff, there’s always Professional Development on Critical Thinking provided by TeachThought (full disclosure: we’re TeachThought).

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored post.” The company who sponsored it compensated us via payment, gift, or something else of value to write it. Regardless, we only recommend products or services we use personally and believe will be good for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

25 Of The Best Resources For Teaching Critical Thinking