Historical Inquiry: Understanding the Past

History is a way of organizing and explaining the past. One cannot come to know history by merely learning overviews of the past, nor by simply learning the skills of history in terms of analyzing historical sources. The danger of learning history by learning overviews is that "pupils will switch off when they hit overload or fail to connect with abstract alienating detail" (Counsell, 2000, p.61). The danger of learning history by learning the skills of history is that this "underplays the importance of narrative structures, which provide the framework within which questions are posed and answers developed" (Pendry, Husbands, Arthur, & Davison, 1998, p. 147). In order to overcome simplistic conceptual distinctions between the importance of learning facts and dates, and developing skills to analyze historical sources and develop historical accounts, Counsell (200) contends that the acquisition of historical knowledge is "both the servant and the result of enquiry" (p.70). Learning history means learning how to engage in the process of historical inquiry.
Engaging in historical inquiry, in order to develop an understanding of the broad picture of the past, is a cyclical process that begins with the asking of guiding historical questions. These questions are investigated by locating and analyzing traces of the past - historical sources. It is vital to recognize that these records and relics, primary and secondary historical sources, are:
  • leftover remains and traces from the past, and that we do not have access to every single record or relic from the past;
  • products of very different times and contexts from today, and we must make every effort to try to understand the people, places and times that produced these sources; and
  • not always developed to serve as intentional evidence of the past, but they can still be analyzed in an attempt to draw credible and worthwhile inferences and claims about the past to help answer historical questions (Lee, 2005, p. 58).
The systematic and sophisticated process of analyzing these historical sources in the light of guiding questions results in historical evidence. This historical evidence, which at times can often be complex and contradictory, is then used to construct credible claims/narratives about the past, or in other word, historical interpretations, that seek to provide answers to the guiding historical questions. These interpretations often open up new avenues for the development of further historical questions and mysteries to be explored.


Counsell, C. (2000). Historical knowledge and historical skills: A distracting dichotomy. In J. Arthur & R. Phillips (Eds.), Issues in history teaching (Eds). London: Routledge, pp. 54-71.

Lee, P. (2005). Putting principles into practice: Understanding history. In M. Donovan, & J. Bransford (Eds.), How students learn: History in the classroom: Committee on how people learn: A targeted report for teachers. Washington D.C. The National Academies Press.

Gerwin, D., & Zevin, J. (2003). Teaching U.S. history as mystery. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Levstik, L., & Barton, K. (2001). Doing history: Investigating with children in elementary and middle schools (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Pendry, A., Husbands, C., Arthur, J., & Davison, J. (1998). History teachers in the making. Philadelphia: Open University Press

Van Sledright, B. (2004). What foes it mean to think historically, and how do you teach it. Social Education, 68(3).

The Historical Inquiry project was funded by an IDDL Research Fellowship and a FIPSE grant.
Copyright © 2004-2005, Peter Doolittle, David Hicks, & Tom Ewing, Virginia Tech