Critical thinking and digital literacy should underlie everything we teach at the college level. By embedding critical thinking instruction into my history courses, I expose students to the real work of historians—the questions and the stories about the past that excite us. By adding digital literacy instruction, specifically surrounding the digital tools that are available to help historians do their work, my students learn that asking questions of past events requires a wide range of tools, methods, and skills, both online and off. Both have applications beyond the classroom as essential skills for modern life.
The core critical thinking skills required for the successful practice of history—asking good questions; contextualizing information; evaluating multiple, and often conflicting, pieces of evidence; and formulating an argument—can help students make sense of the volume of information they are asked to synthesize on a daily basis. By learning to think critically within the boundaries of the practice of history, my students learn to understand how information, and subsequently, knowledge have been constructed and disseminated. Learning to understand complex ideas, people, and actions allows them to “adjudicate between competing versions and visions of the past”—a problem historians deal with on a daily basis. As Stephane Levesque argues, sophisticated thinking occurs when a student can take information and concepts learned in one setting and apply them to new and unanticipated situations. The higher-level analytic thinking that students learn to employ in my history classes can be used equally well in their personal or future professional lives.
Digital literacy and critical thinking go hand-in-hand. The recent ‘digital turn’ within the profession has ushered in new ways to apply technical analysis to traditional historical problems—to ask new questions, to contextualize information through digital means, to evaluate more evidence than ever possible by one human being, and to formulate new arguments. The potential community of scholars now knows no geographical bounds, and history projects can be refined faster through formal and informal online peer review. These changes should influence the way students are asked to do history in the classroom. By incorporating digital methods into the study of history, evaluating digital sources, and creating digital projects, my students gain a higher-level of digital literacy.
Fundamentally, studying history (whether in digital or written form) puts us in touch with our own humanity. History allows us to investigate our identities by exploring what Sam Wineburg calls the “familiar and the strange” in order to understand our own position in the world. The critical thinking and digital literacy skills learned within the framework of history practice offers us a solid knowledge base upon which we can evaluate the ideas, people, and events in the present. It is in this application—well beyond the history classroom or even the campus walls—that we succeed as educators.