Seeing Thinking on the Web

SOPHISTICATED READERS actively “source” when they read everyday texts.[1] They notice whether a news story appeared in the Washington Post or Washington Times, or whether an op-ed comes from the pen of Bill O’Reilly or Bill Maher. Sourcing is key to understanding how knowledge is made in many disciplines, but it is especially important in history. Historians continually and consistently source the traces of the past to construct legitimate interpretations of the material they study. On the other hand, students in our history courses rarely see “sourcing” or other discipline-specific reading strategies as part of learning and understanding history.[2]

Acts of close reading and textual analysis, which come routinely to historians, remain a foreign and obscure language to many of our students. As Gerald Graff notes in Clueless in Academe, college students often view typical academic practices as “bizarre, counterintuitive or downright nonsensical.”[3] Graff argues that academics obscure their practices from students by using a variety of methods, including “the problem problem”—finding problems where none are generally thought to exist:

The academic faith in the singular virtue of finding problems in subjects … generally thought to be unproblematic seems especially bizarre and forced when the problems have to do with the meanings of texts. The idea that, below their apparent surface, texts harbor deep meanings that cry out for interpretation, analysis, and debate is one of those assumptions that seems so normal once we are socialized into academia that we forget how counterintuitive it can be.[4]

Professional historians find problems as a matter of course, but it is precisely this routine nature that masks “problem finding” in many classrooms. Few historians see it as part of their job description to make their reading processes explicit or visible to students. At the high school level, students may only read the textbook, and too often their main task becomes scanning that book for information and repeating it back on tests. Concerns about coverage in the high school classroom can make close reading seem like an expendable luxury teachers can ill afford. Graff’s central argument holds true for history education writ large. Analyzing and questioning historical texts seems mysterious and even unnecessary in many history classrooms, even though practicing historians see it at the heart of their daily practice.

Fitting the teaching of textual analysis into the history survey is not without its challenges. The need to cover content and traverse the historical terrain often drives teachers’ planning decisions, and the large lecture course seems to allow scant opportunity to model and teach historical reading and thinking. Some have suggested that technology may ameliorate this problem. For the first time in history, the novice has instant access to the archive[5]—in the past decade alone, millions of documents have been digitized and made readily available to teachers and students alike. Whereas teachers once bemoaned the difficulty of tracking down historical sources, such complaints can no longer be defended. We are undoubtedly awash in a digital deluge. What we lack, however, are the tools that would allow us to address Graff’s concern: how do we use new digital technologies not only to make sources more available, but also to cultivate skills that teach students to read and think about these sources in meaningful ways?

Historical Thinking Matters

At, we use the Internet as a distribution system and pedagogical tool for teaching and learning sophisticated ways of reading history.[6] Our project is a collaboration between the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the pioneers of on-line historical resources with their “History Matters” website, and the Stanford School of Education’s Ph.D. program in “History Education.” We drew on our overlapping areas of expertise to create a website that does more than present historical materials: we offer tools and resources designed to show and teach the nature of historical reading and thinking

How do we prepare novices to enter vast digital archives with an analytic eye that prompts them to source, question, and contextualize historical documents? One of the best ways to learn something is to see it demonstrated. While other websites have videos of historians giving lectures or talking about how they read, we attempt to do something quite different: we try to capture historians in the act of historical cognition—not explaining how they would read, but actually showing them making sense of sources that they have never before seen. We use a technique called “think-aloud,” in which people verbalize their thoughts as they read texts out loud. Think-aloud differs from its discredited ancestor, introspection, in two ways: first, it asks people to report their thoughts in real time, not minutes or days later; and second, it asks people to verbalize the contents of their thoughts, not the processes used to generate them.[7] Think-alouds give us insight into the “intermediate processes of cognition”—the way-stations that lead to discovery and the creation of a warranted interpretation.[8] It is during these stages, well before a conclusion has been reached, that we see thinking at its most raw—filled with hems and haws, false starts and switchbacks, wrong turns and self-corrections. But it is also at these points that viewers can watch historians right themselves after a fall and gain a stable footing.

Our approach gives new meaning to the phrase “historical expertise.” The historian qua expert is not holding forth as much as he or she is modeling how to construct historical meaning, how to formulate—not merely deliver—an interpretation. It is at these stages that our students often need the most help. Think-alouds give us a glimpse of what expert cognition looks like before it is tidied up and presented for public view. It is precisely these intermediary steps of historical cognition that remain shrouded in mystery for students.

Capturing Thinking

We gather our think-aloud data through interviews with both expert and novice historians. These interviews include a document task, where the reader is introduced to the think-aloud method and tries it by reading a common daily newspaper. We encourage readers to try to verbalize every thought that comes to mind—no matter how trivial or mundane they feel it might be. After a brief practice and some encouraging words, we ask our respondent to think aloud while reading a prepared set of documents on a particular historical topic from one of four modules on our website: Spanish-American War, Scopes Trial and the 1920s, Social Security Act and the New Deal, and Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

In pilot testing our web-based teaching and learning environment, we have learned that the think-aloud clips must be short—no more than 90 seconds. Short clips keep attention high, a crucial factor in web-based environments.[9] Additionally, short clips do not take up excessive bandwidth and can be produced in a format that allows teachers to use these clips even if they do not possess expensive software or a full set of classroom computers. From hours of videotaped think-aloud sessions, we select clips that range from a half-minute to a minute and three-quarters.

We have found that we are more likely to get instructive examples of historical sense-making if we ask historians to read outside of their area of expertise. For example, an expert on the period of the 1920s brings so much knowledge to the document set about the Scopes trial that watching him or her in action may intimidate, rather than instruct, a high school student. Historical reading could seem even more mysterious were this expert to refer to the historiography of the period, such as the works of Edward J. Larson, Ann Douglas, and John Higham,[10] peppered with language about materialism and eugenics. However, if a medievalist or an Africanist looks at that same document set, we better approximate the conundrum of the student who, equipped with a much sparser knowledge base, is asked to learn something new from an encounter with historical materials. The expertise these non-specialist historians bring to the task is intact and vivid—including how to specify what they do not know and how to “find problems.”[11]

Expert Thinking Uncovered

Consider the case of Ph.D. candidate Natalia Mehlman, whose dissertation research investigates bilingual and sex education in California in the 1970s. We presented Natalia with the document set for our inquiry on the Spanish American War.

Natalia read nine edited documents, including two newspaper articles about the sinking of the Maine, McKinley’s war speech, the Monroe Doctrine, U.S. telegrams about coaling stations and the Cuban reconcentration camps, and finally, the following excerpt from Albert J. Beveridge’s Senate campaign speech delivered on September 16, 1898 to potential constituents in Indiana:

Fellow citizens—it is a noble land that God has given us; a land that can feed and clothe the world … It is a mighty people that he has planted on this soil … It is a glorious history our God has bestowed upon his chosen people; … a history of soldiers who carried the flag across the blazing deserts and through the ranks of hostile mountains, even to the gates of sunset; a history of a multiplying people who overran a continent in half a century.

As she read Beveridge’s words, Natalia’s eyes widened, and at the end of this last sentence, she paused and made this comment:

So again, this kind of takes the whole brutal and violent history of expropriation of Westward expansion and puts the, a, describes it in a glorious way, “the blazing deserts,” “the gates of sunset,” etc., but also takes the people who were overrun out of the picture too. It was the mountains that were hostile, not the actual people living there! It was the continent that was overrun, not the civilizations that occupied it. So I think that’s interesting … We see here that he’s a leading advocate of American expansionism, I think that that kind of rhetoric is immediately going to downplay the human costs of this expansion, be it in American soldiers, who don’t have the choice except to go forth on this God foreordained mission or the people who they’ll be killing.

Using her hands, eyes, and inflection to communicate meaning, Natalia’s comments on this excerpt exceeded the length of the text itself! She first formulated a context for Beveridge’s words, connecting them to the “whole brutal and violent” history of Westward expansion. She pulled quotes from the document to characterize Beveridge’s view of this expansion as “glorious” and she explained that rhetoric downplaying the butchery of Native removal can be expected from this kind of speaker at this time. Natalia’s reading of the Beveridge documents took a little over a minute.

Natalia drew on particular phrases from Beveridge to make her point. In this clip, we do not hear the historian struggling to understand; rather, Natalia seemed to use what she knows about the ideology of manifest destiny to characterize and situate Beveridge’s words (although she did not actually use the term “manifest destiny”). She noticed who Beveridge does and does not talk about—a strategy that historians sometimes refer to as “reading the silences.”[12] Rather than approaching Beveridge’s words as expository text that means exactly what its words convey, Natalia used historical reading strategies to find problems in the text and understand it more fully.

Our previous research led us to believe that simply presenting novice readers with powerful examples and expecting them to have some utility is the pedagogical equivalent of magical thinking. Just as the untutored eye looks at a Van Gogh and sees not a swirl of pulsating color and energy, but a simple tree, grass, and sun, so the novice watches Natalia and wonders “What’s the big deal?”[13] Novices not only need to “see thinking”—they also need to see it and then be guided in understanding what they saw. Each of our video think-alouds is accompanied by a commentary intended to do just that.

In writing our commentaries, we first needed to name the strategies we identified (indicated in the bold text below). Naming allows a novice first to locate the strategy, then identify it in other instances, and ultimately bring that strategy under cognitive control.

Reading strategy—Using background knowledge:

Natalia uses historical information and knowledge to help her read and understand this document. When she says “brutal and violent history of expropriation of westward expansion,” she’s referring to America’s history of seizing Native American land as the country expanded westward (expropriation simply means forcibly taking away someone’s property or money). You are probably familiar with this history: but you may not have used it to understand Beveridge’s words.
When you approach and read a historical document, ask yourself, “What knowledge can I bring to this document to help me understand it?”

The strategy of “using background knowledge” may seem like common sense, but it is precisely what many of our freshmen and sophomores fail to do when reading a document like Beveridge’s. These same students would be able to define “manifest destiny,” but not think to invoke it in this context. The practice of pausing to ask oneself “what else do I know about this topic? What other knowledge might I possess that would be applicable?” often distinguishes able from less able readers.[14]

Reading strategy—Reading the silences:

Natalia is surprised that the text does not mention Native Americans; she notes that according to Beveridge, “‘It was the mountains that were hostile,’ not the actual people living there. ‘It was the continent that was overrun,’ not the civilizations that occupied it.” This silence about the presence of Native Americans is what Natalia means when she says that Beveridge “takes the people … out of the picture.”
To read silences, historians ask questions of an account. These include: What is the speaker not mentioning? Whose voices are we not hearing in a particular document or historical account? Which perspectives are missing?

Historians and other expert readers may notice what Natalia does without the aid of our commentaries. But for many students, these commentaries will be indispensable for recognizing and understanding these finely honed reading abilities.

In our unit on the Scopes trial, we use a clip from Professor Joy Williamson, an expert on black protest movements on American campuses in the 1960s.[15]

Williamson looked at the document pictured above, and paused at its head note. After reading the words “American Federation of Teachers,” she comments that she “never realized how old they were,” proof that her eyes darted from the head note to the document’s attribution at the bottom. She only reached seven words farther into the head note before offering this long comment:

Okay, I’d be interested to know more about the AFT in 1925. And I’m wondering if this is teachers banding together against the legislature and legislative interference in what happens in the schools—kind of mandating curriculum. And so I am wondering if the role that the AFT played banding together in support of Scopes—I can’t imagine every teacher who is a member of the AFT believes in evolution; I doubt that this was a prerequisite to becoming a teacher. So, I have no doubt that there were ideological differences, but I wonder about—so obviously I can’t get past this head note!—about the AFT and why, I’d want to know why, they made this particular decision and if it has anything to do with interference in the business of teaching.

Professor Williamson’s comment provides a textbook example of sourcing. She also modeled how a historian encounters a text and uses it as an opportunity to become clearer about what she does not know—an opportunity to specify her ignorance and find new problems. In the course of her 133-word opening comment (delivered after looking at only the head note and glancing at, but not yet reading the document) she “wonders” three distinct times and “would be interested to know” or “wants to know” twice more. Here is the commentary we provide to students on this instance of sourcing:

Reading strategy—Sourcing:

Professor Williamson demonstrates what it means to “source” a document—to give full consideration to who wrote a document before launching into its contents. For historians, there is no such thing as free-floating information—historical texts are written by people in particular settings. Therefore, before we can consider what a text says, we have to know who says it.
This is exactly what Professor Williamson does. Immediately after reading that the statement comes from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the first teacher unions in the United States, she comments that she “never realized how old they were,” a statement that shows that she has already glanced down at the document’s citation to locate its 1925 date. In sourcing this document, Professor Williamson does much more than notice who wrote it. Before she even starts to analyze the document’s body, she has formulated a whole list of questions to ask, including: What was the purpose of the AFT banding together? Since not all teachers believed in evolution, what other motive might have been behind their actions? Were they acting on the principle that teachers have rights and that the government should not dictate what teachers say in the classroom?
If you pay close attention to Professor Williamson’s language, you will see that she uses the word “wonder” three different times! You may regard historians as people with bundles of answers, but here, Professor Williamson demonstrates a different kind of historical expertise: she is an expert at formulating questions. She is an expert not because she reads quickly but because she reads slowly. She slows down the reading process so when she gets to the body of the actual document, she brings a set of questions and a prepared mind.

Even with commentaries, novices may still be intimidated by gaps between their own emerging ability and these videos of experts. Therefore, not all of our clips show cognition as it ought to be. We also include models of novice cognition that highlight moves that students typically make as they struggle toward a more sophisticated comprehension.[16] By identifying what goes wrong with historical cognition, we hope to help students recognize missteps in their own thinking, as well as to help teachers understand some of the common stages along the route to becoming a competent historical reader.

Novice Thinking Uncovered

Chuck, an eleventh-grade Advanced Placement U.S. history student, examined two excerpts from contrasting newspaper articles from February 17, 1898—the first two documents in our module on the Spanish-American War. Published the morning after the late-night explosion of the U.S.S. Maine, the newspapers led with very different headlines. The New York Times proclaimed that the “Maine’s hull will decide,” and that an investigation into the nature of the explosion was underway. The New York Journal and Advertiser asserted in splashy headlines, “Destruction of the Warship Maine was the Work of an Enemy.”

After Chuck finished reading these two documents, the interviewer asked: “Do you feel like you know what happened to the Maine?” Chuck replied quickly and with some certainty, “Yes.”

Interviewer: “And what would that be?”

Chuck: “I would say it was blown up by the Spanish because we then had a war with them. So, if there was a Spanish-American war and this happened right before it, then this is probably what started it.”

The contrast between the two different news reports did not cause Chuck to hesitate when answering the question about what happened to the Maine. Instead, his answer exemplifies a pattern familiar to researchers of historical cognition.[17] Novices often assess cause based on temporal proximity. Whatever relevant factor happened closest to the event under investigation is often privileged over more distal causes. Students often assume a teleological stance towards cause, believing that history is an inevitable set of events unfolding in predetermined ways towards an ultimate goal—often missing how specific moments offered different paths and suggested different ends. We know that as students become more sophisticated in their thinking, they identify more causes for events and move away from relying on single causal explanations. Indeed, Spanish history researchers Mario Carretero and Margarita Limon suggest that novice thinkers are often more certain about their causal explanations than expert thinkers, who readily admit their explanations as tentative and qualified.[18]

Chuck’s reliance on temporal proximity to explain the Maine’s explosion, his use of this single event to account for the beginning of the Spanish-American War, and his air of certainty is reminiscent of many students we have taught in our own classes. Faced with a set of contrasting accounts—intentionally juxtaposed to underscore a problem—our reader “solved” this problem by ignoring it. The texts did not prompt Chuck to question or deeply consider what happened to the Maine. Indeed, his preconceived ideas about historical cause and the righteousness of American military engagements trumped the evidence right before his eyes.

Chuck’s short but decisive statements make him an excellent candidate for the kind of thinking we want to examine. While we hesitate making any student a “poster child” for flawed cognition, most history teachers have several “Chucks”—students quick to form conclusions and who see the task of historical interpretation as one of rapidly sizing up the situation and defending their view tenaciously. Just as we provide a commentary for the experts, we do so for Chuck.

Watch Chuck assess the question of causes:

“Do you feel like you know what happened to the Maine?” the interviewer asks. Chuck replies quickly and with some certainty, “Yes.” While the New York Journal’s headline showed the same certainty that Chuck does, the New York Times reported that the cause of the Maine’s explosion was still unknown. But neither this contrast nor the information that each newspaper uses to make its points causes Chuck to pause when confronted with this question. Why?
Chuck continues by telling the interviewer what happened to the Maine: “It was blown up by the Spanish because we then had a war with them. So if there was a Spanish-American war and this happened right before it, then this is probably what started it.” Chuck’s reasoning is not unique: many history students use the same logic.
All that Chuck needs to establish what happened to the Maine is the knowledge of its place in the chronological sequence and a kind of backwards logic. The documents he has to work with (even if there are only two of them) have little effect on his assessment of cause. Although he spent more than 10 minutes looking at the two newspaper accounts and he found the New York Times article easier to understand with more kinds of information, none of this seems to matter when it comes to determining what happened to the Maine.
Chuck is not unusual in his certainty, his understanding of historical cause, or the strength of his ideas in the face of contradictory evidence. This module is designed to complicate students’ notions that events have single causes and that proximal causes always matter most.

Chuck’s video and accompanying commentary illustrate the kind of thinking that our Spanish-American War investigation is designed to challenge. We purposely selected resources to highlight the varied and multiple causes of the Spanish-American War. Chuck’s thinking also offers an opportunity to emphasize a thread that runs through all of our site’s resources—the need to support historical claims with textual evidence. Seeing Chuck’s thinking in action offers educators a new resource in addressing their own students’ misconceptions about historical thinking. Sometimes it is easier to grasp faulty logic in someone else’s thinking before we can recognize it in our own.

Think-alouds as Instructional Tools

To show thinking on the web, we have borrowed a tool from the world of psychological research and transported it to the world of instruction. Think-aloud methods have long been central to studies investigating the nature of disciplinary expertise; we believe that they can also be used in the classroom to help students develop this expertise. From using Natalia’s think-aloud to prime students to question sources about voices that remain silent, to considering Chuck when preparing a lesson on historical causality, teachers will no doubt find varied ways to use these tools. But one thing will be constant in these uses—think-alouds represent historical expertise and knowledge differently from typical curriculum materials. Historical knowing becomes about asking questions, reading sources closely, and analyzing and synthesizing across multiple accounts.


Teaching a way of thinking requires making thinking visible. We need to pull back the curtains from historical cognition to show students not only what historians think, but how they think. Given that many students believe that history is a single story to be committed to memory and that texts speak for themselves, teaching historical reading processes seems urgent work. Texts are not “self-interpreting,” notes Gerald Graff, nor is interpretation an “occult process,” but rather, “one that might be mastered by learning disciplined reading.”[19] Web-based think-alouds provide a new entry to the seemingly mysterious world of textual analysis, distancing it from the sphere of magic, and grounding it in a set of processes that can be demonstrated, taught, and learned. Using the think-aloud tool to show multiple points along the expert-novice spectrum may help us better convey the texture and complexity of historical reading. Introducing students to instructional think-alouds may facilitate this process, as they realize that these ways of thinking are learned rather than inherited.

Historical thinking matters because it prepares today’s students to face the challenges that confront them as citizens in the present. We do not advocate the teaching of historical thinking and reading merely because they are central to the discipline: we believe that critical reading is essential to an educated citizenry. Using backwards logic to explain cause is an erroneous way to reach an interpretation and, as we see in the contemporary political arena, is ripe for exploitation. A news article that describes labor strife but includes quotes from only one side should provoke readers to ask questions about what they are not hearing. Hearing contradictory reports about a political appointment should prompt questions about the reporters’ commitments, possible interests, and viewpoints. Indeed, any encounter with the daily news demonstrates that ways of historical analytic reading skills lose none of their urgency outside the classroom.


1.� The practice of sourcing is one of the key features that distinguishes skilled from unskilled historical reading. In a study comparing professional historians with skilled high school readers in an Advanced Placement class, historians “sourced” 98% of the time, compared to 31% of the time for students. See Sam Wineburg, “Historical Problem Solving: A Study of the Cognitive Processes Used in the Evaluation of Documentary and Pictorial Evidence,” Journal of Educational Psychology 83 (Fall 1991), 73–87.
2.� For one example, see Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal of American History 92 (March 2006), 1358–1370. Calder talks about how students come to his university history class having been schooled “to think that being good at history means being ready to supply a correct answer,” 1365. Sourcing is one of six cognitive habits Calder emphasizes in his course to correct this common misunderstanding.
3.� Graff, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 44.
4.� Ibid., 46.
5.� On the “novice in the archive,” see Randy Bass and Roy Rosenzweig, “Rewiring the History and Social Studies Classrom: Needs, Frameworks, Dangers, and Proposals” (white paper, Department of Education, Forum on Technology in K-12 Education: Envisioning a New Future, December, 1999),
6.� Primary investigators on are Professors Sam Wineburg at Stanford University and Roy Rosenzweig at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media (CHNM). Thanks go to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for their support of this project and for additional support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Important contributions to the site’s development and production were made by Brad Fogo, Daisy Martin, Chauncey Monte-Sano, Julie Park, and Avishag Reisman at Stanford University and Jeremy Boggs, Josh Greenberg, Stephanie Hurter, Sharon Leon, and Mike O’Malley at George Mason University.
7.� For a detailed discussion of the think-aloud methodology and its rationale, see K. Anders Ericsson and Herbert A. Simon, Protocol Analysis: Verbal Reports as Data (Cambridge, MA: 1984).
8.� See Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: 2001), esp. chapter 3.
9.� Jakob Nielsen, “Usability of Websites for Teenagers,” Alertbox (31 January 2005),
10.� Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996); Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 264–300.
11.� See J. W. Getzels, “Problem Finding: A Theoretical Note,” Cognitive Science 3 (1979), 167–172. Getzels makes the case that problem finding is at the heart of disciplinary expertise. On how historians “specify ignorance” as they read, continually formulating an agenda for their future learning, see Sam Wineburg, “Reading Abraham Lincoln: An Expert/Expert Study in the Interpretation of Historical Texts,” Cognitive Science 22 (1998), 319–346.
12.� J. D. Wrathall, “Provenance as Text: Reading the Silences around Sexuality in Manuscript Collections,” Journal of American History 79 (June 1992), 165–178.
13.� David N. Perkins, “Art as an Occasion of Intelligence,” Educational Leadership 45 (December 1987/January 1988), 37–43.
14.� Eva L. Baker, “Learning-Based Assessments of History Understanding,” Educational Psychologist 29, no. 2 (1994), 100–101 and 103.
15.� Joy Ann Williamson, Black Power on Campus: The University of Illinois 1965–75, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003).
16.� Think-alouds showing novices in action appear on the teacher site. These were originally conceived as a teachers’ aid to inform lesson planning and help teachers anticipate how students approach the particular historical topic and materials.
17.� See Alaric K. Dickinson and Peter J. Lee, “Making Sense of History,” in Learning History, ed. Alaric K. Dickinson, Peter. J. Lee, and Peter J. Rogers (London: Heinemann Educational, 1984), 117–53; Denis J. Shemilt, History 13–16: Evaluation Study (Edinburgh, 1980); James F. Voss, et al., “The Collapse of the Soviet Union. A Case Study in Causal Reasoning” in Cognitive and Instructional Processes in History and Social Sciences, ed. Mario Carretero and James F. Voss (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1994), 403–429.
18.� Mario Carretero and Margarita Limon, “Evidence Evaluation and Reasoning Abilities in the Domain of History: An Empirical Study” in Learning and Reasoning in History, International Review of History Education, 2 (London: Woburn Press, 1998), 271.
19.� Gerald Graff, Clueless in Academe, 48 and 52.

By Daisy Martin and Sam Wineburg