Obstacles to using primary sources for teaching history

January 24, 2011 at 2:46 pm 3 comments

Posted by Lindsay Gibson

The importance of using primary sources for teaching history is almost universally accepted by history teachers, history educators and historians and other members of the history education community. However, in my experience as a high school history teacher, university social studies methods instructor and PhD student in history education throughout the past decade I would argue that primary sources are not used very often, and not very effectively in high school history classrooms. I am not blaming teachers for this state of affairs, instead I am going to discuss several obstacles that prevent teachers from using primary sources effectively in their history classrooms.

One of the problems teachers face is that they have difficulty identifying appropriate sources for their students. With the proliferation of online history related databases, archives and collections over the past decade, finding primary sources is becoming easier and easier for teachers. But it’s not just a matter of finding sources—the sources have to be appropriate for the intended audience, whether they be history undergraduates or fifth graders. Appropriate sources have the potential for engaging students. As a first-year teacher I remember that after several classes of textbook-based lessons I decided that it was time to help the students “think outside the box” by introducing them to primary source analysis.  I selected a primary source that was a tedious, pointless article from a Red River settlement newspaper that made students wish we would return to the dry as dust textbook.

Appropriate primary sources should invite critical analysis and focus on an important curricular theme or topic. In a recent assignment for a 5th year social studies methods class at UBC I asked students to select a question on an important topic in Canadian history that was part of a curriculum they would be teaching during their practicum, and then select a set of five to seven primary sources that were suitable for their audience, included relevant information about the topic in question, and were from a variety of sources and perspectives.

Another obstacle preventing teachers from using primary sources is that they are unsure how to use primary sources effectively in an overcrowded curriculum. The pressure on teachers to “cover” all of the historical content in the curriculum means that primary sources are often seen as extraneous to the real curriculum, when in fact they can be used to teach students the content of history, while also teaching them the critical and evidence-based thinking abilities that lead to increased knowledge and understanding of the past and the world around them.

It is also difficult to learn how to use primary sources in the classroom. Surely we cannot expect that the one or two social studies methods courses student-teachers are required to take will adequately prepare them for the effective use of primary sources throughout their career. I had absolutely no instruction in my university social studies methods classes on using primary sources, and spent the next several years floundering when using them.

Another example of ineffective usage is when only the superficial and accessible aspects of the selected sources are emphasized, while the documents’ potential to stimulate critical thinking and historical understanding is ignored. Similarly, teachers might ask students to analyze primary sources in a decontextualized manner that is divorced from any meaningful historical problem or issue. I remember my high school history teacher (and I have witnessed other teachers) asking us to classify historical sources on a topic as either primary or secondary sources, without really focusing on the important aspects of the documents and what they could teach us about the past.

These are a few of the obstacles educators face when using primary sources for teaching history. In my upcoming blog posts I will offer some tips and suggestions for helping teachers identify appropriate sources and use them effectively when teaching history.

Entry filed under: Elementary School, Secondary School. Tags: , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jennifer Bonnell  |  January 26, 2011 at 8:49 am

    looking forward to reading Lindsay’s future posts on this theme. This applies not only to teaching history in schools, but also in undergraduate classrooms. It would also be interesting to discuss the concept of “bias” that students so often want to use in interpreting historical sources. Coming equipped with the tools to move beyond these kinds of dismissive responses is equally important for teachers of history.

    Reply
  • 2. Mary Chaktsiris  |  January 30, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    History educators and historians can agree that primary sources can and should be used in the teaching of history. But what does this mean? As Lindsay has pointed out, pulling out a primary source in front of a classroom of students (whether they be at primary, secondary or post-secondary levels) can often fall short of stimulating the kind of critical and historical thinking these kinds of sources are capable of facilitating.

    Then again it’s not the source itself that facilitates anything. Maybe sometimes we assume the source alone can do too much? I’m also looking forward to Lindsay’s future posts about the obstacles of using primary sources in history education, and how they might be overcome to facilitate the effective use of primary sources in history education at all levels.

    And, as Jennifer has pointed out, what better way to discuss “bias” than to look closely at the various kinds of nuance and historical contingency (etc) that can “bias” even the most seemingly “objective” historical document!

    Reply
  • 3. Laurence Abbott  |  February 7, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    One of the critical challenges that teacher educators in history and social studies need to continue to take on with pre-service and practicing teachers is to help them make the turn from considering knowledge outcomes as the ultimate goal of their teaching to working towards knowledge and understanding of prescribed outcomes as a consequence of engaged learning and purposeful inquiry. If teachers think of primary sources as things that accessorize other things that students are expected to know, then primary sources serve little purpose unless it is the hidden curriculum objective to reinforce the status quo by making the past as dull and disengaging as possible. Primary sources need to be imagined as gateways to help students begin to answer meaningful questions. ‘Bias’ is central to this. Rather than avoiding or dismissing it, teachers and students should be focusing on it and the ways it impacts any encounter with a primary source.

    Reply

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