Obstacles to using primary sources for teaching history
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 The pressure on teachers to “cover” all of the historical content in the curriculum means that primary sources are often seen as extraneous to the real curriculum, when in fact they can be used to teach students the content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.