Reasons for using primary sources to teach history

February 28, 2011 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Posted by Lindsay Gibson

In my last blog entry I discussed a few of the obstacles that educators face when using primary sources in their history teaching, and promised that my subsequent blogs would provide tips and suggestions for using primary sources for teaching history. Before doing so I thought that for this blog it would be helpful to backtrack and discuss some of the reasons history educators have suggested for using primary sources in the class. It is important to remember that the commonly discussed reasons for using primary sources presuppose that primary sources are being used purposefully and effectively.

The reasons presented below are the most commonly discussed reasons for using primary sources for teaching history as discussed by Barton, 1997; 2005; Grant & VanSledright, 2001; Sandwell, 2003.

  • Primary sources provide a more personalized and insightful glimpse into the thoughts and experiences of people in the past.

Primary sources such as diaries, photographs, letters and films provide students with an engaging “window on the past” that is a more personalized view of human experience in a different time period.

  • Compared to textbooks, use of primary sources is a more interesting and engaging way of learning history.

What is more interesting, reading a textbook account about life in a WW I internment camp or a diary of an “enemy alien”? Many students are often taught history via the use of textbooks that provide impersonal, generalized statements about the past that seem distant or removed from actual human experience. Interesting and provocative primary sources pique students’ interest in ways that textbooks cannot.

  • Use of primary sources accentuates critical and evidence-based thinking while motivating inquiry.

For many students, history class involves little more than reciting or memorizing other people’s (teachers, historians and textbook writers) historical conclusions. Introducing students to a variety of primary sources on a particular historical topic and then inviting them to make a reasoned judgment after weighing the evidence is more interesting to students and requires the development of critical and evidence-based thinking abilities.

  • Use of primary sources leads to increased knowledge and understanding of the world in the past, and the present.

The content students learn and the abilities that they develop as they are introduced to the interrogation and analysis of primary sources helps orient them to the social world of the past and the one that they are currently living in.

  • Use of primary sources allows students to participate in the process of creating or building historical knowledge in the form of accounts, which provides them with direct experience with the procedural, disciplinary knowledge formalized in the Benchmarks of Historical Thinking project that is now appearing in provincial curricula across the country.

Inviting students to construct or build historical knowledge after considering a variety of primary sources helps students develop disciplinary understanding in history, such as the understanding that history is constructed, and that there is no single truth for a past event. This disciplinary knowledge is accentuated in the Benchmarks of Historical Thinking project ( in the form of second-order concepts that give shape to the discipline.


Entry filed under: Curriculum, Elementary School, Secondary School, Teaching University. Tags: , , , , , , .

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