Using Historical Evidence More Effectively: Sets of primary sources

April 4, 2011 at 6:03 pm Leave a comment

Posted by Lindsay Gibson

In this blog post I continue my series of posts that discusses the use of primary sources for teaching history. My purpose in this particular post is to provide a rationale for using sets of sources to teach history. I describe a project that I assigned to a cohort of pre-service teachers in a social studies methods class in the fall semester of 2010 that asked students to identify and select “sets” of primary and secondary sources focused on a particular historical topic in the curriculum.[1]

Despite consensus on the importance of using primary sources to teach history, researchers have discussed how they are often used ineffectively in many classrooms. In the following section, I explain how the sets of primary and secondary sources promoted in this assignment advance a more effective use of historical evidence.

One of the ways in which primary sources are used ineffectively occurs when students are assigned individual primary sources that they have no prior knowledge about, experience with, or interest in. In other cases they are presented with decontextualized excerpts from primary sources and are asked to complete a basic sourcing heuristic—classifying the source as primary or secondary, determining the bias of the author, and reading the primary source for information and understanding, much in the same way that they would read a textbook. When inauthentic “sourcework for sourcework’s sake” occurs, the ability of primary sources to raise questions, inspire wonder, and provide evidence is lost and analyzing primary sources becomes little more than a tedious, disconnected exercise.[1]

For each set of sources in the assignment, pre-service students were asked to include seven to ten carefully selected primary sources that represent the perspectives of different stakeholders in the event, are suitable for their intended audience, and provide sufficient and relevant evidence for students to complete the assigned activity. Analyzing multiple primary sources engages students in inquiry-based, active learning that requires them to generate their own knowledge—which is one of the key aspects of historical thinking.[2] The inclusion of multiple sources also reminds students that they cannot depend on any single source for reliable knowledge as multiple sources need to be consulted in order to develop historical understanding.[3] The idea of using multiple primary sources such as jackdaws (collections of reproduced primary sources documents focused on a single topic), or textbook collections of primary documents (such as Emond Montgomery Publication’s textbook Canadian Sources: Investigated—1914 to the Present) to teach history has been around for decades but there are several ways in which the sets of sources advanced in this assignment differ from these earlier incarnations.

For each set of sources pre-service teachers developed, they were required to develop an overall question that has the potential to engage students, requires students to make a judgment, addresses an important historical idea, event, issue or question in the curriculum, and is historically significant in the eyes of historians. History researchers argue that history teachers should focus primarily on activities that present students with an open-ended question and a supporting set of primary and secondary source documents that require students to analyze evidence from the sources in order to construct plausible accounts of the past.[4]

For each set of sources, student-teachers were asked to include several paragraphs from secondary sources such as a textbook excerpt, historian’s account or encyclopedia entry to provide their students with the necessary contextual information to understand the different sources in the collection. Barton contends that this is important because students do not have the prior knowledge, language skills or training of historians to construct meaning from primary sources, and as a result they need to encounter explanations of the historical topic in secondary sources. Researchers also suggest that when helping students analyze sources, teachers need to anticipate the difficulties students might face, and provide the necessary “scaffolding”—supports such as in-text definitions, contextual and bibliographic information.[5] For each primary and secondary source included in their sets student-teachers were asked to include only the most important evidence, and contextual and bibliographic information that would provide students with adequate guidance to understand the document. Wherever possible, student-teachers were also encouraged to include original copies of primary sources to captivate students’ interest, and to humanize historical actors in the past. Furthermore, student-teachers were asked to anticipate words in the primary sources that students would struggle with because they are obscure, difficult to understand, or have different meanings in the past than today and provide in-text definitions to clarify their meaning.


[1] This assignment grew out of a project that I had been working on with The Critical Thinking Consortium (TC2) in the summer of 2010 that aimed to create an online repertory of carefully selected primary and secondary sources so that teachers don’t have to find and select appropriate sources each time they want to use them.


[1] Barton, Primary Sources in History: Breaking through the Myths, 745-753.

[2] Sandwell, History is a Verb: Teaching Historical Practice to Teacher Education Students

[3] Barton, Primary Sources in History: Breaking through the Myths, 745-753.

[4] Barton, Primary Sources in History: Breaking through the Myths, 745-753.; Fallace and Neem, Historiographical Thinking: Towards a New Approach, 329-346.; Seixas, Beyond ‘Content’ and ‘Pedagogy’: In Search of a Way to Talk about History Education, 317-337.

[5] Seixas, The Community of Inquiry as a Basis for Knowledge and Learning: The Case of History., 305-324.; Seixas, Student Teachers Thinking Historically, 310-341.

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

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