Historical Sources In The Classroom: Purpose and Use, pp. 3 of 10

The four uses of original historical sources

There are four main reasons for using original historical sources in the classroom, and each carries its own implications for teaching and learning. Moreover, some have deeper and more profound consequences for students’ understanding of history. It is important, therefore, that teachers not simply employ some of each, but that they prioritize their time based on what each can accomplish for students’ learning. These four uses can be classified into two broad groupings, each with two sub-categories: using sources as a means to an end, and using them as ends in themselves.

Sources as a means to an end

Illustration and motivation: One of simplest and most basic uses of original historical sources is to illustrate points being made in a lesson, often as a way of motivating students to become more engaged with the topic. Even the best textbook writing is not very exciting, and there is no necessary reason that students would become interested in an account of events that happened in the past without something more to inspire them. Without interest, students’ learning is likely to be superficial at best. Therefore, it has become common for texts to include photographs, quotations, or images of artifacts to illustrate the content being discussed. Teachers obviously can supplement these with source they themselves have located.

Among the most useful sources for motivating students’ interest include those that are produced by people as part of their everyday lives—letters, diaries, memoirs, or other personal accounts. (By contrast, government documents or public speeches by government officials are rarely the kind of sources that will catch students’ attention.) Such accounts can illustrate how an event such as Japanese occupation affected people’s lives (Wong, 2017), and students can often identify with the ordinary people who created such source. This helps students see the events of history as relevant to everyone and not only to the famous people who often form the centerpiece of historical narratives. In addition, personal accounts often include an affective or emotional component, as people write about how they felt about what was happening to them. (See Figure 1) This also can create even greater interest and further reinforce the subject’s relevance.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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