Historical Sources In The Classroom: Purpose and Use, pp. 4 of 10

Visual sources can be particularly interesting, and there is a great deal of evidence that students’ understanding of history—and particularly their understanding of historical time—is encoded in visual terms (Barton & Levstik, 1996). If we want students to understand when something happened, it is particularly important for them to be able to see what that time looked like. The richness of detail in photographs is especially important: architecture, technology, fashion, and the activities of people are all ways to draw students into a photograph. (See Figure 2) By contrast, photographs that are simply portraits of individuals or that feature the exterior of monumental buildings are not especially captivating. Physical objects such as old tools or other pieces of technology—or even photographs of such artifacts—can also help students visualize past time periods (Levstik & Barton, 2015).

In working with these sources, the first step for teachers is make sure students understand what they read or see. Helping students comprehend a text (particularly if the language is difficult) or spot details in images is foundational to later learning; we cannot simply assume that they know how to make sense of what they read or see. However, it is also common to spend too much time on this kind of comprehension, and to turn what should be a motivating source into a boring reading exercise. Once students have apprehended the basic context of the text or image, it is important to stimulate their curiosity by having them develop questions about the source, by asking them what they find interesting or puzzling, how it connects to their own experiences, and what it makes them want to know more about. Such discussion need not be lengthy, but it is an important part of history lessons. It is this curiosity that makes the source motivating and encourages further engagement in the topic.

Evidence for historical inquiry: Perhaps the most important use of original historical sources is as evidence to answer historical questions. This is certainly the purpose that is most often recommended by scholars of history education and that best reflects the work of historians (Barton, 2005; Barton & Levstik, 2004). This places sources within a context of inquiry, as students draw on them to reach conclusions about the past. This inductive process inherently involves higher-order thinking, as students must evaluate a variety of sources and synthesize them in order to develop meaningful answers to historical questions, and in the process to construct their own understanding of the time period. If we want students to understand what aspirations Singaporeans had for the future in the post-WWII period, for example, they can answer that question by reading sources such as newspaper articles, personal writings of people at the time, memories that people later had of the period, and even advertisements or photographs. Such sources will be more richly informative than textbook summaries of the same period.

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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