Historical Sources In The Classroom: Purpose and Use, pp. 7 of 10

Note that unlike the first two uses, interpreting sources on their own terms requires that students already have an understanding of the topic or the time period. Students will only be able to interpret a literary or artistic source if they understand the context in which it was produced; the goal is for students to interpret how its creator was influenced by and engaged with his or her social and cultural setting, and this means having a prior understanding of that setting. Teachers will also need to help students understand rhetorical and artistic conventions, and while these may not be a part of all teachers’ training, such insights are crucial to understanding history. Art, architecture, literature, and public speeches are a large part of what history is, and without understanding them, students will have missed out on much of the meaning and purpose of studying the subject. As a result of their interpretation, students should come away with an even deeper understanding of the setting and a greater sense of how history can engage the imagination.

Source analysis. In isolation, this is the least important way of using historical sources, but unfortunately it is also one of the most common. In this approach, students are presented with a source (or sometimes a set of sources) and asked to “analyze” them. This often involves identifying who wrote the source, the purpose it served, and whether it is “biased” or “reliable.” Identifying who created a source and for what purpose is an indispensable part of all historical understanding, and having students analyze sources in this way certainly seems more feasible and efficient than difficult and time-consuming inquiry or interpretation exercises. However, when sources are isolated in this way, their use sends a number of misleading and unproductive messages, both pedagogically and historically.

The first of these is that, like all “skills” exercises, it can be both boring and superficial. Each of the other purposes for historical sources capitalizes on their potential to involve students in deep and motivated learning. But by removing sources from any other context and requiring students to answer a series of rote questions about them, this use turns potentially fascinating historical work into a textbook-like exercise that students may dutifully complete, but that fails either to engage their interest or to provide insight into the nature of history and historical investigation. British educators, who have long experience with the use of sources in the classroom, refer to this approach as “death by sources A-F” (Counsell, 1998, p. 3).

Not every school exercise can be exciting, of course, but every exercise certainly must enable students to learn important content. And educators frequently assume that source analysis models the work of historians and thus represents important content. But no historian is ever presented with sources the way students are presented with them in this kind of exercise. That is, historians do not stumble across a set of documents and then start asking who wrote them, why, and whether they are reliable. Rather, historians begin with a question they want to investigate, and then they seek out the sources that will allow them to answer those questions. If they want to know about gender roles in post-WWII Singapore, for example, they will look for personal correspondence, advertisements, memoirs, court proceeding (e.g., divorce cases), and other sources that will give them insight into this. They are not presented with sources which they then begin to analyze; instead, they begin by identifying which evidence will be useful and then seek it out.

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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