Historical Sources In The Classroom: Purpose and Use, pp. 9 of 10


Teachers have limited time, and students have limited attention. Making effective use of original historical sources, then, is critical. Yet although some approaches may seem to constitute a pragmatic use of time—such as source analysis exercises or illustrative quotations and images found in the margins of texts—they can actually be counter-productive because they too often fail to achieve important educational purposes. The kinds of sources that are used to illustrate past events or time periods, for example, must be carefully chosen to inspire students’ interest, and students must be given a chance to puzzle over them and develop their own questions and ideas about the period. The time for doing this in depth is at the beginning of a set of lessons, although briefer encounters with sources that stimulate interest may be sprinkled throughout a unit.

       The core approach to the use of sources in the history classroom must revolve around their use as evidence within a context of inquiry—asking and answering historical questions. This is how historians use sources, and it develops students’ understanding of how historical knowledge is constructed. Using sources as evidence for complicated questions can be time-consuming, and teachers are unlikely to use this approach for every topic they cover (although simpler but still meaningful inquiry projects can also be devised). However, students must have a chance to engage in such inquiry sometimes, or else they will fail to understand what it means to construct knowledge of the past, and they will be left to simply remember narratives told to them by teachers or texts—hardly the kind of higher-level thinking that the subject demands. Less frequent but still crucial is the use of sources as objects of interpretation, as teachers and students look at one or two sources in depth, usually after they have already taken part in the kind of extended study of the time period that will enable to engage in such interpretation meaningfully. This asks a lot for teachers, but using original historical sources in these ways helps ensure that students come away not only with a deep understanding of historical content but an appreciation of how historical knowledge is constructed.

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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