Provoking Inquiry: The Use of Primary Sources in the Primary Social Studies Classroom


Many social studies teachers are aware of the immense educational value of primary sources of information. When used effectively, original source documents in the form of letters, personal diaries or photographs of historical artefacts can enhance students’ engagement (Bober, 2019), arouse their interest by helping them visualise the past (Levstik & Barton, 2015) and develop a deeper understanding of different perspectives to historical narratives (Morgan & Rasinski, 2012). They can also be used in inquiry-based learning experiences to develop critical thinking in students (Barton, 2018). These benefits are aligned with the goals of the Primary Social Studies Syllabus which seeks to develop every child to become “an informed citizen” capable of critically evaluating information, considering multiple perspectives and exercising discernment in formulating well-reasoned conclusions (MOE, 2012, p 2).

Despite the obvious benefits and clear alignment to the goals of primary social studies education, it is not uncommon to find teachers shying away from using primary sources in the classroom, preferring to rely on the textbook to achieve curriculum outcomes. Even when primary sources are being used, they are mostly used to substantiate textbook narratives. Teachers’ hesitance to use primary sources in the classroom can be attributed to two key reasons: a lack of familiarity with using primary sources as a pedagogical tool (Berson & Berson, 2014) and the perception that it places high demands on students’ cognitive resources (Blow, 1990).

With this context in mind, this article will explore how primary sources can be easily utilised to create inquiry-based, student-centred learning experiences to engage Primary Five students learning about ancient civilisations. The discussion of this approach will hopefully encourage more teachers to tap on this powerful but underutilised pedagogical tool to enrich and excite young learners in the social studies classroom. 

This article will start by clarifying what exactly is a primary source. It will then proceed to describe the Reading like a Historian approach and the See, Think, Wonder approach, which were applied to teach students how to formulate well-reasoned inferences corroborated by evidence drawn from primary sources, following which, this article will find out how primary sources of information have impacted student learning and teaching practice before concluding with the key considerations of using original documents in primary social studies teaching.


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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