Provoking Inquiry: The Use of Primary Sources in the Primary Social Studies Classroom, pp. 2 of 12

Is That a Primary or Secondary Source?  

Sources of information are often categorised as primary or secondary. A primary source is defined as an item that serves as direct evidence concerning the topic or time period being studied (Bober, 2019). Examples include architectural plans, photographs, letters and articles of clothing created during that point in time. Secondary sources, on the other hand, can be seen as interpretations or distillations of information gleaned from analysing primary sources (Stebbins, 2006). Examples include textbooks, biographies and newspaper articles.

The problem with defining sources of information in this manner is that many teachers often do not realise that all sources can either be primary or secondary, depending on the context and the questions that are asked. Take, for example, a painting on the Singapore “Sook Ching” (肃清 or purge through cleansing) massacre created by an artist who did not live through the Japanese Occupation. If it is used as a source of information on the painter, this painting would be a primary source – it provides direct information regarding the person who created it. However, if it is used as a source of information on the Japanese Occupation, then it would be a secondary source, since the painting was created long after the event and the person who created the painting did not directly experience it. Simply put, this idea of duality is inherent in all sources of information and their status shifts between primary and secondary, depending on how they are interrogated.

Pedagogical Approaches for Using Primary Sources

From our survey of the literature, we identified two key approaches, namely Reading like a Historian and See, Think, Wonder, frequently employed by history and social studies teachers interested in unpacking curriculum outcomes using primary sources of information.

The Reading like a Historian approach was designed by Wineburg, Martin and Monte-Sano (2013) from the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) to teach students how to investigate key historical questions using a four-step process to interrogate primary documents. The first two steps focus on sourcing and contextualising whereby students will identify basic information about the sources pertaining to the author, their intentions and the text’s purpose, before placing these sources in a historical context. Once students have developed a functional understanding of the different sources, they will proceed to close reading to hone in on the details of what they are reading. Finally, students will corroborate their inferences by drawing evidence from the primary sources to determine points of agreement or disagreement.   

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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