Provoking Inquiry: The Use of Primary Sources in the Primary Social Studies Classroom, pp. 7 of 12

Vivid Learning Experiences

By and large, the biggest benefit of learning with primary sources of information was that it provided vivid learning experiences that made social studies lessons fun and engaging for students. More specifically, many students shared that handling authentic materials such as receipts and photographs helped “bring the past to life”, allowing them to “learn more about the lives of ordinary Sumerians”. Indeed, primary sources often create a whole new layer of learning by providing students the opportunity to live vicariously in the past (Conklin, 2013).

A surprisingly large number of students also shared that they appreciated the fact that there was a conscious effort to shift away from traditional textbook instruction. One student eloquently shared his views by saying, “Most teachers teach in a way that is catered to verbal-linguistic learners. They forget that many of us are visual learners and we just learn better when we see pictures.” Indeed, research has found that the use of pictorial primary sources allows teachers to reach a wider spectrum of learners with different learning styles in the primary social studies classroom (Murphy, 2010).

Critical Thinking Skills

At the same time, many students shared that analysing primary sources using the See, Think, Wonder approach helped them pick up “critical thinking skills”. Students commented that the lessons we conceptualised went beyond just teaching them how to draw inferences and learning to explain the coherence of their reasoning. It has helped them to become sharply aware that an inference, no matter how well-reasoned, lacks reliability if it is only validated by a single source. It has to be “supported by evidence from different places” before it can be deemed trustworthy.  It is even more heartening to note that some students found the skill of corroborating information applicable across different contexts, expressing that the lessons made them realise them the importance of “cross-checking the information found in one web site against other web sites to see if it can be trusted.”

Students also pointed out that working cooperatively in small groups to analyse primary sources of information taught them to critically question their own thinking. They explained that the open-ended nature of the task meant that they not only had to “constantly think about whether the views of their group members make sense”, they also had to extensively rationalise and re-examine their own thinking to check for assumptions. This invariably fostered intellectual humility because they recognised that they had to be “prepared to leave their own opinions behind” when they could not adequately back them up with evidence.

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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