Provoking Inquiry: The Use of Primary Sources in the Primary Social Studies Classroom, pp. 9 of 12

Student Engagement

The open-ended nature of primary source analysis was another key benefit that was highlighted by both teachers during the interviews. They observed that students were “more engaged” and displayed “more confidence” because there were “no right or wrong answers”. And because there were no set answers the focus was placed on whether “different groups of students were able to justify their inferences” in a cogent manner by drawing upon evidence from different sources. Consequently, this created a collaborative atmosphere in the classroom, where students felt safe enough to “challenge their classmates’ assumptions” and “build on one another’s ideas”.

Teacher Facilitation

At this juncture, it is also important to point out that both teachers felt that primary source analysis is “a double-edged sword” for two reasons. First, it requires “a skilled facilitator” who is able to “think on the spot, logically reason through students’ responses and ask questions to probe or guide their thinking”. A teacher who has not been formally trained in social studies or does not have a humanities background may find it “very daunting” to work with primary sources of information. Second, both teachers also found the introduction of primary sources using the modified See, Think, Wonder approach a very “humbling experience”. Despite their best efforts at trying to pre-empt as many questions as possible, they were still astounded by the depth of imagination and curiosity exhibited by students when they wrote down their questions in the wonder column. Some of the questions generated by students included “How did shekels look like?”, “How were women treated in ancient Sumer?” and “Were there lawyers? How did ancient Sumerians ensure a fair trial?” While these were indeed valid questions raised by students, both teachers were not able to provide immediate answers to them.


For our PLC group, this study has largely demonstrated that with the right amount of scaffolding and appropriate approach, primary school students from both ends of the learning spectrum not only enjoy but are fully capable of engaging in primary source analysis. That being said, there are a number of considerations that all primary school teachers should be aware of when utilising primary sources in their own classrooms.

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

Newsletter Subscription

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up-to-date with new journal issues!