Provoking Inquiry: The Use of Primary Sources in the Primary Social Studies Classroom, pp. 10 of 12

First, primary source analysis is not a linear process. The modified See, Think, Wonder approach may present students with a systematic pathway with a distinct start, middle and end, but many students may choose to analyse primary sources in a non-sequential manner. It is, therefore, important for teachers to keep an open mind and recognise that the act of thinking is never linear, but often messy. And just because students are not progressing the way the teacher predicts does not mean that they are wrong. Furthermore, the approach may help draw students’ attention to specific aspects of a primary source, but it will not determine what they may or may not see. In such situations, the teacher must be mentally prepared to assess if such unanticipated learning is leading to meaningful learning outcomes or whether it requires on-the-spot correction. It is important that teachers honour the fact that it is through the development of different and unique interpretations that students forge meaningful, personal connections to primary sources and what they are learning.

Second, it is important at this juncture to clarify that primary sources of information are not better than secondary sources. While it may be more interesting to work with primary sources, it can also be confusing given that it is raw, unfiltered historical information. Social studies teachers can consider using a mix of primary and secondary sources when using the modified See, Think, Wonder approach. The introduction of secondary sources can help students better understand the more perplexing aspects of primary sources (Brooks, Aris & Perry, 1993) while primary sources can add dimension and depth to the understanding students gain from interacting with secondary sources (Bober, 2019).

Third, teachers who are not social studies trained or do not come from a humanities background could adhere to the following two key principles when introducing primary sources in class. One, primary source analysis is not exclusive to historians or social studies teachers. Teachers draw all sorts of inferences about their students on daily basis. For instance, we may reasonably conclude that a child lacks parental supervision because he has poor school attendance, and even when he does attend school, he comes looking dishevelled and without lunch money. Similarly, primary source analysis is simply about closely examining original source documents to gather information to derive logical, reasonable deductions. Two, it would be helpful for teachers working with primary sources of information to recognise that ideas are relative in nature (Eyerdam, 2003). It is important for teachers to learn to listen and consider other points of views, while recognising that they are not expected to be the sole source of knowledge. In working with primary sources, teachers should be actively co-constructing knowledge with students.

Fourth, our PLC team realised that we could have made more meaningful use of the questions that students came up with in the wonder column. While we may have been largely successful in getting students to derive well-reasoned evidence-based interpretations from analysing multiple primary sources, we should have assigned each group of students to research for the answers to these questions and conducted a third lesson to get them to present their findings. Teachers are so used to asking questions to stimulate inquiry that we sometimes forget that inquiry is a two-way process. It is just as important to take a vigorous and genuine interest in listening to what our students have to say. When we do that, we show them that what they think and feel matters, that they are part of the conversation and that they are integral to effective classroom learning (Ritchhart, 2015).

Last, the heavy use of online resources by students to supplement their own learning is another area that is worth considering. During the focus group discussion, nearly all students shared that they relied on internet sources to provide answers to the questions that they generated. Given that the Internet is rife with misinformation and disinformation, it is difficult to know for sure that students can critically access, analyse and evaluate online information. Against this backdrop, how social studies teachers can look to new literacies of online reading comprehension to equip students with the skills to thrive in an information-saturated online landscape is an area that warrants further investigation.     

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!