Historical Sources In The Classroom: Purpose and Use


Historical sources are a common feature of history classrooms, but the purpose of using them is not always clear,  and as a result, instructional activities with sources may not be as effective or meaningful as they should be. This lack of clarity stems in part from the fact that there are four distinctly different reasons for using sources, and each carries its own implications for classroom practice. These purposes are 1) illustration and motivation; 2) evidence for historical inquiry;  3) visual or textual interpretation; 4) source analysis. By reflecting on how each of these purposes can play a role in the classroom, which kinds of sources are appropriate for each, and where they fit into an overall sequence of instruction, teachers can ensure that their use of sources deepens and extends students’ historical understanding.

All history teachers know they should be using original historical sources—often misleadingly referred to as “primary sources”—but sometimes they are less clear on the purpose of using them. Students encounter original historical sources in textbooks and accompanying exercises, and they may be required to analyze them as part of examinations. But these encounters are not enough to communicate the purpose of including sources in the curriculum, particularly given that they are often difficult to read and understand. In order to have educational value, teachers need to think carefully about why original historical sources are important, and how their purpose affects their use in the classroom.

Perhaps the lack of clarity about sources stems in part from the fact that there is no single reason for including them, and thus no “right” way of have students engage with them. Rather, there are four distinct purposes for using original historical sources, and each carries its own implications for educators. It is important to think through how these purposes differ and what their role might be in the history classroom.

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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