Teaching History – Thinking like a Historian

What is history? We all know that history is the past. But how do we find out about history? Should we just find out about the past by reading about it in a textbook? Reading a textbook is no doubt easier – it provides us with all the answers to what we want to know about the topic. But textbooks are written by academics, professional historians who have written their own interpretation of a historical event.

The aim of teachers in the classroom should be to avoid relying on textbooks and encourage students – particularly in senior years – to be able to identify and use Primary Sources from Secondary sources.

What is a primary source? Princeton university defines a primary source as ‘a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Some types of primary sources include:

  • ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records
  • CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art
  • RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

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So if we think of a primary source as something that dates from that historical period and can tell us about the historical event, then we can think of several examples. If we were studying Ancient Egypt, a primary source that we could use would be the hieroglyphics or ancient documents. If we were studying Ancient Greece, a primary source could include historians as Herodotus and Thucydides or if studying Ancient Rome we could use historians as Livy. Or if we were studying the First World War, primary sources could include official documents, soldier’s diaries or letters home or Recruitment posters

What is a secondary source? If a primary source is something that dates from the period, a secondary source is information about an event which is second hand and written after the event.

Princeton University defines a secondary source as ‘interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some types of seconday sources include:

  • PUBLICATIONS: Textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias

The secondary sources that we could use are our school textbooks, journals written by historians, magazines, newspapers etc.

download (7)What is the rationale for using primary and secondary sources in the classroom? If we want to teach our students what is history, then we have to teach our students to find history for themselves than depend on textbooks for their information. Students need to be taught that historians find their information directly from primary sources which they study and interpret to come to conclusions.

Using primary sources and discovering history for themselves is a part of a constructivist approach to learning or learning by doing. If historians write about history using primary sources then would it not make sense that to encourage students to learn about history to also use primary sources?

While textbooks provide a general overview of a historical event, textbooks tend to leave out the people who witnessed or lived through these events. History is more than just about the past and important people – we need to remember that history is about the ordinary people who lived through events. Its the real stories from people who lived through events that brings history alive and helps us to remember that events affected real people like you and me.

Using primary sources should also teach students to investigate the source of information than relying on interpretations of an event. Every day students read articles on the internet or news articles without really being able to critically analyse what they are reading. Teachers should use primary sources to help students develop an understanding what sources tell us and how those sources can and do not always tell the truth. For example, the ancient Greek historian Herodotus is known not only as the ‘Father of History’ but is also known as the ‘Father of Lies’ for his often inaccurate portrayal of events and people.

The problem facing teachers with primary sources is teaching students how to interpret the sources. For example, understanding the causes of the First World War – recruitment posters are a fantastic primary source for helping students to understand how nationalism and patriotism played an important part in the causes of the war. But to interpret recruitment posters will result in teachers spending time in explaining or unpacking the meanings behind the recruitment posters.

But the rewards for both teachers and students learning this skill is very important in helping students not only to develop critical analysis skills but in preparing them for further study and for general life skills. Using primary sources and being able to use them and interpret them will help our students to interpret messages that they will encounter in every day life. If students are able to develop critical analysis skills that is a fundamental need for good historical inquiry, then we are providing our students with skills that they will need in the 21st century world.

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