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4 reasons not to use primary sources. (And 27 ways to eliminate those reasons)

As the discipline continues to shift its practice towards asking kids to solve problems using evidence and encouraging the development of historical thinking skills, more and more social studies teachers are integrating the use of primary sources into their instructional designs. Several days ago, I posted a quick overview that highlighted 10 things to think about while using primary sources.

And if you’ve been reading History Tech for any amount of time, you know that I love the use of evidence – especially the use of primary sources.

But what if we’re wrong?

What if using primary sources is so difficult that many of our students just aren’t able to do it? Could we just be wasting a bunch of time that would be better used with direct instruction?

As I travel around the state and the country, I hear this question often enough that it’s no longer a surprise. And it’s a valid question to ask. We should always be thinking about best practice and why specific strategies are better or worse than others.

The concern I have is that the question is asked not as a part of an ongoing conversation about best practice but as an excuse for not using primary sources as part of a shift in instruction. As in,

Because kids really are not developmentally ready to analyze primary and secondary source evidence, I need to continue my current practice of lecture, note taking, textbook reading, and multiple choice assessments.

My answer to the question?

Student of all levels can think historically, analyze evidence, and solve problems using that evidence if the activity is structured appropriately.

I only have to start with this example of photo analysis by kindergarten students. Or this one with third graders. Or one of these two middle school examples here and here. Or this one with high school juniors. Or maybe this high school lesson about corroborating evidence.

So nothing wrong with having a conversation about the validity of having students use primary sources as part of the learning process. But let’s be clear. It’s not about kids thinking historically. It’s about how best to do that.

Should we use primary sources as part of the historically thinking process? And if the answer is yes, what should that process look like?

In an incredibly useful article, Dr. Jeffery Nokes from Brigham Young University addresses this question from a unique perspective. He acknowledges that using primary sources can be difficult but the return on investment is worth it. He continues by providing specific examples of what that can look like.

Titled Recognizing & Addressing the Barriers to Adolescents “Reading Like Historians” the article starts by suggesting that research says kids can and should think historically but readily admits that the use of primary sources can be problematic. Nokes describes four barriers that you can expect to encounter when using primary sources in your classroom:

  • Primary sources place high demands on student cognitive resources
  • Student have limited or misapplied background knowledge
  • Student have unsophisticated worldviews
  • Students have a false sense of the discipline of history

In some variation or another, these are the things I hear from those looking to find reasons for not making a shift in instruction. And if Nokes had finished the article with just this list, I might be inclined to agree with them.

But he doesn’t.

To counter his four “reasons” for not using primary sources, Nokes provides 27 very specific strategies and interventions that can be used by teachers and students to offset the barriers.

nokes barriers and solutions

It’s a long read but you’ll want to power through it. The article is perfect for a jigsaw PLC or department meeting so maybe go that route rather than tackling it alone. But you need to spend time with it somehow because you’ll walk away smarter and better teacher.

You might also be interested in some of the other things Nokes has written, including a shorter article titled Getting Students to Think Like Historians. It also provides specific examples of what appropriate use of primary sources and historical thinking can look like in your classroom.

And if you’re really serious about it, he has a great book that goes into much greater detail titled Building Students’ Historical Literacies: Learning to Read and Reason with Historical Texts and Evidence

It addresses literacy from a historian’s rather than a literacy specialist’s point of view and highlights a broad range of texts including those that historians and non-historians both use and produce in understanding history. And like his articles, the book includes a wide variety of practical instructional strategies immediately available to teachers.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. kevtrier #

    Hey Glenn,

    Thank you for organizing this material on using primary sources within a class! This has been very helpful to my development as a history teacher. The inclusion of Noke’s graphic organizer was particularly helpful, and something I will refer back to as I move forward as a teacher. How do you typically use primary sources within a class, over the course of a unit? How often do you see these four problems of primary sources within your class, and are the solutions included in this article effective?

    December 16, 2015
    • glennw #

      You’re welcome. Glad you found the post helpful!

      The solutions he offers to using primary sources are all valid, practical, and classroom ready. I would suggest reading the shorter article I mentioned, Getting Students to Think Like Historians. It highlights two very different classrooms and how using evidence makes a difference in student learning. His book is also very helpful, especially if you’re early in your teaching career. It provides both

      Several other books that you might find useful: Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer by Bruce Lesh, Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School History Classrooms by Sam Wineburg, Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History by James Loewen, and Reading, Thinking, and Writing About History: Teaching Argument Writing to Diverse Learners in the Common Core Classroom, Grades 6-12 by Chauncey Monte Sano.

      All of these books focus on ways to engage students in the doing of social studies, not just the memorization of content. All suggest (in way or another) that a teacher’s job is not supplying answers but providing great questions / problems for kids to solve. So the use of primary sources becomes important because they give students some of the evidence they need to solve the problems that you provide. So . . . how should a teacher use primary sources? As part of what Bruce Lesh and Nokes call History Labs. You provide an authentic question or problem – How should Europe and the United States respond the the Syrian refugee crisis? – and supply primary / secondary sources for student use. Students respond to the problem. (Of course, we can / should connect this question with historical connections – Jewish refugees in the 1930s/1940s, Irish immigrants in the 1850s, the movement of SE Asians into the US in the 1970s.)

      And I would stress that the evidence that students use doesn’t / shouldn’t be exclusively primary sources. I’m a big believer in using all sorts of resources that will help students solve the problem. But no matter what type of evidence you use in your class, the four problems mentioned by Nokes will show up. And his suggestions (and similar suggestions in the other books I mentioned ) can help overcome them.

      Good luck! The four paragraphs above are basically the outline of a year long grad class so would love to chat more if you have questions or need clarification.


      December 17, 2015

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