Lesson 1: Importance of Historical Inquiry & Primary Source Analysis

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Learning Objectives

At the conclusion of this lesson, participants of this course will...

1. brainstorm why it is important to use primary sources and use historical inquiry.

2. explain the reasons why analysis of primary sources and historical inquiry essential skills of social studies students.

3. choose one historical central question in the unit they teach and two to three primary sources to solve it.

Warmup 1: Brainstorming a list of primary sources

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Primary sources provide a “window into the past”-access to the record of thought and achievement throughout history, produced by people who lived during that period. For more information about primary sources and examples click here.

Bringing students into close contact with these important, often profound, documents and objects can give them an unfiltered sense of significant events, ideas, and what it was like to be alive during various time periods throughout history.

Take a minute to grab a piece of scrap paper or open a word processor. Spend about 7 minutes to make a list of as many types of primary sources you can think of. Think about why/how they are useful for students to understand a topic, time period, concept, or idea.

Warm up 2: Brainstorming a list of central historical questions

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Historical inquiry is where students analyze historical evidence in order to form and test hypotheses about past events.Inquiry lessons introduce students to the "doing" of history. Through using evidence to investigate historical questions, students are given the opportunity to see that history is not just a collection of facts, but rather a rigorously constructed set of arguments. As students encounter new and in some cases contradictory evidence, they are asked to reconsider their initial views, learning that interpretations of the past can change based on the available historical evidence.

Take a minute to grab a piece of scrap paper or open a word processor. Spend about 5 minutes to make a list of as many central historical questions that you teach. Think about how you would frame this question for students to solve and how it is essential for students to understand a topic, time period, concept, or idea.

Here is a link to the New York State Core Curriculum for Social Studies. Included in this are the essential questions for what is to be taught in social studies classrooms in public schools in New York State, some of which lend themselves to inquiry lessons.

Lecture: Reasons to use primary sources and historical inquiry in the classroom

Why use primary sources?

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Documents--diaries, letters, drawings, and memoirs--created by those who participated in or witnessed the events of the past tell us something that even the best-written article or book cannot convey. The use of primary sources exposes students to important historical concepts. First, students become aware that all written history reflects an author's interpretation of past events. Therefore, as students read a historical account, they can recognize its subjective nature. Second, through primary sources the students directly touch the lives of people in the past. Further, as students use primary sources, they develop important analytical skills.

To many students, history is seen as a series of facts, dates, and events usually packaged as a textbook. The use of primary sources can change this view. The National Archives states: “As students use primary sources they begin to view their textbook as only one historical interpretation and its author as an interpreter of evidence, not as a purveyor of truth. For example, as students read personal letters from distressed farmers to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as they look at WPA administrators' reports on economic conditions in Pennsylvania and Oregon, or as they listen to recordings of government-produced radio dramas, they weigh the significance of these sources against such generalizations as that provided by Todd and Curti: ‘The most urgent task that Roosevelt faced when he took office was to provide food, clothing, and shelter for millions of jobless, hungry, cold, despairing Americans.’”

Students begin to understand that such generalizations represent an interpretation of past events, but not necessarily the only interpretation. They become aware that the text has a point of view that does not make it incorrect but that does make it subject to question. Primary sources force students to realize that any account of an event, no matter how objectively presented it appears to be, is essentially subjective.

As students read eyewitness accounts of events at Little Big Horn or letters to congressmen expressing concern about woman suffrage, or look at photographs from the Civil War and then attempt to summarize their findings, they become aware of the subjective nature of their conclusions. The disagreements among students in interpreting these documents are like those among historians. Through primary sources, students confront two fundamental facts in studying history. First, the record of historical events reflects the personal, social, political, or economic points of view of the participants. Second, students bring to the sources their own biases, created by their own personal situations and the social environments in which they live. As students use these sources, they realize that history exists through interpretation.

Primary sources fascinate students because they are real and they are personal; history is humanized through them. Using original sources, students touch the lives of the people about whom history is written. They participate in human emotions and in the values and attitudes of the past. By reading a series of public opinion surveys from World War II, for example, students confront the language of the person interviewed and his or her fears about shortages, as well as the interviewer's reactions recorded after the interview. These human expressions provide history with excitement and link students directly to its cast of characters.

Interpreting historical sources helps students to analyze and evaluate current sources--newspaper reports, television and radio programs, and advertising. By using primary sources, students learn to recognize how a point of view and a bias affect evidence, what contradictions and other limitations exist within a given source, and to what extent sources are reliable. Essential among these skills is the ability to understand and make appropriate use of many sources of information. Development of these skills is important not only to historical research but also to citizenship where people are able to evaluate the information needed to maintain a free society.

Best of all, by using primary sources, students will participate in the process of history. They will debate with teachers and classmates about the interpretation of the sources. They will challenge others' conclusions and seek out evidence to support their own. The classroom will become a lively arena in which students test and apply important analytical skills.

Source: "History in the Raw" of the National Archives

Click the link to watch a video that shares "5 Awesome Primary Source Websites""5 Awesome Primary Source Websites"

Why use historical inquiry?

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“The meaning of ‘knowing’ has shifted from being able to remember and repeat information to being able to find and use it.”(National Research Council, 2007)

The model of education typical of 20th century classrooms was effective for that era of human history, but the ‘knowledge society’ we now live in requires new thinking about what constitutes effective and engaging teaching and learning. Dr. Sharon Frienson states that teachers are now faced with the challenge that “former conceptions of knowledge, minds and learning no longer serve a world where what we know is less important that what we are able to do with knowledge in different contexts.”

The power of an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning is the opportunity to increase intellectual engagement and foster deep understanding through the development “of a hands-on, minds-on and ‘research-based disposition’” towards teaching and learning. Inquiry supports the complex, interconnected nature of knowledge construction, striving to provide opportunities for both teachers and students to collaboratively build, test and reflect on their learning.

It is crucial to recognize that inquiry-based teaching should not be viewed as a technique or instructional practice or method used to teach a subject. Rather, inquiry starts with teachers as engaged learners and researchers with the “belief that the topics they teach are rich, living and generous places for wonder and exploration.”

Inquiry is not merely ‘having students do projects’ but aspires to nurture deep, discipline-based way of thinking and doing with students.

Inquiry involves learners:

• tackling real-world questions, issues and controversies

• developing questioning, research and communication skills

• solving problems or creating solutions

• collaborating within and beyond the classroom

• developing deep understanding of content knowledge

• participating in the public creation and improvement of ideas and knowledge

Inquiry is a that covers a number of other approaches to teaching and learning. Teaching practices that utilize inquiry learning include:

• problem-based learning: learning that starts with an ill-structured problem or case study

• project-based learning: students create a project or presentation as a demonstration of their understanding

• design-based learning: learning through the working design of a solution to a complex problem

A video showing the benefits of historical inquiry- Reading Like A Historian

Source: Stephenson, Neil. "Introduction to Project Based Learning."



Now that you know the importance of using primary sources and historical inquiry...

Choose one central question for a unit you teach and choose two to three primary sources to answer it.

This is the first step in creating your own historical inquiry lesson using primary sources. In the next lesson, you will the basics of historical inquiry and primary source analysis, in order to begin to create your own historical inquiry lesson.

Proceed to Lesson 2: The Basics of Historical Inquiry & Primary Source Analysis


"History in the Raw." National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2014. <http://www.archives.gov/education/history-in-the-raw.html>.

"Home | Stanford History Education Group." Home | Stanford History Education Group. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. <http://sheg.stanford.edu>. "Teaching with Documents." National Council for the Social Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. <http://www.socialstudies.org/publications/

"Library of Congress Home." Library of Congress Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. <http://www.loc.gov/index.html>.

Sandwell, Ruth W.. "Using Primary Documents in Social Studies and History."The Anthology of Social Studies 2.Issues and Strategies for Secondary Teachers (2010): 295-307.http://www.learnalberta.ca. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.

Stephenson, Neil. "Introduction to Project Based Learning." teachinginquiry.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2014. <http://www.cea-ace.ca/sites/cea-ace.ca/files/cea-2009-wdydist-teaching.pdf>.

"Teaching with Documents." National Council for the Social Studies. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. <http://www.socialstudies.org/publications/