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

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Learning Objectives

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

1. be able to explain the basics of historical inquiry

2. be able to explain the basics of primary source analysis

3. describe how students will answer the central historical question and engage in the primary sources chosen in the previous lesson

Warmup 1: What kinds of lessons engage students?

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Every good teacher reflects on their instruction and all teachers know that some lessons are extremely effective, while others to not capture student interest.

Take a minute to grab a piece of scrap paper or open a word processor. Spend 5 minutes to reflect on your own teaching. What lessons seem to engage students most while effectively delivering the intended content or skills? What is common amongst all of these lessons? Lastly, what skills do your students need to master to be competent 21st century learners?

Warmup 2: How do I get students to analyze primary sources effectively?

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Every social studies teacher has methods by which they teach students to analyze text, whether it is complex text or a simple textbook reading. These methods are often very effective and transfer to the analysis of primary sources. This course is not designed to reinvent teaching reading, but provide a simple format that can be adopted wholly or partially in the classroom.

Take a minute to grab a piece of scrap paper or open a word processor. Spend 5 minutes or so to brainstorm the strategies you use in your classroom for reading comprehension. How are these methods useful in analyzing primary sources? How are they lacking?

Lecture: The Basics of Historical Inquiry and Primary Source Analysis


The Basics of Historical Inquiry

Before we begin, it is important to note that there are a variety of methods of fostering historical inquiry. For the purpose of this course, the basics will be outlined. You may wish to follow any method you wish, or blend what you learn from different sources and create your own method.

1. Establish relevant background knowledge and pose the central historical question

Lessons can approach background knowledge differently. For some, PowerPoints can be used, in others a video clip can be used to establish historical context. Lessons can even ask students to read a relevant selection from their textbook and answer questions. Mini-lectures can be used or timelines that students might reference as they read the documents. Establishing background knowledge is the first step in the inquiry process. This background frames the central historical question, and motivates students to investigate the documents that accompany the lesson.

2. Students read documents, answer guiding questions, or complete a graphic organizer

Lessons must include documents that address the central historical question. Most lessons will likely draw on two or more documents with conflicting perspectives. The teacher's decisions on how or whether to assign homework plays a big part in pacing the lesson. Depending on the lesson plan, students will engage in different activities as they read and interpret the documents.

3) Whole-class discussion about a central historical question

The final segment of a historical inquiry lesson plan is the most important. Too often, however, it is dropped due to time constraints. It is better to eliminate one of the documents than cut such a valuable opportunity to practice historical thinking skills, articulate claims and defend them with evidence from the documents. Only in whole-class discussion can students see that history is open to multiple interpretations, and that the same piece of evidence can support conflicting claims. Students often find this activity foreign and uncomfortable at first. But through practice they gain an understanding of their role as knowledge-makers in the history classroom.

Click Historical Inquiry Tutorial to further your understanding of historical inquiry.

Source: "Reading Like a Historian" Stanford History Education Group

The Basics of Primary Source Analysis for Historical Inquiry

It is important to note that there are a variety of methods used by social studies teachers to examine primary sources. However, this is one example that is simple and effective that can be employed wholly or partially.

The following chart elaborates on reading strategies such as sourcing, contextualizing, corroborating, and close reading. Instead of memorizing historical facts, students evaluate the trustworthiness of multiple perspectives on historical issues and make historical claims backed by documentary evidence. In addition to questions that relate to each skill, the chart includes descriptions of how students might demonstrate historical thinking and sentence frames to support the development of these skills.

These skills are the essential tools used by historians when examining primary sources. It takes time practicing the skills for students to get used to them, but when able to reference the chart, students quickly become comfortable analyzing primary sources in this way.

Historical Reading Skill Questions Students should be able to... Prompts
Sourcing • What is the author’s point of view? • Why was it written? • When was it written? • Is this source believable? Why? Why not? • Identify author's position on historical event • Identify and evaluate author's purpose in producing document • Predict what author will say BEFORE reading document • Evaluate source's believability/ trustworthiness by considering genre, audience, and author's purpose. This author probably believes… I think the audience is… Based on the sourcing information, I predict this author will… I do/don’t trust this document because…
Contextualizing • What else was going on at the time this was written? • What was it like to be alive at this time? • What things were different back then? • What things were the same? • Use context/background information to draw more meaning from document • Infer historical context from document(s) • Recognize that document reflects one moment in changing past • Understand that words must be understood in a larger context I already know that ____ is happening at this time… From this document I would guess that people at this time were feeling… This document might not give me the whole picture because…
Close Reading • What claims does the author make? • What evidence does the author use to support those claims? • How is this document make me feel? • What words or phrases does the author use to convince me that he/she is right? • What information does the author leave out? • Identify author’s claims about event • Evaluate evidence/reasoning author uses to support claims • Evaluate author’s word choice; understand that language is used deliberately I think the author chose these words because they make me feel… The author is trying to convince me… (by using/saying…)
Corroboration • What do other pieces of evidence say? • Am I finding different versions of the story? Why or why not • What pieces of evidence are most believable? • Establish what is true by comparing documents to each other • Recognize disparities between two accounts This author agrees/ disagrees with… This document was written earlier/later than the other, so…

See these skills used by a group of third graders!

'Source: "Reading Like a Historian" Stanford History Education Group

Here is a link to another primary source analysis tool, Library of Congress' Primary Source Analysis Tool



Now that you know the basics of historical inquiry and primary source analysis...

Describe how students will answer the central historical question and engage with the primary sources you chose in the previous lesson.

This is the second step in creating your own historical inquiry lesson using primary sources. In the next lesson, you will examine several lesson formats that use historical inquiry and primary source analysis. You will then determine which format works best for your own lesson.

Proceed to Lesson 3: Designing Inquiry Lessons Around Primary Sources


"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.

"SCIM-C: Historical Inquiry." SCIM-C: Historical Inquiry. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2014. <http://historicalinquiry.com/inquiry/index.c

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