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How Do Historical Records Enhance Learning and Skills Development?

Teaching with historical records is a pedagogically sound method to advance cognitive and affective learning and build skills.  Students develop critical thinking skills while they gain historical perspective.

By clustering interpretive and analytical activities around historical records, teachers will discover that they have not added onto their already full curriculum, but have simply enhanced it.  For example, if the Civil War is already a component of a curriculum, activities using a letter, muster roll, photograph, piece of sheet music, or discharge paper, will advance students’ knowledge of the Civil War while also developing critical thinking skills.

When they use historical records in their classrooms, students learn to do the following:

  • Interpret, clarify, analyze and evaluate the reliability of individual historical records and groups of records.
  • Recognize point-of-view and bias.
  • Identify contradictions and informational lapses in given records.
  • Determine what is to be accepted as fact and what is to be rejected as fiction or unsubstantiated in a historical record, and draw conclusions.
  • Analyze raw data to relate it to cause and effect.
  • Weigh generalizations and historical theories presented in historical writings, textbooks, reference materials, newspapers, blogs, websites and television programs and recognize their limitations.
  • Recognize the potential for multiple interpretations of historical records.
  • Recognize personal frames of reference and contemporary viewpoints that color their interpretations.
  • Develop confidence in their own ability to acquire knowledge and avoid over-dependence upon “authoritative” sources such as encyclopedias and textbooks.

As students practice these skills, they also exercise the skill of decision-making, which includes the following components:

  • Keeping an open mind to varied opinions and evidence.
  • Making better judgments through careful analysis and the consideration of options and alternative solutions to problems.
  • Developing tolerance through the realization that sometimes decisions have to be made with the best information available, even if it is not complete or fully reliable.
  • Looking for related, contextual information to evaluate a record in its historical, developmental, or institutional context. 

In an era of information overload, the skills listed above are critical life-skills.  

When discussing sensitive issues, examining several historical records with opposing viewpoints enables students to better understand the diversity of opinions in a historical era.  Historical records that express contrasting viewpoints on social, cultural, economic, religious, and ethnic issues enable the teacher to open class discussion by focusing on the past rather than on the present.  The teacher can use historical records to stimulate discussion that allows students to move beyond prejudices.  

Local historical records play a special role by providing students with a stabilizing sense of history and place.  They are a means to counterbalance the stresses caused by today’s transient and rapidly-changing society.  In an age when students are bombarded with national issues and questions, local historical records help to reaffirm the important role the community has in their everyday life.  As students learn about people who have walked the same streets they do, they begin to understand and appreciate the development and character of their community.  They realize that people who never make it into their textbooks or the national history books are not powerless, but quite able to take quieter steps that enhance their neighbors’ quality of life.  This appreciation can then extend to their state and nation.  It is a beginning, but important, step towards good citizenship and responsible social behavior.