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How Do Teachers Use Historical Records in the Classroom

Teaching Students to Think Critically

Historians study the past by studying both primary and secondary documents, but they also do more than that.  They don’t just report on what occurred, they try to explain what happened.  They use the evidence provided by historical records to back up their own theories and analysis.  The development of this higher-level critical thinking is the ultimate goal that we as teachers strive to reach.  We want our students to become engaged with content, to understand connections and significance, to be able to apply logic and view issues in a broad context.  The development of critical thinking helps students to become tolerant of various perspectives, and teaches them to be able to evaluate arguments, discern motives, and to base their own assumptions on evidence.  Fostering these skills in our students creates informed and thoughtful future citizens and consumers.  These are useful goals for teachers of all disciplines.

According to Sam Wineburg (2001), historical thinking consists of learning the same skills and habits that historians use.  Wineburg believes that teaching “historical thinking” strategies allow students to read a document for comprehension and relate it in a specific contextual framework.  These strategies help students to draw relationships, test for validity, compare and contrast, and develop their own conclusions and understandings.  

Critical thinking, however, does not just magically happen by handing students some historical documents.  Students must be taught how to approach, evaluate, and analyze the sources.  In working with historical documents, there are five steps that are crucial to developing the full range of historical thinking.  The most crucial part of the process is the generation of critical thinking questions that bring deeper understanding.  Listed below are some examples of critical thinking questions that help students to analyze documents, though not all questions are applicable to every document.

1.  Identification – In this step, students examine and try to make sense of a document.  

  • Who created this document?  What was the role of the author? (government official, private citizen, wife or family member)  
  • When was the document created?  
  • Where was the document created?  
  • What type of document is it (letter, government publication, map, poster, audio recording or photograph)?
  • Where was the document created, and how was it created?  
  • What was the intended audience? Was the document designed to persuade the audience?  Would this document have been distributed; if so, how?
  • What is the author’s tone (persuasive, sarcastic, logical, emotional)?
  • What does the document reveal about the time period in which it was created?

2.  Understanding Historical Background – After their initial examination of the documents, students will begin to think about how the document relates to issues going on at the time of its production, or how it fits into the historical setting or era.  It is important to note that students do not approach this step as a “blank slate” – they have already gleaned historical information from families, friends, trips to museums or other educational experiences, media, advertising, and even popular culture (Malkmus, 2008).  Students therefore bring their own knowledge to the task, but it is important to note that there may be gaps or misconceptions in their knowledge that need further clarification. Might need citation for wineburg – presentism concept

  • What was going on in the time period that the document was created? What were the major issues and events of the time?
  • What outside knowledge of historical issues or events is needed to make sense of the document?  What is already known, and what more needs to be researched in order to fully understand? 
  • What knowledge of geography or place is important to understanding the document?
  • If it is a written document, what is the main idea conveyed by the words? Is it handwritten, or printed?  Are there spellings, fonts, or wording which are not modern? Are there graphic or print elements that can give clues to the importance of certain parts of the document?  

3.  Evaluating Point of View – In this step, students examine the perspective represented in the document, assess the creator’s bias or motives, and relate it to their own understanding of the historical context.

  • What elements of the document are facts?  What elements of the document are opinions?
  • Is the creator of the document physically located where he or she can offer credible testimony? Can he or she actually see or hear the events described?
  • How much time has passed between the event described in the document and the creation of the document?
  • Does this document present the opinion of a particular political party, religious, ethnic, or labor group?  
  • Does the document present the opinion of a particular socio-economic group?   
  • Is there any evidence that personal, financial, policy, or political motivations have biased the information presented by the creator of this document?
  • Does this document stand on its own, or is it impossible to evaluate without additional information including historical background?
  • How does the creator of this document reflect the times in which he or she lived?  

4.  Assessment Determining Reliabililty – In this step, students evaluate the document by comparing and contrasting it to other documents or secondary sources, and/or their outside knowledge of history. Students work on separating fact from opinion and learn to realize that they bring their own biases to their interpretation of a historical record just as the document creator may have had a biased opinion when they were creating the document. It is important for students to be able to determine the reliability of the eyewitnesses and understand that even an unsympathetic or biased observer may be the only source for useful [facts].  KF comment: evaluate the source/corroborate – compare to other primary doc. Then to secondary docs – what do you still need to research?  - JD note: Can I find other sources?

  • How typical would this document have been in the time in which it was created?
  •   Do other sources contradict the information in this document?  If so, which document seems more factual and reliable, and why?
  • Have historians evaluated this document? If so, is it considered to be a reliable historic source?  Is it newly discovered or unpublished information, or has it been used by historians for a number of years in developing their own histories or theories of the time period?
  • Can the information in this document be confirmed by using other sources, including maps and photographs?  

5.  Drawing Conclusions – This step is the culmination of all the others, and takes the most time and effort.  Students construct their own theories or explanations of history by incorporating their own thinking, identifying cause and effect, relating the document to world, national, or state historic trends (change over time), and taking a stand regarding the importance and meaning of the information for today’s world.

  • How valuable is the document in contributing to an understanding of an issue, event or era in history? Does the document provide evidence of a cause or effect in history?
  • Does the document reveal national or state historic trends during an era or a turning point in history? 
  • Does the document illustrate change over time?  
  • Does the document help compare and contrast the past with the present?
  • How are the document and its creator shaped by the time?  How might that world view shape the time in which we live?