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Primary Sources: Gateways to Enhancing Critical Thinking in the Classroom

By Carroll Van West, Ph.D.
Center for Historic Preservation, Middle Tennessee State University

Teachers are in constant need of tools that will empower their students to explore and dig deeper into subjects and issues that matter most to them. Primary sources, which are now available in unprecedented numbers online, are powerful tools for just such empowered teaching. Not only do primary sources provide rich cultural context and unique insights into past eras; if used effectively, primary sources can be the key to making the basics of critical thinking—asking questions, seeking answers, and drawing conclusions—central to teaching.

Scholars and teachers from different disciplines will define primary sources differently. But no matter the disciplinary slant, teachers agree that primary sources are the stuff of life—what we do, say, perform, sing, make, and create—that we categorize, study, and analyze through the lenses of the humanities, the sciences, folklife, and the arts. The Library of Congress defines primary sources as the raw materials of history—original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience.

Primary sources surround us. They are in the landscape around us—historic sites, museums, town squares, historic architecture. They are bound in collections at the school or local library. They are in the voices and traditions of our communities—oral histories, folklife, and festivals. In the humanities, for instance, primary sources directly link students to the participants and witnesses of important past events. Primary sources humanize past traditions and supply the language, emotions, attitudes and values of past peoples. These original materials allow students to experience, and ask questions about, the past in a way that cannot be matched by the best textbook or any other secondary source.

Maps, for example, provide myriad opportunities for student exploration. In maps, a student can see the ways in which cartographers record the ebb and flow of politics, the history of nations, the evolution of settlement and the path of scientific and mathematical thought. Because maps reflect humanity's understanding (or misunderstanding) of the world around them, sometimes they also capture the work of history's most creative imaginations. Maps can enrich lessons in almost any academic discipline. Students can piece together a story of political conquest, trace a landmark expedition, or see their town develop over time. Historic maps provide the basis for writing assignments. Math students can calculate distances; science, geography, and geology students can examine the characteristics of a specific topography.

Photographs can also stimulate a student's interest in and desire to learn about the past. Photographs can show types of transportation, fashions, architecture, social and family relationships, furnishings, professions and trades, and lifestyles from across historical eras. Photographs can help to teach vocabulary, textures and shapes, sharpen observation skills, draw inferences, form hypotheses, and analyze raw data. They are a good starting point for discussion, writing assignments, and research.

The true power of primary sources emerges, however, when teachers use them to spur critical thinking by students. To use primary sources most effectively, educators must ask questions that will prompt students to draw from their own experiences and knowledge, to explore and think about what is before them. Questions of creator bias, purpose, and point of view may challenge students’ assumptions. Remind students not to read too much into a primary source, nor draw too many conclusions from it. Remember that each primary source is part of a process involving its creator, the purpose and the subject. While primary sources can be extremely valuable teaching and research tools, they are best used in conjunction with other sources to give a more complete understanding of a time, place, circumstance, and people.

The millions of primary sources that are now available online from cultural institutions provide excellent opportunities for students to explore many types of evidence for comparison and analysis. Students engaged with scenes of a blues singer performing from a porch of a Mississippi shotgun-shack, for example, can look elsewhere online to hear music from that time and place. Or turn to an oral history repository and read what observers said about the music during the Great Depression. Literature, performing arts, geography, folklife, and history can be synthesized in a single exploration that leads to new knowledge.

Using primary sources to capture students’ attention and to encourage their own sense of adventure adds immeasurably to students’ ability to construct knowledge as they form reasoned conclusions, base their conclusions on evidence, and connect primary sources to the context in which they were created, synthesizing information from multiple sources. In today’s hectic, information-overload world, primary sources can teach the valuable lesson: “don’t just accept what you’re told—go to the source and find out for yourself.”

Dr. Carroll Van West directs the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University.