03 Nov, 2021
Primary sources are first-hand and original accounts, records, or evidence. They are raw pieces of data without a given interpretation. Examples of primary sources are photographs, maps, manuscripts (journals, telegrams, diaries, etc.), newspapers, oral histories, radio programs, speeches, political cartoons, legal briefs, and official government correspondence.
In comparison, textbooks are secondary sources that have been derived from primary sources. Political commentary, newspaper editorials, journal articles, magazines, and many books are also examples of secondary sources. The weakness of secondary sources is that they are accounts or interpretations created by someone without first-hand experience.
Teachers of all levels can incorporate primary sources into their learning activities. Primary sources can be used in any subject area, but they are particularly useful for teachers of history, social studies, geography, english, writing, civics, cultural studies, and political science.
Advantages of Using Primary Sources
1. Incorporating primary sources drives up student engagement and promotes active learning. Reading a summary of historical events in a textbook can be boring and dry for students. On the other hand, getting historical information from primary source documents such as maps, telegrams, and oral histories gives students the opportunity to be investigators as they sift through historical data to learn the facts, which they can then piece together to form an understanding of an event, time period, person, or place. This type of learning is active rather than passive.
2. Using primary sources teaches critical thinking, deductive reasoning, and problem-solving skills. When students read a curated account of events in a textbook, there’s not much room for thought. It’s easy for students to simply see the content as something they just have to memorize and then repeat in order to pass a test. However, if students are asked to learn about a topic through primary sources, they have no choice but to think critically about the information being presented because they have to use deductive reasoning to form their own interpretation of the source document being studied. Primary sources necessarily require students to develop skills of analysis, which benefits them across the curriculum.
3. In an increasingly polarized world, teaching with primary sources creates a more culturally diverse, inclusive, and equitable learning environment. When we talk about political or historical events in our classrooms, inevitably our instruction will contain some of our personal bias. We may even subconsciously choose to teach events that are relevant to our own cultural perspective, but that leave out other cultural perspectives. Using primary source documents can get around our own cultural biases by expanding our own cultural horizons as well as those of our students.
Additionally, using primary sources makes the classroom inclusive because these types of teaching materials can appeal to all learning styles. For example, photographs and maps will speak to visual learners while oral histories will engage auditory learners.
Ways to Use Primary Sources in the Classroom
For elementary school students, primary sources can be used to encourage deeper learning about the world around them. For example, elementary school teachers might use photographs of their city or town in the past and present to teach skills of observation. When shown a historical photograph, what do students see? What in the photograph is the same as modern-day life? What is different? What conclusions can they draw as a result of observing these differences? Elementary students could then write simple sentences describing the differences they see between the historical and modern photographs.
For all age groups, primary sources can be used to teach students how to synthesize and summarize information, a necessary skill for all subjects. Writing teachers might use primary source activities to give students an opportunity to learn about proper techniques for paraphrasing and quoting.
For middle school through college, primary sources are fantastic references for students writing research papers or argumentative essays. A side benefit is that using primary sources can reduce plagiarism because students are using first-hand documents to draw their own conclusions rather than regurgitating the inferences others have already drawn.
Websites to Source Primary Documents
With the increasing popularity of primary source teaching, many online resources are available to help teachers easily locate first-hand sources. Some even include helpful lesson plans or activity guides to accompany the primary source sets.
Digital Public Libraries of America
Historical Scene Investigation
Zoom in on US History
Primary sources can help our students see things from multiple perspectives, which is perhaps one of the most critical skills in today’s divided world. Using primary sources creates a rich, active learning experience where students are in the driver’s seat and are empowered to engage with the world around them to collect information in order to form their own interpretations. This can also help students begin to grasp their own biases and can better prepare them to be informed global citizens with an understanding of perspectives other than their own.