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Teachers' Use of Primary Sources

Copies of the Constitution on a classroom table. NHEC

To what extent do history/social studies teachers use primary sources in their classrooms? What impact has the availability of Web-based primary sources had on their practice?

To find out, David Hicks and Peter Doolittle of Virginia Tech University and John K. Lee of Georgia State University surveyed 158 high school history teachers. Their study revealed that even though most teachers used primary sources, there was no consensus about how to use such documents. Is the purpose of using primary sources to reinforce what is taught in the textbook, or is it to teach historical thinking? Are Web-based primary sources the same as text-based ones? And finally, how can teachers be well prepared to use primary sources?

Historical Information vs. Historical Interpretation

It is well known that primary sources are important for teaching historical thinking skills. Many teachers find them useful for engaging students in such tasks as historical interpretation. More frequently, however, documents are used to enrich a textbook account or to help students focus on essential facts and concepts. This study sought ways that teachers could work together to devise new approaches to using primary sources, including teaching historical thinking.

. . . documents are used to enrich a textbook account or to help students focus on essential facts and concepts.
Text vs. the Web

Many of the teachers surveyed were unfamiliar with several well-developed and notable digital resource centers. Most teachers, for instance, were unaware of sites like the Library of Congress’s American Memory site, the digital National Security Archive, History Net, and the Census Bureau’s American FactFinder. In addition, most had never used videos or photographs available from internet resources, primarily because they were unsure how to find them. This highlights the need for better dissemination of information to help teachers locate useful (and usable) primary sources.

. . . most had never used videos or photographs available from internet resources, primarily because they were unsure how to find them.
Obstacles and Dilemmas

Most teachers said they needed no additional training on how to use or locate primary sources, or in understanding the unique aspects of Web-based sources. Still, many indicated a desire for assistance in helping students develop historical thinking skills, and some teachers didn't consider the Web to be an organized repository of primary sources. Based on these responses, the study authors wanted to know how administrators could support history/social studies teachers in terms of ongoing training and professional development. When it comes to using primary sources to teach historical thinking and locating primary sources on the web, what specific things might help teachers enhance their skills?

Screenshot, American Experience Homepage, Wyatt Earp

In the Classroom 

  • Explore a few excellent collections of primary sources like the Library of Congress's American Memory, Our Documents, the National Archives, Digital History, and PBS's American Experience.
  • As you browse through available sources (don't forget these include photographs!), try to think of a historical question which the documents can help students answer. Would the documents, for example, allow students to answer a question about why the American Revolution was fought, or what caused the Great Depression? Look for primary sources that demand close reading or analysis for understanding, illuminate facets of a historical context, or lead to more questions.
  • Use Teachinghistory.org resources to help you find and use primary sources effectively. Search Website Reviews by topic or time to find primary source collections. See Using Primary Sources, Teaching Guides and Lesson Plan Reviews for methods and ideas about how to use primary sources with your students.

Sample Application 

In responding to a question on why teachers didn't use Web-based historical primary sources, the three most frequent answers were:

  • "No time to search the web for primary sources."
  • "Too many web sites to locate suitable primary sources."
  • "Inappropriate preparation to use primary sources."

While the first two call for more resources that can help teachers navigate web-based primary sources, the third answer indicates a need for more professional development using primary sources. Consequently, school leaders and administrators should seek professional growth activities which not only help history/social studies teachers use primary sources effectively, but focus particularly on using Web-based resources.


David Hicks, Peter Doolittle, and John K. Lee, "Social Studies Teachers' Use of Classroom-Based and Web-Based Historical Primary Sources," Theory and Research in Social Education 32, no. 2 (2004), 213-247.

Is there any new data in this

Is there any new data in this article since the 2004 study? If so, with regard to internet use, the data is so far out of date as to be barely useful (except as a baseline to compare to where we are now). Is there 2011 survey data?

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