Inquiry-Based Learning

It’s Not About the Right Answer: Using Primary Sources to Help Students Ask the Right Questions

August 1, 2016 Updated July 29, 2016

Over the past year, I had the opportunity to be part of the Digital Public Library of America’s inaugural Education Advisory Committee, helping to build a collection of one hundred free Primary Source Sets for educators and students across the country. Though I was ostensibly building educational resources for others, I found this experience to be one of the most impactful professional development experiences I have had in over fifteen years of teaching.

The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is a free national digital library that brings together cultural heritage materials from libraries, archives, and museums across the country, making thousands of collections searchable through a single website.  My colleagues and I on the Education Advisory Committee were given the freedom - and the mandate - to create a teacher-driven model for online education resources in the humanities.  

As a result, the Primary Source Sets are strongly influenced by our professional expertise as educators.  For example, they are designed with the flexibility to use in a multitude of creative and innovative ways across grade levels and structured to appeal to both our students and our peers.  Each set has an accompanying teaching guide, but it’s not a lesson plan; it’s a set of questions designed to get students critically thinking about the sources and what they reveal about our past.  

This project was rewarding for me, but I am most excited about the ways it will impact my students. By providing easy access to primary sources and starting with the framework of asking critical questions, the sets will help my students move beyond their textbooks, challenging them to do history by putting the pieces of the story together on their own.  And the stories are unlimited; by bringing together items from disparate institutions, DPLA opens up all new possibilities of discovery that will democratize my students’ access to history, from the people and voices that are often marginalized to the cultural heritage treasures that might be hidden in plain sight at a local public library or archive where we didn’t even know to look.  

As I reflect on this experience, I see that from the beginning, it has been framed around the art and skill of asking good questions - of us as educators, by us as researchers, and, most importantly, by our students as critical thinkers.

Question #1 - What and Who is missing from history textbooks?

Too often, our students are miseducated by textbook narratives that lack the multicultural perspectives, complexity, and controversy of historical research and inquiry.  Through digital primary sources, new voices and stories are shared and added to the broader narrative.  Digital sources, rather than traditional print textbooks, democratize student access to historical archives.  For example, students are now just a click away from primary sources by and about African Americans that are, at best, occasionally included in state, university, and national libraries, or are, at worst, absent or marginalized in traditional textbook narratives.  In traditional history textbooks, the voices of African Americans tend to be relegated to the sections on slavery and a few leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.  My DPLA primary source sets about Negro League baseball, African American soldiers in World World I, and Fannie Lou Hamer can help teachers and students combat those silences.  

One of my favorite primary sources in those aforementioned sets is the photograph of African American soldiers with French children in France during World War I. When teaching with this document, I can ask students to write down every question that they have of the photograph.  Emphasizing that there are no “wrong” questions, I could then lead students to prioritizing the questions and developing guiding questions that would help them gather information about the photographer’s intent and the overall historical context.  An example of a question of the photograph could be:  Would it have been possible to take this photograph in the United States at the time?  Why or why not

Question #2 - Where can I find primary sources on the Internet?

My obvious answer is the DPLA.  And, the good news is that the online collection of digital historical artifacts and primary sources continues to grow.  Equipped with good historical inquiry skills, students can engage in online history investigations and amass tons of digital primary source evidence.  Students may even find digital historical sources that are “hidden gems” from smaller and disparate archival collections.  Small newspapers from remote locations in the United States are particularly good at capturing perspectives that are often missing from more general histories.  For example, from the DPLA, students could discover a newspaper published in the 1916 by a Native American school from the collection of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies, Presbyterian Church.  Additionally, students may also discover a newspaper article published in 1942 about Japanese Internment camps from the Occidental College Library. Along with the DPLA, there are many other online digital repositories from which students can find primary sources. Umbra: Search African American History of the University of Minnesota libraries and the American Memory collection of the Library of Congress are two noteworthy examples.

Question #3 - How is this primary source document relevant to me?

This question is perhaps the most important one for my students.  Over the years, I’ve learned that if my students do not see the relevance of a historical topic, they will care less about historical thinking skills. As a result, I have used a variety of instructional methods to help students see the contemporary implications of historical primary source analysis.  I have used primary sources from students’ communities, used primary sources to supplement depictions of history in modern films, and used debates about contentious issues to help students discover how relevant primary sources are to their lives.  For example, I could ask students to debate the role that professional athletes should play in social movements.  Using the DPLA, students could compare Jackie Robinson’s letter to President Eisenhower on Civil Rights to LeBron James’ stance and actions on Trayvon Martin.

Primary sources can serve as prompts to help students ask general and specific questions related to historical time periods or figures.  Rather than finding the “answer,” students can tell their own interpretive story through questioning, analyzing, and collecting evidence from multiple digital primary sources.  In this way, students analyze and create historical interpretations, and do not regurgitate the often distorted and incomplete narratives of traditional history textbooks.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School
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