Historical Thinking begins with Primary Sources and Evidence

The use of primary sources has become increasingly common in history classrooms. Educators and researchers have been broadly pushing for this years. Specifically, this has been part of a call for the explicit teaching of historical thinking skills alongside prioritized content.1 Interestingly, the largest barriers to increased use of primary sources in the classroom that I have witnessed are not student reading ability, but a lack of teacher training and experience as well as access to materials.

Many great organizations have attempted to address these barriers through collecting and collating primary sources, molding them into ready-made lessons for teachers. Among my favorites are:

Teachers who want to go deeper and find additional sources will likely be familiar with Fordham University’s Online Sourcebook or the Library of Congress archives. The latter can be easier to navigate for both teachers and students by using the LOC Student Research Guide developed alongside the National History Day program. Other databases include:

There are far more primary sources easily accessible for students and teachers than ever before thanks to digitization trends. Still, finding or modifying the perfect source can take a bit of time, time that many teachers simply do not have. A teacher’s content knowledge can help make research more efficient, but there is no substitute for increasing access to and ease of use with primary sources databases as well as offering professional development on integrating primary sources into the curriculum. It all begins with evidence.

Why use Primary Sources?

Indentured Servant Contract - Primary Source

Build inquiry and interest

A well selected primary source provides a great hook, gets students asking questions, and increases engagement. Multiple sources can be curated within activities structured around mysteries, simulations, mock trials, etc. Most students’ view of history begins and ends with a textbook. Breaking out of this habit and showing students that they can be the historian can be a refreshing and empowering experience.

In an increasingly digital world images of actual sources are easier to find. An intriguing looking source that supports the content, offers strong possibility for questions, and makes a connection to the student can do wonders for learning. Primary source mysteries are a great way to start a unit of study and introduce basic source analysis skills. Ordeal by Cheque is one of my favorites.

Train students to ask good questions

Too many teachers use primary sources as illustrative examples of their content at the end of instruction. Using primary sources from the beginning gets students asking and answering complex questions. These questions drive analytical ability and critical thinking. This is more than asking “What does this source say?” Instead, students should be asking why sources disagree, why sources omit information, or how point of view and purpose impacts what a source says. There is no substitute for training students to ask questions. These simple practices with individual sources or document sets support more complex historical thinking skills.

Teach students that history is an interpretative act

History is not a a set of facts, it is an interpretation of events derived from evidence. It is important that students overcome the trap of thinking history is the former, which is all too prevalent given the omniscient writing style of most textbooks. I had a poster up in my classroom for many years from a training led by Bob Bain. The image below is the best version of it I could find while writing this post.2 I like how it clarifies the historical interpretive process, suggesting why it is so important that students understand it.

Recognizing that history is an interpretive act better prepares students to be civically engaged; It helps them better sift through political positions, current events, and any opinion rooted in history. Centering primary sources in our instruction is about more than an engagement strategy, it shows students why the learning is relevant in the real world. Once they understand this, the teacher can access a host of engaging classroom ideas. Students can be invited to do the interpreting as they learn key content. Weaving content and skill together creates opportunities for inquiry and research projects that let students apply skills and enrich their learning.

How can primary sources be effectively integrated into the curriculum?

Vertical alignment of historical thinking skills

Whatever standards a curriculum uses, teachers should consider how they are introduced within and across units. Standards relating to primary source analysis deserve to come first. This teaches and reinforces fundamental understandings of history and where it comes from. Afterwords, it becomes easier to teach larger analysis skills such as continuity and change over time or historical comparison. Understanding the historian’s process better prepares students to engage in it themselves and think with complexity.

As standards spiral, consider the order that skills are introduced instead of just relying on a textbook or progression driven by chronological content. This also supports scaffolded assessment. Earlier assessments are smaller and focused on individual skills, while larger projects and tasks at the end of a unit incorporate multiple skills/standards. The images below illustrate this based on the standards from the National Center for History in Schools that we used in my previous school. This also helps make a curriculum for historical thinking skills work really well with standards-based grading.

Accessing prior knowledge

Although presenting primary sources as a mystery or hook to get students into a topic is fun and rewarding, strong primary source analysis will require content knowledge. Beginning class with a content review, previewing content through assigned textbook reading, or even direct lecture yields better results than just handing students primary sources cold. When combined with analysis modeling and practice, students will eventually be able to engage in better primary source research on their own, finding the background knowledge they need to understand and analyze sources on their own.

Sourcing primary sources

Sourcing is such an important skill that pays significant dividends in critical thinking. I prefer using the HIPP or HAPP to teach sourcing as a consistent strategy. These activities can be quick skill reviews, warm-ups, or part of larger activities and projects. Students should be trained to look at sourcing information first and use it to question what the source actually says as well as its place in the larger narrative. Even with the DBQ process as it is scored in AP history courses, teaching students to skip sourcing because it is not needed to pass the exam is a disservice to historical thinking.


  1. This claim has been based on a number of researchers I have read including Sam Wineburg, Peter Seixas, Keith Barton, and Bob Bain. The citations are listed below.
  2. This image was accessed from a blog post titled “Historiography for the Secondary Social Studies Classroom” posted on the blog Social Studies Rising.

Bain R.B. ‘Into the breach: Using research and theory to shape history instruction’. Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and international perspectives. Stearns P.N, Seixas P, Wineburg S. New York University Press. New York: 2000. p. 331–52.

Barton K. ‘Primary sources in history: Breaking through myths’. Phi Delta Kappan. 2005. Vol. 86(10):745–53.

Seixas P. ‘A model of historical thinking’. Journal of Educational Philosophy and Theory. 2015. Vol. 49(6):593–605.

Seixas P, Gibson L, Ercikan K. ‘A design process for assessing historical thinking’. New Directions in Assessing Historical Thinking. Ercikan K, Seixas P. Routledge. New York: 2015. p. 102–13

Wineburg S. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. Temple University Press. Philadelphia, PA: 2001

Wineburg S. Why Learn History (When it’s already on your phone). University of Chicago Press. London: 2018

Wineburg S, Martin D, Monte-Sano C. Reading Like a Historian: Teaching literacy in middle and high school history classrooms. Teachers College Press. New York: 2011

One thought on “Historical Thinking begins with Primary Sources and Evidence

  1. Great post. It can’t be said enough how important it is to integrate primary sources in our history courses. We want students to engage with contemporary evidence as often as possible.

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