For Educators - Part 1. The Goal: Turning 'Learning History' into 'Making History' in your classroom

Our purpose for studying history is to construct a better understanding of the past, not just simply "know" about history as it is related to us, whether through a textbook, a classroom or other venue.

Therefore the goals of teaching and education should:

Relate past to present

Include teaching students in a way that offers them an opportunity to uncover why things may have happened the way they did and, how events of the past can connect to our beliefs, values and actions today.

To this end, the role of the teacher is to plan classroom learning that will assist students in gaining contextual knowledge so that students can engage in skilled inquiry activities (thinking like historians). Primary sources should not be used to simply provide information to students, but should be used to help reconstruct the social contexts in which they occurred.


Be an exchange of ideas and thoughts about information uncovered from the past. How we make sense of the information and how our views may differ from those of others.

To this end, the role of the teacher is to create a classroom environment of investigation, including open and equitable discussion and exchange of ideas that encourages students to read primary sources in a methodical and thoughtful way. Primary sources should be used as points for further questioning and inquiry.

Lead Exploration

Create an environment in which the teacher is, in the words of local Library of Congress Fellow, Susan Allen, "the guide on the side" rather than the "sage on stage" – it is about students learning to shape their own knowledge, with needed support from their teachers and their peers.

To this end, the role of the teacher is to move students towards independent thinking through reflection on what they are discovering. This is accomplished by giving students tools for primary source analysis, such as using thinking strategies of sourcing, contextualization and, corroboration. Primary sources should become familiar to students as resources they can identify, search for and select when attempting to construct a better understanding of their world, past, present and, future.

How can we help students construct an understanding and analysis of the past?

Providing strategies and appropriate tools for locating and using of historical evidence through application of inquiry skills in the learning process:

Planning and Reading for Content

The frequent and consistent use of historical inquiry in the classroom will require teachers like you to become immersed in content and to become a proponent of interactive learning. You and your students must be prepared to read from a variety of sources to develop a strong grasp of context. Student ability to search for and use historical evidence will be impacted by various internal (individual background knowledge and search and organization skills) and external (the tasks you create, search tools you present) factors.

Primary Source Investigation and Analysis

Just as with developing other types of abilities in young people, we need to provide them with the basic information of the trade and also with the tools they will need to craft the best product that they can. The information or "historical evidence" includes the first hand and second hand accounts of what happened. The tools we provide are those of questioning, critical analysis, and reflection – or historical inquiry. The Library of Congress offers several tools for searching and analyzing primary sources.

Thinking Like a Historian through Construction and Reflection

To help students develop inquiry skills we need to model the steps as well as provide them with lots of opportunities to employ the practice on their own. Lessons to promote historical inquiry should be frequent and consistent. Thinking tools such as "sourcing," "contextualization" and "corroboration" should become habitual ways of looking at history.

The Stanford History Education Group site provides basic tools for incorporating "Thinking Like A Historian" techniques in your classroom.

Historical Evidence and Historical Thinking – Modeling Activity

Activity: Take out your wallet (or your personal calendar or electronic planner), and spend about 2-3 minutes looking through it and jotting down a list of types of personal and professional information you find: things such as identification items, memberships, shopping items, photos, notes, ticket stubs, currency, and so on.

What did you find?

If an historian was working in the field 100 years from now and came across the contents of your wallet, what could they surmise about you from this information? What could they surmise about the culture or community in which you were living at the time?

Perhaps starting with a driver identification card, they could describe what you looked like at that point in time. They could also identify where you lived around the time the license was issued and might be able to go to the physical location. Would it look different than when you lived there? How would they know? Would this make a difference in the investigation? How would the historian locate this kind of information?

The historian might go to a local museum or historical society to see images of the neighborhood you resided in and how it might have looked at that time; If not an actual visit, maybe they would obtain content through library or Internet research. The historian could also examine census records or city directories from the time period to find out who else was living with you, and perhaps a bit more about who your neighbors were. What happens if unfamiliar terms or information are encountered?

What next?

The information uncovered could lead to further questioning: Who were the other members of your family and what did they do? Why did your neighborhood change or remain unchanged? What kind of vehicle did you drive? Was your vehicle typical of others at that time? Where did you work? Go to school? Knowing answers to these questions could lead to still more information: checking old school records, municipal records, and so on to gather more evidence about people and places connected to you. 

An important step in the inquiry includes examining who or what had created these records about you – local, state or federal agencies? Private clubs, commercial enterprises, religious or social organizations? Family members, friends, colleagues? Why did they collect this information and what might they have used the information for? Was the information obtained firsthand or from second hand sources? How did this information impact you or others at the time?

Historical evidence is never wholly conclusive: depending on the nature of the inquiry, there can always be more questions and more information to uncover. The information in your wallet is a sample of historical evidence that can help construct an understanding of you and the time in which you lived - to a point – but other important information may be missing or, there can and will often be clues that lead to further investigation!

This is the experience of studying historical evidence: to formulate a question and then observe and analyze what evidence you have; construct a response to that information; reflect on that evidence and; pose further questions for further investigation! Can you teach a class using that methodology? Yes!

 How do we know what is important information from the past?

Historians have advantages of knowing and studying the past of places, people, and communities in greater depth than do classroom students. The historian is more knowledgeable about historical context as well as about where to go to discover a variety of historical evidence that is authentic and diverse. The historian is also likely to have a specific path of inquiry established to help determine what information is relevant and what is not in his investigations. It is important to remember these differences when planning classroom learning following the historical inquiry model.

Students need guidance not just in using historical records, but also in finding these sources and establishing their relevance to the investigation the students are engaged in.

An important part of the inquiry process is being able to discern whether or not the evidence being examined is a primary source or a secondary source. Depending on the focus of inquiry, historical records can take on features of either primary or secondary sources.

For example, consider posing this question in your classroom:

Could the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin be considered a true account of the life of enslaved Africans in the South in antebellum America?

While students may discuss the evidence in the novel that describes life of enslaved Africans in the South in antebellum America, they should be made to realize that the characters are not actual people who had experienced enslavement. They should also know that the author was a person who neither experienced nor witnessed the lives of enslaved people at this time. The novel is a secondary source, based on firsthand accounts told to the author by a number of people who actually lived through and witnessed the cruelties and indignities of enslavement. So, while the evidence in the novel may have been based on true accounts, it is in itself, not a true account of what happened in the context of the initial question.

However, what if students were instead given the question:

Could the novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin be considered a true account of the beliefs and views of American abolitionists in antebellum America?

In this case, the novel is indeed a true account since the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a member of the abolitionist movement, was involved in abolition activities and advocated the views and beliefs of abolition in her writings. The novel becomes a primary source since it is a firsthand account of an abolitionist who experienced and witnessed abolition activities at the time they were taking place.

So, what is the difference and why does it matter?

The context of questioning will impact the historian’s selection of historical evidence and ultimate understanding of an historical event.

The determination of primary and secondary sources for evidence will have an impact on the nature of the subsequent questions posed, assumptions or inferences drawn, hypotheses created, and conclusions formulated about a certain time, person or event in history.

Employing inquiry and thinking skills, students can gauge the reliability, importance, and usefulness of historical information relative to the purposes for which it is being applied.