Depending on how
much information you offer students about a source or a topic ahead
of time, the guiding questions can help make explicit the process and
challenges of historical research.
and writing can be thought of as a "looping" process in which
historians use primary sources and secondary sources in tandem. They
move from primary source to secondary source (or vice versa) and then
loop back again-and again in order to draw meaning from the source and
develop a solid argument about the topic or theme they are exploring.
When working with
primary sources historians refer to secondary sources (including reference
sources) all the time. They do this for a number of reasons: 1) to fill
in holes in their knowledge about a source (e.g. What does a certain
word mean? What is that symbol referring to? Is there a standard definition
for this term that appears again and again? When was the artist in Moscow?;
Who is this "John Brown" the author refers to?) 2) to learn
about a new topic that arises in the course of their investigation and
3) to see what other people have said about their topic or source in
order to situate their sources and their interpretation within the existing
scholarly "conversation." This process of back and forth also
helps historians think about/identify other sources that they may need
to look at in order to flesh out their study, make their argument or
illuminate the topic at hand.
In the classroom,
guiding questions be used to create opportunities for students at any
grade level to engage in the process of historical research, a process
which, in general, involves moving back and forth between a particular
source and the broader context or existing knowledge again and again.
Here are a couple
of ideas for using guiding questions to build historical research skills
at all grade levels.
School: Basic research skills; Teaching the usefulness of using primary
and secondary sources in tandem to "do" history
Prepare cards ahead
of time with information that your questions ask for but which cannot
be gleaned from the source directly and which is important for interpreting
details and/or using the source to understand a larger concept or topic.
As you lead students though the observation and interpretation/contextualization
phases of your questioning, have a card ready with background information
or a standard scholarly interpretation for each question that the students
cannot answer through observation alone, or which might have more than
one answer. You might hand a card to a different student each time and
ask him or her to read the additional information to the class. The
class can then consider how this new information might alter the view
they were developing or assist them in continuing their analysis. For
older students, you could have reference books or secondary sources
available instead of prepared cards.
2. Middle/High School:
Getting students to ask the questions; Teaching the usefulness of using
primary and secondary sources in tandem to "do" historical
For older students
you might consider using this activity as a precursor to student research
projects. In addition to the skills listed above, you would help students
see all of the many nuances and twists and turns in historical research,
research project development and/or thesis statement writing. Drawing
on their knowledge of a particular topic (from classroom instruction)
the students would identify a source they wished to use for a research
project related to that topic. Students would then begin asking questions
of the source, following the guidelines for guiding questions. They
should keep a separate list of questions that cannot be answered without
further research. At specific intervals, they should try to find answers
to those questions by doing more secondary research. Each time they
answer a question, they return to the source and, with new information
in hand, reassess the meaning, significance or utility of the source
for their project. This activity might also be done in groups.