Against the generic use of sources in history lessons

I have written before about some of the difficulties involved in getting pupils to act as ‘mini-historians’. Historians go into archives to work with sources forearmed with (usually quite an extensive) body of substantive knowledge, which helps them know where to look, what to look for, and what they are reading means. In the more basic versions of the ‘new history’ movement that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s in British schools, pupils would be given sources from which they were expected to build their knowledge of the past but, as numerous critics within the profession have pointed out, ‘death by sources A-F’ became do detached from what historians do that it lost its very raison d’etre.

The response to this from some circles is to reject the use of sources completely. I do not agree with this as I think there are a range of good reasons for introducing pupils to sources throughout school, not least because some of the sources we might want them to learn about are themselves part of the fabric of our culture: Sutton Hoo, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Bayeux Tapestry, Domesday Book, Magna Carta, Piers Plowman and the Paston Letters (just to quote some medieval examples) are all things that I would expect pupils to leave school knowing something about, and part of that is a consideration of how the survival of these sources shapes the way we view the past.

And this I think is where the ‘new history’ took a wrong turn in the late twentieth century. It treated sources as a pedagogy, characterised by the now mercifully defunct term ‘source-work’ rather than as a curricular object. Under the auspices of the new history, children were supposed to learn about the past through the study of sources: the methodology of the discipline became the pedagogy of the subject. Yet, as Daniel Willingham puts it in his book Why don’t children like school?, it is not possible for children to adopt the methodology of the discipline as the means by which they learn the subject, as they lack the initial knowledge based needed to work in the same way as historians.

So I would argue from different premises. I would suggest, first, that we ought to be studying – explicitly- particular sources as something about which we want pupils to know. I do not want pupils to use Domesday Book as a means to learning about the Norman Conquest: I want them to learn about Domesday Book in its own right. I do not want them to study the Paston Letters for the purpose learning about the social world of the gentry in the fifteenth century: I want them to study the Paston Letters as an interesting object of study in their own right.

Does this mean that I do not want to teach pupils the methodology of the historian? To the contrary, I think this is very important. But I would want to do this by selecting interesting cases of where historians have used specific source material in interesting ways. The pages of Teaching History are littered with such examples. Perhaps the classic is Rachel Foster’s piece on how two historians interpreted the same source (about a police battalion during the Holocaust) in different ways. The pupils in Foster’s case do not just leave her classroom better educated about the Holocaust in general: they now know a specific case where historians have disagreed over the analysis of a source. Another excellent example is Steve Mastin’s work on Eamon Duffy’s book The Voices of Morebath in which pupils learn explicitly about a particular source (a set of parish records) and how these can were used Duffy to construct an account of the reformation. It would be a beautiful thing if we specified in our curriculum designs that all pupils might finish their schooling knowing several case studies where historians of different periods have used specific, named sources or collections of sources in order to reach conclusions about the past. It is, perhaps, the historical equivalent of studying famous scientific experiments, such as the double-slit experiment.

All of this is quite a far cry from how sources get used in GCSE and A-Level exams, although a growing body of excellent work on this has been done by history teachers in Key Stage 3 classes. Giving pupils a collection of sources about which all they know is the short sentence in italics under the source is not assessing what they know about sources and how these are used as evidence: it is rather an assessment of how well they have learnt a particular exam specification rubric that, by making ‘source analysis’ a generic enterprise, does little more than rip the historical methodology from its disciplinary roots.

The next time the GCSE History is reformed (which should be in about four – six years on past form) I would like to see the exam boards being braver with this (which requires DfE and Ofqual support) and naming the sources they will ask questions about, which will allow teachers to do something far more historically grounded in their lessons.


4 Comments on Against the generic use of sources in history lessons

  1. This would certainly apply when studying ancient and medieval history where focusing on a handful of sources in detail also mirrors the scarcity of material available and in turn the job of a historian in the field. Interested to hear your suggestion for more recent history eg the Cold War, Nazi Germany where there is a plethora of extant material.

    I remember your previous post on the subject which I often cite to my colleagues as we trawl through the formula for ‘reading sources’ and my heart sinks at the prospect. My mind always returns to my own studies of Roman history and the close study of Augustus’ Res Gestae and the notion of learning from a source in its truest form – ie in its entirety and all its complexities,

  2. The only thing I’d throw in is that when possible, I like to have students use a longer source rather than a smattering of snippets. In this way, they can build a more in-depth knowledge of the mateiral while also allowing me, as teacher, to place the work in context. I also see it as part of a longer-term program to foster concentration and focus over our world of Short Attention Span Theater.

  3. Yes. The way source analysis works in history examinations at the moment is analogous to general tests of reading where you do not know which pieces of literature will be in the examination. Specifying content in advance makes examinations fairer and more educationally productive.

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