Primary sources stimulate students' curiosity by providing them with an immediate and personal account of history. They are very useful for inquiry-based learning but need to be used effectively, responsibly, and legally.
Primary source materials provide a range of voices that help history come alive. However, as each example is created in a specific cultural, historical and personal context, they may reflect attitudes and values that are unacceptable today.
Using primary sources — a quick guide from Library of Congress.
Engaging students with primary sources (pdf, 3.4MB) — a teachers' guide from the Smithsonian.
Why use primary sources?
Primary sources are a compelling part of teaching and learning.
They provide students with personal access to history, and:
- allow for unfiltered access directly into history.
- are what historians use to interpret the past.
- give students a strong sense of the context of historical events from the people who experienced and documented an event.
- have the power to become hugely important and iconic, as the Treaty of Waitangi has.
They encourage critical thinking:
- Students develop critical thinking and inquiry skills as they analyse multiple primary sources and perspectives of the same event.
- Students engage in critical thinking and knowledge construction by starting with primary source material, pursuing a line of inquiry and reaching a deeper understanding of an event.
- Primary source material highlights the historical and cultural biases when an event is recorded. For example, 2 eyewitness accounts of the 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand may show vastly different perspectives of the same event. This then requires students to use critical thinking as they follow their inquiry.
- Primary sources can challenge generalisations and clichés about historical events. They are also a useful tool for analysing our own contemporary values.
Help inspire students when they are using primary sources by asking the following questions:
- Who created this item?
- When was it created, and why?
- What does it tell you about an event?
- What questions does it raise?
- How does it inform current values and judgments?
- Why is it historically important?
- What type of primary source is it?
These questions encourage a critical approach to primary sources and help reveal historical and contemporary perspectives and biases.