Using primary sources to teach Civil War history: a case study in pedagogical decision making
Author(s)Snook, David L.
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AbstractThis exploratory study combined the process of modified analytic induction with a mixed methods approach to analyze various factors that affected or might have affected participating teachers' decisions to use or not use various primary source based teaching strategies to teach historical thinking skills. Four participating eighth and ninth grade teachers took part in two seminars that focused on the use of primary sources to teach state and local Civil War history. An initial quantitative component required the teachers to evaluate four teaching units that involved a variety of historical thinking skills. The evaluations included a rating for each unit and a statement indicating how likely each teacher was inclined to teach the unit in its entirety. A qualitative component followed, designed to gain an understanding of the teachers' evaluative choices. Based on a follow-up interview conducted in each of the participating teachers' respective classrooms, this qualitative component used a semi-structured interview format to gain insight into the respective teachers' philosophy of history teaching; preferred teaching style(s) and strategies; concerns about classroom management and control; concerns about curriculum coverage; and attitudes, predispositions, and experience with regard to primary source based instruction. All four units required students to employ various historical thinking skills while analyzing primary source materials. The three shorter units each focused on one or two historical thinking skills. The longer unit was more complex, requiring students to employ an array of these skills, including understanding the personal motivation of historical actors, understanding how to reconstruct the context of historical events, weighing evidence for claims, detecting bias, and drawing conclusions from evidence. This unit was organized around a controversial question, presented primary source evidence from opposing viewpoints, and culminated with having students write a reflective essay to answer the question. It required multiple class periods to complete. The principal goal of this study was to evaluate the impact of the four teaching units on the teachers' pedagogical decisions regarding which unit(s) they would be most likely to use with their students and why. The various unit evaluations completed by each teacher and their responses to questions during the follow-up interview were used to gain insight as to how the various factors - (e.g., philosophy of history teaching; preferred teaching style(s) and strategies; concerns about classroom control; concerns about curriculum coverage; and attitudes, predispositions, and experience regarding primary source based instruction) - may have influenced the teachers' decisions concerning which unit(s) they perceived to be the most valuable. The responses of all four teachers were very similar. Three of the four teachers found the longer, in-depth unit to be both the most valuable and the one they would most like to teach. The fourth participant rated this unit as second among the four. All the participating teachers indicated that the teaching of historical thinking skills should be a "very important" part of any social studies curriculum. The four also expressed varying degrees of concern over both the issue of maintaining student interest during extended teaching activities and the issue of finding the time necessary to fit these types of activities into an already crowded curriculum. All agreed, however, that the in-depth unit centered on a compelling question, presenting primary source evidence from opposing viewpoints, and requiring students to write a reflective essay answering the question, was so worthwhile that they would make adjustments to their curricula in order to include it.