Friday, 13 May 2016

Primary & Secondary Sources

Something you often hear, these days, is that we want our students to think like a writer, or a scientist, a mathematician, or even a historian.  The goal is to have students learn the specific cognitive skills of each discipline and the metacognition to apply them successfully. 

It's a big goal, but I don't think it's necessarily a new one. Perhaps what's new is the explicit inclusion of the specific skills and actions in some subject areas of the Australian curriculum - like history for example. One of the tricky parts of thinking like a historian is coming to grips with how we learn about the past. 

Recently I've been talking to one of my own children about his sources of information for a research project in which he's comparing Australia's education system of the 1900's and now. He's been instructed that his final essay must make use of at least one primary and one secondary source, which presupposes that he knows the difference. At his age (14) I didn't. He does.  (I'm not sure he knows why the distinction is important though.) 

I introduced the idea of primary and secondary sources to a class of year 3/4s a few years back by presenting a collection of sources and asking them what they noticed.  There were some hilarious observations but more importantly a couple of students pointed out the fact that some of the sources were "records made by people who were there" and some were "second hand information".  Such a simple distinction between primary and secondary sources!

More recently, with a group of year 5/6s, (knowing that two days earlier they had started learning about this) I asked the question: "what makes a source primary or secondary?"  The general consensus was that a primary source needed to be original, but a secondary source was a copy.  I read the South Australian Certificate of Education's definition, and we chatted about the differences between it and their definition. Then I told them a story. 

Pages 92-93 of Anne Frank's original diary.
Licensed under CC BY 2.0 bHeather Cowper.
I talked about a girl who, during WWII lived, for a time, with her family hidden away in an attic to avoid being rounded up by Hitler's army.  And then I explained that after the war, her diary had been published.  I mentioned that there was a copy in their school library, and that many of their parents had probably read it while they were at high school. "Is this a primary or secondary source", I asked. 

Voting with their feet, the students positioned themselves along a continuum: primary through to secondary. After conferring with people close to them, the students explained their position. Some asked questions about whether the diary had been edited prior to publishing, and moved upon hearing that it was a true record of Anne's thoughts. Others held fast to the fact that there could only ever be one original so any copies we might read must be secondary sources. Still others made the connection that whilst Anne was able to be witness to her own experience, it was a limited perspective so should be understood with that in mind. Every time someone spoke, there was movement.  Eventually, with most of the class in the primary camp, I talked through my thinking and invited the secondary hold outs to come and talk to me further.

The distinction between primary and secondary sources is an important one and brings up questions of privilege, perspective, contestability and significance (to name just a few). Plus, teaching about it, means I have a great excuse reason to spend time reading about history, which pleases me immensely! #imsuchanerd #proudofit

Incidentally, my son is using an interview with me as one of his primary sources for his project. I'm not sure how I feel about that: whilst my experience with the current educational system would definitely make my interview a primary source, but I'm not quite old enough to be one for the 1900's! 

This relates to the following Australian Professional Standards for Teachers:
Standard 1 Know the students and how they learn
Standard 2 Know the content and how to teach it

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