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Why ‘sourcework’ is super difficult

Kids find using sources really difficult. And after a lot of thought this isn’t that surprising. This is the most difficult thing we teach.

Just think of the process you go through to analyse a source. Let’s do one together. Below is the classic David Low cartoon ‘They salute with both hands now.’ I want you to think about what the message of the source is and as you do it think about the process you go through.David LowI bet it’s something like this. First off you might look at the individual little details. The smoking gun, the Valkyrie, the unkept promises. Once you’ve processed these you might then think about the overall message – the SA are scared. Then you might begin making some inferences about what Low is suggesting about the individual characters in the piece. Goebbels is clearly the lap dog. Goerring the ridiculous drama queen. Now, all the way through in addition to some really tricksy analysis skills you’ve also been consciously or subconsciously using your contextual knowledge of the period to work out these details. The fancy of you have linked this to the Night of the Long Knives but even those who may not have made this leap have worked out this is Hitler, Goebbels and Goerring. Is your brain hurting yet? Analysing sources, whether they be visual or text is hard.

Our department had one of our fortnightly teaching and learning meetings at lunch today. We did a show and tell of things that have gone well and then had a discussion about what works and why kids find it difficult. One of my colleagues suggested that doing source work requires three things:

sources

  1. Contextual knowledge – the details of the period / event / person required to unpack the details
  2. Source reading skills. The ability to spot the tiny details and the bigger picture.
  3. Analysis skills. The ‘making leaps’ bit where you make inferences.

This is obviously a generalisation but I think he’s pretty much spot on. At our school I think the kids are grand at the reading and analysing bit but not so good at the contextual knowledge. Other colleagues suggested they’d worked in places where kids were great at knowledge and reading but rubbish at making the leaps.

I suppose moving forward the point I am trying to make is how do we bring these three points together. I am not sure I have an answer. Sorry! I am trying and intend on using the blog to write about a few ideas but in the meantime if you have ideas let me know!

3 thoughts on “Why ‘sourcework’ is super difficult

  1. Pingback: Why sourcework is super difficult - an update - Radical History

  2. Just a few comments on this useful discussion:
    1. I think the original split in the ‘Source Literacy’ box into ‘Spotting details’ and ‘big picture’ is useful
    2. I think John Etty is right to label the bottom right box ‘Historical analysis’ and in his text to point out that the focus of the analysis depends on the question being asked (not necessarily an exam question).
    3. To help students, maybe the sequence goes: Spotting details contextual knowledge (To & fro – you need a bit of context to know what you’re looking at). Then> big picture (often “Message”) Then > Analysis (utility, reliability, significance etc)

    • Chris, thanks for your comments. I think you’ve got a point about the tiny details and big picture, so I’ll add that back in.

      In reply to your third point though I’m not sure it works this way. When I look at the source I see the big message first normally (using my contextual knowledge to make sense of it), then I start to unpick the tiny details. Am I curious doing it this way? I might get my Year 11s to write down the process. I’ll be back!

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