We just had a consultant come to my school to do a review of our social studies program. We got some useful feedback, which will help us to set our agenda for professional development and materials acquisition. 

I noticed something strange, however. For classroom observations, they used a rubric, naturally. That rubric defined “rigor” as student engagement with primary source texts and artifacts. In other words, that’s what they expected to see in a high-functioning social studies class. 

Jon and I believe very strongly that students in social studies classes should engage with meaningful artifacts created by the people we’re studying. In fact, we believe so strongly in the activity that we’ve taken pains to identify its primary purpose in our classes: to equip students to practice the disciplinary thinking skill of interpretation. In other words, we teach our students that one of the four essential questions in our field — “What were they thinking?” (Question Two) — is most appropriately addressed by interpreting primary sources. 

What’s weird is that Question Two pretty much exhausted the consultant’s rubric. No narration (Question One, “What happened?”), no explanation (Question Three, “Why then and there?”), no judgment (Question Four, “What do we think about that?”). It’s not their fault, really. The consultants were not social studies experts. In fact, it’s not clear to me that they’d ever done a social studies review before. (My district hired them. Above my pay grade.) 


The fact is, even people who should really know better often make the same mistake. Sam Wineburg’s SHEG makes it sound as though “document analysis” were the primary purpose of social studies education. Generic accounts of thinking skills often treat document reading and analysis as the bread-and-butter of history teaching and learning. 

This mistake — the narrowing of history pedagogy to “document analysis” — reflects another mistake: confusing novices for experts. 

Reading primary sources sounds like the authentic activity of professional historians. And it’s true: if you’d like to earn a PhD in history and eventually land one of the handful of academic jobs available each year in that field, you’d be well advised to spend some serious time in an archive, or several of them. Primary source research is definitely the bread and butter of the historical profession. 

The mistake is thinking that children who are starting out in our field should imitate dedicated professionals, the virtuosi of (one of) our field(s). (Social Studies education is also the home of the social sciences and moral philosophy, or at least it should be.) 

Here’s why that’s a mistake: imagine a person who knows nothing at all about, say, the American Revolution. Now imagine that you decided that, in order to teach them about that topic, you would assign only primary sources. Go ahead. Plan it out. 

Now confess: you didn’t learn about the American Revolution that way. Nor, for that matter, did the PhD candidates in American history at our finest graduate schools. They learned from reading, first, reference sources (like textbooks), and then more narrowly focused secondary sources. Maybe they listened to podcasts and watched videos, too. Most likely, they heard the story from their teachers. The point is, when they were starting out, someone, in print or out loud, told them the story. No doubt they learned the story in chunks, not in one big gulp. And, if their social studies education was reasonably good, they likely stopped along the way and read and “engaged with” some primary sources like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, some Federalist papers, and so on. 

The Four Question Method acknowledges this brute fact: before you know some true stories well, you simply won’t be able to think historically. Without the accumulated background knowledge of a story, you won’t be able to interpret the primary sources that reflect the thinking of the actors in that story. And, before you know lots of stories well, you’ll be hard pressed to notice recurrent patterns, let alone explain them. Story first! — that’s how we learn history. That’s what prepares us to think like historians (and social scientists). 

Psychologists have studied this error, which is pervasive among advocates of “authentic” learning: the confusion of the epistemology of experts with the pedagogical needs of novices. The ways that experts, like historians or scientists, acquire and use knowledge are different from what our students need in order to learn how to think like historians and scientists.  

In science, for example, it’s tempting to dream that schoolchildren could just do experiments until they’d reproduced the knowledge accumulated by generations of professional scientists. After all, that’s how those expert scientists do their business: they test hypotheses in a lab. But that’s not how they became scientists. They accumulated lots of received wisdom in school before embarking on their independent lab projects. They stood on the shoulders of giants. They knew which hypotheses might make sense because they knew a lot of science before they started experimenting. Good scientists and historians continue to learn that way, even after they dig into the lab and the archive. They read what others have learned from their disciplinary inquiries. 

So, reading primary sources is great. When your students are ready for it, give them a challenge: learn a true historical story from nothing but primary sources. That’ll give them a taste of graduate school. In the meantime, when someone tells you that rigor in a social studies class means engaging with primary sources and artifacts and nothing else, ask them if that’s how they learned what they know about history.