Historians and social scientists can only reach conclusions about perspective, causation or agency through the use of evidence; only through the use of evidence can they make claims about how people see the world, about how they influence and are influenced by their social environment, and about the causes and consequences of trends and events. Developing students’ ability to use empirical evidence to make such claims is thus one of the most important goals of history and social science education, and indeed, of schooling more generally. Yet, this is a key weakness in many students’ encounter with these subjects. Studies show that even advanced students have little insight into how historians reach conclusions about the past (reviewed in Barton, 2008), and although research with school-age students in other subjects is more limited, the tendency of adults to ignore or dismiss evidence in formulating positions on public policy issues (Kuklinski et al., 2000; Nyhan & Reifler, 2010) suggests that this is an area that deserves much greater educational attention.
Source analysis features prominently in educational programs that aim to help teachers emphasize historical thinking (e.g. Denos & Case, 2006; Drake & Nelson, 2009; Lesh, 2011), and some educators may even equate historical thinking with analyzing sources. At first glance, this seems logical, because examining sources such as old letters, official records and physical artifacts is a tangible element of historical investigation. Who could look at an eighteenth century, hand-written document and not immediately think, History? In addition, because people in the present never have direct or complete access to the past, drawing supportable conclusions from its remnants appears to be a specialized skill that falls squarely within the purview of historians, who can never hope to recover the complete historical record and thus must learn to work in conditions of uncertainty.
Characterizing source analysis as a distinctive feature of historical thinking, however, is misleading for at least three reasons. First, historians have no monopoly on a particular kind of source; like social scientists, they rely on artifacts, interviews, photographs, public and private records, art and architecture, and ephemeral elements of everyday life. Any type of source used by historians is also used by at least some social scientists, and any source used by social scientists is used by at least some historians. Second, sources in all fields are incomplete; just as historians can never know the totality of what occurred in the past, social scientists can never survey, interview or observe every individual in the nations or communities they study or access all the records of their lives. Both historians and social scientists must make supportable inferences based on incomplete and sometimes inconsistent or contradictory information. Finally, the idea that presenting students with a set of sources and asking them to analyze them mirrors the work of historians is simply inaccurate; historians are never presented with sources, which they then must analyze, but instead seek out sources based on their role in providing evidence to answer an empirical question (Barton, 2005).
This process of asking questions, seeking evidence and drawing conclusions is characteristic of the process of inquiry across disciplines, and students need to learn what this looks like, regardless of the particular topic or subject. Historians investigating the experience of runaway slaves in the antebellum United States (Franklin & Schweninger, 1999), for example, and social sci?entists investigating the impact of water scarcity in a contemporary Nigerian village (Nyong & Kanaroglou, 1999), engage in similar tasks. They have to identify questions that can be answered by empirical evidence (e.g. From where were slaves most likely to escape? What kinds of assistance increased their likelihood of success? How do people access and store water? What health problems are associated with these practices?). They have to identify sources that potentially provide evidence to answer these questions (e.g. slave and planter accounts, advertisements and court petitions; interviews, observations and public documents). They have to evaluate what can and cannot be learned from these sources (e.g., Which sources are most comprehensive and representative? What evidence can runaway slave advertisements provide that would not be found in narrative accounts? How can interviews with women provide information that differs from those with men?). And finally, they have to draw from these sources to develop supportable conclusions, which are then presented in some publicly accessible form—books, articles, websites or other media.
Unfortunately, schools are not usually designed to acquaint students with such investigative processes. Usually, curriculum structures and instructional patterns are designed to transmit content (which students are expected to remember) or to teach isolated skills (which students are expected to practice). Discrete exercises, in which prepackaged sources are presented to students so that they can practice “source analysis”, fit neatly into this grammar of schooling; as long as historical investigations can be limited to circumscribed tasks, they are relatively easy to incorporate into lessons. A deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the use of evidence, however, requires more than this. Understanding inquiry and its application to problems and topics in a variety of subjects has the potential to provide students with greater insight into how knowledge of society is constructed than does practice with isolated source exercises. Only with repeated engagement, in more instances than history alone can provide, are students likely to develop a meaningful understanding of this process.