In the modern history classroom, the use of source material is central to the investigative process. Students are encouraged to interrogate sources not just in terms of what they tell us, but what they leave out and how reliable they are. This gives students an idea of what ‘real historians’ have to do when constructing stories about the past from disparate pieces of evidence.

However, perhaps the most important aspect of this investigative process – that of choosing which sources to hunt down in the first place – is almost completely neglected. Instead, we often sadly bypass this crucial and engaging stage by pre-packaging and dumping sources onto our students all ready for a Silent Discussion, visual essay-writing exercise, or a ‘Say what you see‘ activity.

To combat this problem, simply start every historical investigation with the question “What sources will help us to answer this question?”. For example, considering which sources could help us to answer “How stable was the Tsarist regime on the eve of World War One?” can throw out all sorts of ideas, as shown from my lesson notes here:

Example question: How stable was the Tsarist regime on the eve of World War One?

General sources: Political cartoons / reports. Official statistics. Diaries and memoirs.

Economically: Unemployment statistics. Number of industrial strikes. Industrial / agricultural production.

Politically: Numbers of political prisoners. Acts of terrorism/political assassinations. Growth in membership of underground parties. Votes against government-sponsored legislation. Voting laws. Censorship regulations.

Socially: Literacy rates. Real wages over time. Amount of consumer goods being produced. Population levels. Health care provision.

Once students have reflected upon which sources would be ideal for their purposes, they can be encouraged to try to locate as many relevant sources as possible to share with the rest of the class.

Thereafter, these sources can be collated and used for an investigative exercise in the traditional way – but with the benefit that students are hopefully much more engaged in the process.

Taking it further

It is a good idea for the teacher to build up a list of generic sources that can be used to answer particular types of standard question (“How successful…?”, “How stable…?” etc) to provide students with a starting point or further ideas over a range of lessons.

Students should be encouraged, once the sources have been identified, to reflect on which of these are the most and least reliable. For example, unemployment statistics are very useful, as long as we can trust who produced them; political cartoons are a useful indication of the attitudes shared within a particular readership, but we have to be careful about extrapolating too much from them.