A Systematic Approach to Improve Students’ Historical Thinking

THIS ESSAY AIMS TO PROVIDE beginning and experienced history teachers as well as history teaching methods professors with a helpful strategy designed to improve students’ knowledge of historical content and competence in historical thinking. It introduces a systematic approach to the use of primary sources which emphasizes the “doing” of history, or better yet, the “doing of teaching history.” It is consistent with the best practices in pedagogy. We base the approach to be discussed on our teaching experiences at the high school and university levels (in content courses and teaching methods courses), a review of literature regarding historical thinking, and our experiences with undergraduate entry-level teachers, graduate students in history, and experienced classroom history teachers.

This approach is designed around what we label as First-Order, Second-Order, and Third-Order documents. It provides a systematic way for teachers to engage students in historical thinking. Anecdotal comments of experienced teachers and student teachers illustrate the potential of this approach. One veteran teacher with thirty-four years of experience commented, “This approach has made me think more carefully about the way I think about primary sources. Many primary sources are available from textbook companies and the Internet, as if they [primary sources] are all equal. They are not. This method makes me think like a historian.” A student teacher using this method during her student teaching experience, which included AP students and lower level students, simply stated, “It works!” She later wrote, “I may have to edit my primary sources, depending on my students’ abilities, but the method helps them know content. Students relate sources one to another when they use this method.” 

All history educators, we believe, should be dedicated to eliciting historical thinking. If the argument of our article is correct—that use of this systematic approach will engage students in historical thinking and improve their knowledge and understanding of history—then we think all teachers should consider implementing this approach in their teaching. 3
A word about the scope of this approach is in order. We realize that it is by no means the only approach a teacher can use to improve students’ knowledge and understanding of history. Far less is our approach to be used on a daily basis. We suggest it be used judiciously (perhaps once or twice per semester). However, it should be revisited at times when a teacher deems it appropriate. The decision when to use this approach must depend on each teacher’s knowledge of historical narrative and sources. We suggest in the strongest way that teachers should implement this approach at a time propitious to their expertise. In our view, use of this systematic approach will breathe life into students’ capacities to know and understand history. 

This essay thus addresses the following headings: Conventional Practices in Using Primary Sources; First-/Second-/and Third-Order Approach in Using Primary Sources; Selecting First-/and Second-Order Documents; An Example of the First-/Second-/and Third-Order Approach; The Importance of Asking Questions; Editing First-/ and Second-Order Documents; Historical Narrative and Using Guides to Develop Historical Thinking; and the Potential of This Systematic Approach for Assessing Students’ Historical Knowledge, Understanding, and Dispositions. 

Conventional Practices in Using Primary Sources

In observing student teachers and classroom teachers, we have found that most history teachers use primary sources—particularly textual sources and images—in one of two ways. Teachers use a single source approach or a multiple source approach. Some teachers intersperse a single primary source within a historical topic, often to validate to students that information the teacher has presented is correct. Other teachers provide students with multiple primary sources for students to discover for themselves what the teacher already knows. This second way is more complex, usually involving jigsaw learning or other group techniques, because a variety of sources are brought to bear on a topic in the classroom. Most teachers when using the second approach will do the following: 1) they will select age appropriate sources; 2) they will make sure selections are readable and edited properly; 3) they will provide background to help students “decode” the source; 4) they will involve students in groups to work with primary sources; and 5) they will provide purpose and motivation for reading a primary source.1 Because teaching with primary sources is an active form of instruction, the teacher must pose questions that cause students to read and examine the primary sources. The object is to provoke students positively to the end that they become engaged in historical inquiry and interpretation.2 

We think the aforementioned approaches (use of a single source to validate the teacher’s information and use of multiple sources for students to discover conclusions of historians) are valid and useful. However, we think teachers should consider a third way to extend the use of primary sources, which we have found successful in working with undergraduate students, graduate students, and teachers during in-service institutes. This third approach is an inquiry method designed around what we label as First-Order, Second-Order, and Third-Order documents. 

Using First- Second- and Third-Order Primary Sources

We define the First-Order document (hereafter, 1st-order) as the teacher’s essential primary source. This 1st-order document must be one that is so essential to the teacher that the teacher regards it as one he or she cannot live without. This core document must be located at the epicenter of the teacher’s instruction. And the teacher must lead a discussion of this 1st-order document based upon a broad, open-ended question he or she poses to students. For example, in our own teaching of American history we have come to regard the Tenth Federalist as our 1st-order document when we teach about American constitutional and political experiences in the eighteenth century. In the twentieth century, we regard George F. Kennan’s “Long Telegram” of 1946 as our essential, 1st-order document. (Later we will tease out the use of Kennan’s “Long Telegram” as a 1st-order document.) 

Second-Order documents (hereafter, 2nd-order) are those primary sources that support or challenge the 1st-order document. We suggest the teacher bring in three to five 2nd-order documents, which may be comprised of textual (print) documents, images (photographs, paintings, charts, and tables), or artifacts. These 2nd-order documents should serve two purposes. Some 2nd-order documents should corroborate ideas found in the 1st-order document. Other 2nd-order documents should contrast the ideas found in the 1st-order document. 2nd-order documents therefore surround the 1st-order document. Our purpose is that through discussion students will achieve a more nuanced understanding of the past as they consider how the 2nd-order documents support or challenge the 1st-order document. 

Third-Order documents (hereafter, 3rd-order) are primary sources students eventually find themselves. All teachers experience at one time or another the moment when a student enters class and exuberantly describes a primary source (perhaps a family photograph, a letter, an old newspaper article, a family story, or a primary source found on the Internet) that relates to a topic or idea recently discussed in class. These experiences may be all too infrequent, and we argue that they should be made more systematic. A 3rd-order document, therefore, is a primary source every student locates and is important to him or her. We emphasize, however, that the student must find a 3rd-order document that relates to their teacher’s 1st-order document. 

Selecting the First-/and Second-Order Documents

Something more must be said about the selection of a 1st-order document. There are two key criteria: its historical value and its potential contribution to students’ historical knowledge and thinking. As teachers determine a document’s historical value, they should consider at least two essential qualities. First and most importantly, does the source represent the heart of a historical issue or periodization in history? The teacher’s selection of a 1st-order document is an act of interpretation. It determines the intellectual direction of subsequent discussions. Second, the source should express a position so vividly that its articulation enables opportunities for other documents to be found that challenge or corroborate the position. The best 1st-order document is one that has the above qualities and has the potential to contribute to students’ historical knowledge and thinking.

When teachers select documents for analysis in their classes, they must consider multiple factors that relate to fostering students’ knowledge and ability to think historically. Here are several questions that must be asked when teachers select a 1st-order document:

  • Will this document be of interest to my students?
  • Will the document enable students to draw upon their prior knowledge?
  • Does the document allow students to relate the concept, idea, or event to knowledge with which they are familiar?
  • Does the document allow students to examine change over time?
  • Is the document appropriate cognitively for students?
  • In what ways might the document deepen students’ contextual understanding?
  • How will the document affect students’ preconceived historical narrative?
  • How will the document contribute to students’ abilities to deliberate and make informed decisions?
  • In what ways does the document require students to use history’s habits of the mind?
  • How does the document relate to state and local standards and performance indicators that call for the development of historical thinking?

Teachers use similar criteria in the selection of 2nd-order documents. 

Searching for a 1st-order document and three to five surrounding 2nd-order documents will engage teachers in the discovery of numerous sources. These sources should not be simply discarded. They should be used to create a list of potential 3rd-order documents. This list of potential 3rd-order documents serves two purposes. First, teachers can use the list to give students examples they might find in case some students lack the motivation to find a 3rd-order document without prompting. Second, teachers can use the list of key documents representing central ideas as a way to incorporate the aforementioned multiple sources teaching strategies that are already part of their repertoire of best practices. 

An Example of the First- Second- and Third-Order Approach

We offer as an example the use of 1st-/2nd-/and 3rd-order documents in an investigation of the period of the Cold War. Teachers can readily access primary sources on the Cold War period through the Internet. The “Cold War International History Project” (http://cwihp.si.edu/default.htm) provides a wide range of both documents and links to other related websites and sources. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (http://www.archives.gov/) also provides sources and teaching strategies, including the Digital Classroom, which a teacher can draw upon to incorporate sources and teaching strategies. 

Finding this rich source of documents is only the beginning. The teacher now needs to consider document selection and must organize those sources chosen as 1st-/2nd-/and 3rd-order documents. We chose as our 1st-order document George F. Kennan’s “Long Telegram” of February 1946. The question we would pose for students as they read Kennan’s “Long Telegram” is: How did American leaders view relations among the Grand Alliance members, and how did they view the international balance of power and American resources? 

George F. Kennan was the U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Moscow and wrote the secret 8,000-word “long telegram” to officials in Washington, D.C. on February 22, 1946. His telegram assessed Soviet behavior within a historical context. Kennan warned, “We have here a political force [the Soviet Union] committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] U.S. there can be no modus vivendi [arrangement between people who agree to cope with matters over which they disagree], that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.” 3 Kennan’s assessment led to the widely shared U.S. objective of containment in the post World War II period. His assessment of how to achieve containment became an important issue in the Truman administration and succeeding administrations. Would containment of Soviet expansionism be limited to Europe? Would containment be global? In addition, how would the threat to national security affect the relationship between the American citizen and state government? 

Our choice of 2nd-order documents included Nikolai Novikov and Frank Roberts’ telegrams of 1946, respectively. Soviet Ambassador Novikov’s cable assessed the United States from the Soviet perspective. Novikov’s cable is informative and captivating to both a reader whose knowledge is limited and to one who is more knowledgeable and well grounded. The Soviet cable was first published publicly in November 1990 during the era of glasnost and perestroika. It appeared in an issue of Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn’, an official publication of the Soviet Foreign Ministry. For another 2nd-order document we chose Frank Roberts’ cable, also written in 1946, which provides a British perspective of Soviet and United States objectives. Sean Greenwood described its significance over ten years ago in the Journal of Contemporary History.4 We thought it appropriate to include as a 2nd-order document an image, perhaps a picture taken of the Allied leaders during the Potsdam Conference of July 1945. 

We also noted several possible 3rd-order documents, including Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” Speech in Fulton, Missouri; a May 17, 1946 Speech by the General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party at the Meeting of the Central Committee; Kennan’s 1947 “X” Article; the Truman Doctrine of 1947; the Marshall Plan of 1947; and the 1950 NSC 68, to name a few. All these documents were found on the Internet. 

The Importance of Asking Questions

When teachers discuss with their students a 1st-order document such as the “Long Telegram” they cannot simply give students the document with the instructions to read it and answer some questions. Intellectual enjoyment and engagement are the products of a co-investigation involving both teachers and students. History, after all, is to a great extent an investigation. History is a process of interrogating primary sources and secondary narratives. Historians primarily ask questions when they “do” history, often prefaced with “why” and “how.” History teachers also ask questions, though perhaps for different purposes. The historian’s purpose is to give meaning to historical facts. As a discipline and course of study, history insists upon “meaning over memory.”5 History teachers should ask questions (and encourage their students to ask questions) to help students think historically and to “give meaning to their historical experiences.”6 History teaching is a co-investigation in which the teacher and students shape and reshape their interpretations about the past. 

Teachers will need to ask basic questions common to historical thinking such as the following: Who is the author? When was the source written? What type of document is it? Who was the intended audience? And what factors motivated the author to create the source? Was Kennan, in our example, writing the “Long Telegram” because he had been asked to assess the relationship among the members of the Grand Alliance? Did he take the initiative to write the persuasive cable? (See Figure 1: Primary Source Analysis Guide to Historical Thinking: Print Documents)7 These are the sort of questions historians ask and ones students need to practice asking. By engaging students to speculate on these questions, teachers enable students to weave a 1st-order document such as the Kennan Long Telegram into their historical frameworks of understanding. 

Only after considering these questions should teachers discuss with students the central meaning of the 1st-order document and how Kennan supported his argument. During this deliberative discussion, teachers should ask students to suspend judgment regarding whether or not Kennan was right or wrong. This suspension of present-mindedness is essential to deliberation. Teachers should also ask students to consider events and ideas that were taking place regionally, nationally, and internationally at the time the document was written. And teachers should ask students to relate the document to a theme of history (such as conflict and cooperation) and to other disciplines in the social sciences. In effect, teachers are engaging their students in the dual process of examining a particular document and simultaneously connecting that document within a larger context of historical understanding. (Again, see Figure 1.) 

Similar to the questions asked in the 1st-order document, discussion of 2nd-order documents requires analytical questioning. (See Figure 1.) Again, teachers should ask questions that help students identify the document and analyze its significance and relationship to the 1st-order document and larger events. The three textual documents and the image document, in this example, provide students with a nuanced understanding of the Cold War from three perspectives, that of the United States, the then Soviet Union, and Great Britain. Questions to ask include: How did relations among the three Grand Alliance nations of World War II change? How did relationships among citizens of each nation change relative to their allegiance to their national government? How did the three nations establish objectives? How do the three telegrams compare in style, in substance, and significance?8 These comparative questions serve as portals into a co-investigation of the Cold War.9 When teachers turn to the photograph, they should ask students five essential questions:

  • Was this photograph taken east or west of the Elbe River (or another appropriate geographic feature)?
  • Who are the people in this photograph?
  • What time was this photograph taken?
  • What does this photograph tell us about their lives?
  • What were the motives of the photographer?
  • These questions encourage students to view the creation of an image as having purpose and meaning and elicit student thinking about people in the dimensions of time and space.

Editing First-Order and Second-Order Documents

The 1st-/2nd-/and 3rd-order documents named above are examples we have used in our classrooms for a United States history survey course in both schools and universities and for a university course on American diplomatic history. We adjust the length of the textual documents depending on the nature of the course. In the American diplomatic history course, we use the entire primary sources. In the United States history survey, we edit them but we have had students who then ask how they can find the entire document, which we regard as a sign that students’ interests have been aroused. 

While the Internet and textbook companies make documents readily available, these sources do not absolve teachers from the responsibility of editing the sources for their students. Teachers must think carefully about which portions of a document, particularly textual documents, will be deleted and which sections will be retained. Editing is an act of interpretation, and many teachers find it to be a difficult task. Just as the selection of a document is an interpretive act on the part of the teacher, editing a document involves interpretation. One of a teacher’s priorities must be to maintain intellectual honesty. A teacher should never distort the meaning of a document through ellipses or other editorial devices. (For example, a teacher should never delete such words as “not,” “never,” or “always.” As obvious as this point may appear, scholarship has sometimes violated this canon of the discipline.) Students trust their teacher’s intellectual honesty and their confidence can quickly be lost if a teacher deliberately falsifies a document through ellipses, links multiple documents in seriatim as if they were one, or makes up a false document. When editing a primary source, we suggest teachers consider these questions:

  • Is it possible to edit the source?
  • What do I know about the document that will help me edit it appropriately?
  • What more do I need to know about the document in order to edit it appropriately?
  • How will this document enhance my teaching and student learning?
  • What are the essential parts of this document?

While the above questions serve as a guide, the final decisions require good judgment. Teachers must keep in mind when selecting passages from a textual document that their students may ask what parts have been omitted. Instead of responding defensively, teachers should regard their students’ questions as ones of curiosity and interest. They should encourage their students to read an entire, unedited document and ask them to select key sections of the source. 

Maintaining a Historical Narrative While Using First-, Second-, and Third-Order Documents

All of us know that effective history teachers blend narrative and primary sources. While this essay focuses on a strategy for using primary sources, we do not want readers to think we are overlooking the power and importance of narrative in teaching. The recent study conducted by Kathleen Medina and her research team points to problems that occur when teachers overemphasize either primary sources or interpretative exercises in their teaching.10 Jerome Bruner informs us of the power of narrative to help students construct the past. For Jerome Bruner, the narrative, or story, is the means employed by individuals to create meaningful frameworks that organize individual experience and make meaning of the world both past and present.11 

A recent American Historical Association publication concludes that students walk into our classrooms with a narrative already in mind, albeit not always a sophisticated one. Students are not “blank slates (tabula rasa).”12 Their narratives are acquired from a wide-range of sources including television, their parents, their former teachers, and other students. We also know from research in history education that students often “learn official history” only in order to pass tests, or they internalize what teachers say in class in their own way.13 Students perceive “official history” to be what the teacher (and or the school and textbook authorities) dispense to them. This learning of “official history” knows no ideological or national borders. It occurs in the United States and other nations when students engage in the ritualistic study of politically palatable views of the past. 

History should be an investigation, the creation of domain-specific knowledge with integrative capabilities, and it should involve special ways of thinking. Historical thinking is more than reading history or telling a story, albeit both are important. Historical thinking is framed by positionality (or frame of reference), which emanates from an array of cultural experiences to inform a world-view, and by existential (who am I), and epistemological (how do I know) stances.14 Historical thinking is an act of thinking about a new experience with a set of temporal bearings. As teachers we need to probe our students’ ontological, existential, and epistemological positions. It is important for teachers to probe the positionalities of their students, and to include opportunities for students to engage in such habits of the mind as historical imagination and empathy. The 1st-/2nd-/and 3rd-order systematic approach, accompanied with analysis guides, is designed to call upon students to engage in historical thinking. We specifically refer to the analysis guides that accompany this essay. 

In Figure 1, an analysis guide for print documents, sections 1 and 2 involve the “sourcing heuristic” while the “corroborative heuristic” is called for by the second question under section 2 and by all of sections 4 and 5. Section 3 also involves “contextualization.” In Figure 2, which deals with photographs and images, the “sourcing heuristic” applies to sections 1 and 2 except for questions beginning with the words “Preceding conditions,” “Relationship,” and “Biases” which call for the “corroborative heuristic.” The “corroborative heuristic” is also involved in the entirety of sections 4 and 5. “Contextualization” and the “comparative heuristic” are called for in section 3. These figures show that our guides are unlike most guides that serve as mere checklists. They show how our guides are keyed to the cognitive studies research of cognitive studies researcher Sam Wineburg regarding historical thinking. 

Wineburg has gained much deserved acclaim for his observation that “historical thinking, in its deepest forms, is neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development.” He bases his statement on empirical evidence. He writes that the “achievement” of historical thinking “actually goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think.”15 Wineburg’s book, appropriately entitled Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, adds a dimension to the literature that distinguishes professional historians from teachers and beginning students of history. Wineburg found that historians commonly used the “sourcing heuristic” and the “corroboration heuristic.” He had historians and AP students “talk aloud” what they were thinking as they approached primary sources related to the Battle of Lexington. He found that the way AP students think differs from the thinking of persons trained in the discipline of history, thus building a case for seeing historical thinking as unique.

In his analysis Wineburg uses two key concepts—the “sourcing heuristic” and the “corroboration heuristic”—to explain how historians think as they read documents. When historians examine primary sources, they engage in the sourcing heuristic by asking questions about an author’s credentials, motivations, and participation in events at the time a document was written, and they also ask about the audience for whom the document was intended. Historians then contextualize the content of a document, which enables them to appreciate ways of perceiving and thinking that are quite different from conventional ways of perceiving and thinking. When teachers and students use the sourcing heuristic, they can create a distance between their own views and those of the people of earlier eras. Historians also use the corroboration heuristic to compare information learned from several documents. Historians make inter-text links while reading documents, noting corroboration among primary sources as well as among historians’ interpretations.16 Thus, Wineburg suggests that the sourcing heuristic (what historians do before reading for content comprehension); the corroboration heuristic (what historians do to relate one document to another document); contextualization (what historians do to describe the time frame and conditions locally, nationally and in a world context); and comparative thinking (what historians do to describe conditions in other parts of the world at the time) are central elements to the thinking of a historian. These progressively sophisticated thinking levels make teaching history complex, and, coupled with research on students’ positionality, make teachers’ work problematic. 

We are convinced that the analysis guides we provide are a helpful start for teachers and their students. These guides provide them with questions organized around the sourcing heuristic and the corroboration heuristic. We believe that having students practice asking these problem-solving questions (heuristic strategy)—questions that historians ask themselves as they probe the meaning of a document often before even reading the document—will help them develop life-long habits of mind that will forever assist them. We include two guides, one for textual documents and the other for image documents, which pose questions that engage teachers and students in thinking about a document in historical context. The guides are not intended as worksheets; nor are they mere checklists of characteristics, which so often are presented ritualistically to students. 

Each guide is organized around five major headings, which are in turn informed by more detailed components. The headings are as follows: identify the document; analyze the document; determine the historical context; identify the vital theme and narrative represented in the document; and indicate the relationship the document has to a discipline in the social sciences/social studies. Each guide is related to aspects of historical thinking suggested by Sam Wineburg: the sourcing heuristic, corroboration heuristic, contextualization, and comparison. The over-printing in Figure 3 and Figure 4 illustrates the relationship between these concepts and the guide. The potential benefits of analyzing documents both contextually and comparatively moves students beyond consideration of themselves as isolated individuals and moves them into the role of individuals whose lives are contextualized in a fabric of historical ties. A teacher may use this guide to internationalize the teaching of United States history.17 

The guides also enable students to embed particular historical experiences within a larger and meaningful historical context. At its best, history teaching is a co-investigation in which the teacher and students shape and reshape their interpretations of the past. Historical thinking includes periodization, assessing change over time, detecting motives of an author, constructing an argument through use of evidence, and analyzing someone else’s argument. Its habits of mind embrace handling diverse interpretations and realizing that all interpretations are not equally valid.18 One of the most difficult habits of mind is to suspend judgment and avoid presentism so as to understand the past within its own context. These guides assist in the use of the systematic approach of 1st-/2nd-/and 3rd-order documents. 

Wineburg’s work and the work of others has defined the problem of historical thinking. Few, however, have offered a solution to the problem other than to provide students with a narrative account of the past enhanced by active teaching strategies using primary sources. We believe, however, that our systematic approach—which stresses discussion of 1st-order, 2nd-order, and 3rd-order documents and the use of Analysis Guides—will add an additional dimension of active engagement in historical content and historical thinking. First, it will encourage students to engage in sourcing. Second, it will promote the discussion of central ideas using a core document and relate the central ideas to supporting and contrasting documents. Third, it will promote a discussion of central ideas within the concept of space and time, emphasizing habits of the mind. And fourth, when students find a 3rd-order document, this document will become their own 1st-order document. They will attachtheir document to an important idea in a particular time in history. Their document becomes the epicenter for their understanding of history, transforming their narrative. 

The thinking process involved in this systematic approach means teachers and students will attach historical content to a memorable primary source (their 1st-order document) and that they will have done so because they are using historians’ habits of mind. Working with 2nd- and 3rd-order documents will counter the dangers of believing that all primary sources are the truth and that all primary sources are equally valuable. Students thus have a more nuanced understanding of history. 

Assessing Historical Knowledge, Understanding, and Dispositions

The concepts of historical knowledge, understanding, and dispositions are inextricably linked, and teachers will want to assess their students’ development in both the cognitive and affective domains. As students relate their document to their teacher’s 1st-order document, the content of both will become more meaningful to them. Teachers can assess their students’ historical understanding (the cognitive dimension) by engaging in conversations that involve students’ examination of their documents in relationship to the teacher’s 1st-order document. Cognitively, the 3rd-order step intertwines the 1st-/ and 2nd-order documents within the process of historical inquiry and deliberation.

A teacher can assess students’ abilities to communicate the relationship their 3rd-order document has to the teacher’s 1st-order document. Does a student’s document challenge or corroborate it? How so? Does a student relate the essential qualities of his/her document to the issue or historical period? Having students discover a 3rd-order document allows them to take ownership of the historical period or issue and to reconfigure their narrative of history in a more informed way. Becoming able to do this lies at the heart of historical thinking because students are engaging in the doing of history with historians’ habits of mind. Acquiring this skill is their portal to illuminating knowledge of the past. 

Students who come to understand history must necessarily learn to value and enjoy historical thinking. The process of examining 1st-/2nd-/ and 3rd-order documents enables teachers to assess their students’ disposition toward inquiry, their capacity to engage in historical inquiry, as well as their historical understanding. Teachers have an opportunity to assess the affective dimensions of their students in at least three ways. First, some students will demonstrate their enthusiasm for history by bringing in voluntarily newspaper articles related to a topic, artifacts from home, and primary sources they find interesting from research in the library or on the Internet. All these activities indicate positive dispositions regarding the study of history. Are they willing to relate their finding to the teachers’ 1st-order document? 

Second, some students will not voluntarily locate sources on their own. Teachers must then resort to the list of the 3rd-order documents they have prepared. These documents represent potential opportunities for students to become engaged in historical inquiry. Teachers can “seed” their students’ interests and provide a structured starting point for inquiry. Some students will require this structure in order to feel confident and secure in historical inquiry. And third, once a student begins to work with a 3rd-order document (from their perspective now a 1st-order document), a teacher can determine the student’s willingness to ask the kind of questions historians pose when they examine documents. Are students willing to ask questions, to participate in a co-investigation of the past? 


We recognize the need for further research to determine the impact this 1st-/2nd-/and 3rd-order systematic approach can have on history teaching. Even though teachers and students are not confounded by the use of such terminology as primary sources and secondary sources, the inclusion of our terminology (1st-/2nd-/and 3rd-order documents) does at first confuse some teachers and some students. However, with patience and explanation we have found that our terminology does not confuse students when 1st-/2nd-/and 3rd-order documents are defined as the teacher’s essential document (1st-order), supporting and contrasting documents (the teacher’s 2nd-order), and documents students find (3rd-order). 

We recognize some readers may regard our approach as pedantic. So be it. We believe the systematic approach, used at times teachers deem appropriate, effectively compels teachers to think more carefully about primary sources as part of the narrative to be brought into their classrooms; and we believe this approach improves students’ historical knowledge and thinking. The selection process of a 1st-order document and surrounding 2nd-order documents is a creative act on the teacher’s part. Teachers will apply and enlarge their historical understanding as they determine the essential core documents that comprise their historical interpretation. Students become engaged in creative scholarship as they make meaningful connections between ideas contained in 1st-order and 2nd-order documents and apply their historical understanding as they investigate 3rd-order documents. This systematic approach enlarges the capacity to make history meaningful, encourages use of history’s habits of mind, and shapes and reshapes historical narratives linked to primary sources. We believe it will contribute to the renascence of using primary sources in history classrooms and will assist teachers at all levels in developing historical thinking among their students. 


1.� Joan W. Musbach, “Using Primary Sources in the Secondary Classroom,” OAH Magazine of History (Fall 2001): 30–32.

2.� M. Anne Britt, Charles A. Perfetti, Julie A. Van Dyke, and Gareth Gabrys, “The Sourcer’s Apprentice: A Tool for Document-Supported History Instruction,” Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, eds. Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 437–470.

3.� Kenneth M. Jensen, Origins of the Cold War: The Novikov, Kennan, and Roberts’ ‘Long Telegrams’ of 1946 (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1995), 28.

4.� See Sean Greenwood, “Frank Roberts and the ‘Other’ Long Telegram: The View from the British Embassy in Moscow, March 1946,” Journal of Contemporary History 25 (London: Sage Publishing Inc., 1990), 103–22.

5.� Peter N. Stearns, Meaning Over Memory: Recasting the Teaching of Culture and History (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

6.� Robert B. Bain, “Into the Breach: Using Research and Theory to Shape History Instruction,” in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History, 332.

7.� Given NCATE/NCSS regulations requiring university programs that seek accreditation to ensure that their pre-service teachers teach the ten NCSS themes, we incorporate these themes into this print analysis guide as well as the photograph/image analysis guide and their respective annotations. We believe this inclusion will assist history education programs as they strive to meet the NCSS SPA requirement for NCATE accreditation.

8.� Following the public release of the Novikov “Long Telegram” and a symposium prepared by the United States Institute of Peace, the editors of the journal Diplomatic History, made available the documents. Kenneth M. Jensen’s revised edition of Origins of the Cold War: The Novikov, Kennan, and Roberts ‘Long Telegrams’ of 1946 (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1993) provides excellent commentaries regarding historians’ views of the three documents and their significance.

9.� We realize that comparison is very difficult and that it must be taught with great care and nurturing. Peter N. Stearns’ excellent essay, “Getting Specific about Training in Historical Analysis: A Case Study in World History,” suggests ways to help students “grasp comparative fundamentals” and view history in a “comparative context.” See Peter N. Stearns, “Getting Specific about Training in Historical Analysis: A Case Study in World History,” Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, 419–436.

10.� Kathleen Medina, Jeffrey Pollard, Debra Schneider, and Camille Leonhardt, How Do Students Understand the Discipline of History as an Outcome of Teachers’ Professional Development? (Regents of the University of California, 2000).

11.� Jerome Bruner, The Study of Thinking (New York: Wiley, 1956); Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education (New York: Vintage Books, 1960); and Jerome Bruner, The Culture of Education (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).

12.� Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 45; Bruce VanSledright and Jere Brophy, “Storytelling, Imagination, and Fanciful Elaboration in Children’s Historical Reconstructions,” American Educational Research Journal 29 (1992), 837–61; and Bruce VanSledright, In Search of America’s Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002).

13.� James V. Wertsch, “Is It Possible to Teach Beliefs, as Well as Knowledge about History?” in Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, 38–50.

14.� Bruce A. VanSledright, “On the Importance of Historical Positionality to Thinking About and Teaching History,” The International Journal of Social Education 12, No.2 (Fall/Winter 1997–98): 1–18.

15.� Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 7.

16.� Frederick D. Drake, “Teaching Historical Thinking,” ERIC Digest (August 2002). EDO-SO-2002-6.

17.� The Historical Context section of the analysis guide draws students to consider the document in the context of local/regional, national, and world views. The importance of internationalizing U.S. History has been emphasized in several articles. See David Thelan, “Of Audiences, Borderlands, and Comparisons: Toward the Internationalization of American History,” The Journal of American History 79 (September 1992): 432–462; Pauline Maier, “Nationhood and Citizenship: What Difference Did the American Revolution Make?” in Diversity and Citizenship: Rediscovering American Nationhood, eds. Gary Jeffrey Jacobsohn and Susan Dunns (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1996), 45–64; Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg, eds., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives; and Thomas Bender, La Pietra Report: Project on Internationalizing the Study of American History (2000). See also on the Internet http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/icas/inter_history.htm .

18.� The former Bradley Commission on History in Schools (now The National Council for History Education) presents six Vital Themes and Narratives. The NCHE also presents thirteen Habits of Mind for historical thinking in their indispensable pamphlet, Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools (Washington, D.C.: Educational Excellence Network, 1988), 9 and 10–11 and in their collection of essays in Paul Gagnon, Historical Literacy: The Case for History in American Education (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989).