Primary from Secondary Sources
In this lesson, students will participate in an exercise in
which they will be asked to describe an event from the standpoint
of either observers or non-observers of events in order to develop
an understanding of the difference between a primary and a secondary
source. This lesson also helps student understand the interpretive
nature of historical accounts.
- History 2 [Analysis]: "Identify artifacts and
documents as either primary or secondary sources of historical
data from which historical accounts are constructed."
- History 3 [Interpretation]: "Explain why historical
accounts of the same event sometimes differ and relate this
explanation to the evidence presented or the point-of-view
of the author."
Class set of 4"x6" index cards
1. Prior to class use a marker to place the numbers 1 or 2
on a class set of index cards. Label 3/4ths of the index cards
with the number 1. The remaining quarter should be labeled with
2. Group Students: Place students in groups of four. Give three
students in each group index cards labeled number 1. One student
in the group gets a card labeled number 2. [Alternatively, give
the students in the back row or rows the number 2 cards and
the rest of the class the number 1 cards]
3. Ask each student with the card labeled 1 to put their heads
down, leave the room, or face the back of the room. The students
with the number 2 cards should face the front of the room.
4. Create or present an event without alerting the students
as to what their task will be. Once the students with the number
1 index cards are facing the front of the room, you have three
options to continue the lesson.
a. Spend 30 seconds or so doing as many things as you can
such as erase the board, put a transparency on the overhead,
knock over an object, rearrange a bulletin board, tap a desk,
look out the window and yawn, etc.
b. Show a segment of a video in which there is uncertainty
regarding what happened.
c. Flash a drawing of a complex scene or set of diagrams on
the overhead projector.
5. After the 30 seconds have elapsed. Ask the "Number
1" students to write down on the index card everything
they witnessed from the moment the "Number 2" students
put their heads down in as much detail as possible.
6. Give the "Number 1" students a few minutes to
complete their accounts. Once they have finished, have them
pass their index cards to the "Number 2" students
and ask them to construct an account of what happened while
their heads were down. Give the "Number 2s" a few
minutes to write down their version of what happened.
7. Invite each of the "Number 2s" to share their
accounts. Record the similarities and differences between the
"Number 2" accounts on the board.
8. Ask the students to respond to the following questions:
o What made the "Number 1" accounts different from
the "Number 2" accounts?
o How would one explain why the accounts pieced together by
the "Number 2" students were different?
o Were all of the "Number 1" accounts exactly the
same? If not, why not?
o Which accounts should be considered the "best"
sources of information by those who are given the task of
describing the events of the past? Why?
o What does this exercise help us to understand about the
nature of historical accounts?
Debrief and Conclude
Tell the students that information such as that found on the
"Number 1" cards are called primary sources while
that found on the "Number 2" cards are called secondary
sources. Ask students why they might be called primary or secondary
sources. Clarify the definitions and invite students to give
examples of each.
Ask students to turn over their index cards and write down the
definitions of primary source and secondary source and give
an example of each.