The Europeana 1914-1918 project has collected and digitised tens of thousands of private objects on World War One within the past years and put them online. Are these collections of any use for learning history in school? I think yes, but to work with these sources history lessons have to change.
History teaching in school still is based mainly on textbooks, photocopies and maybe overhead transparencies. They offer a limited space. So teachers and students work with a reduced number of primary and secondary sources. In fact, the reduction seems in the first place quite an advantage – at least from the teacher’s point of view. The sources are already chosen and adopted to the use in school (transcripted, shortened etc.). The given materials are supposed to be relevant as they were chosen by the authors of the books based on the requirements of the curriculum. There are three inherent promises for the teacher: If you work with these sources 1) you can be sure to execute the curriculum, 2) you have less work and 3) you teach your students what is generally acknowleged as „important“ in history.
So everything is fine? Well, I am not so sure about it. I often hear pupils complain about being really interested in history but they say as subject in school history appears to be rather boring. That is why I would like to ask you to take closer look and to change the perspective to the pupil’s point of view.
Reading primary sources in the classroom often means nothing else than rephrasing the content of short snippets of texts which all look alike: a 18th century letter looks like a telegram or a medieval charter. In addition in many schoolbooks primary sources serve mainly as “source based evidence” for the presentation of history written by the schoolbook’s authors.
That is why two important things are often missing in the history classroom:
1) The students do not have to come up with their own questions about history – tasks and questions are also already given by the book or the teacher in accordance with the materials.
2) Therefore, one of the most important questions in the work of an historian almost never appears in the classroom: Is this source relevant to my question? Students do not have to check. The primary sources are printed in the book or on the photocopy because someone else judged them relevant.
Reading a source for evidence demands a different approach than reading a source for information. If you now take a look at the Europeana collections: You will find thousand of digitised sources. You cannot even see them all. There is an yet unseen abundance of primary sources available at your fingertips. They are all different. You find postcards, pictures, letters, diaries etc.; unfortunately, you cannot touch them but you can see that they are made of different materials having different sizes and colours.
And maybe more important: There is no fixed story in which the sources are integrated. It is up to you to establish historical significance. You are forced to, or I prefer to say, you are free to think about your questions on the First World War, and then look for answers in the documents. Finally you will write down the answer to your questions and give reasons for telling it the way you do. That is working like a historian, learning about how history is made – and every student can do it.
Putting a pupil in front of such an online collection of primary sources is much alike the situation of a historian in an archive. Yes, this is a difficult situation – but absolutely intriguing…