What does the research and other academic and professional literature suggest about the challenges that children and their teachers face when learning and teaching historical evidence?

Note: I have only published Part 1 of a total of 3, as Parts 2 and 3 (a commentary on my own scheme of work; an evaluation of Part 2 and assessment for learning) discuss the my pupils’ work.


History is an enquiry-based subject; enquiries are attempts to answer specific questions about the past (Riley, 2000). In order to answer these questions, historians must draw on a range of contemporary sources, a process which is – according to Kitson, Husbands, and Steward (2011) – the foundation of all historical knowledge. Without the overarching focus of an enquiry, sources have little purpose as we do not know what we are looking for. Thus, we also do not have a criterion against which to critically analyse sources and determine their usefulness. Ultimately, this examination and critique of sources allows historians to provide a credible answer to a credible enquiry question (ibid.).

A brief history of teaching evidence

With the exception of Keatinge (who was first to introduce sources in the classroom as early as 1910), the teaching of history in the twentieth century involved knowledge regurgitation: the teaching of established ‘facts’ in Gradgrindian fashion (Worth, 2016). Since the Schools History Project (SHP) revolution of the 1970s, however, history lessons have taken a more disciplinary approach, encouraging pupils to mimic historians by critically engaging with evidence, thus source-work has increasingly played an important role in history lessons since (Wineburg, 2007; Riley, 1999). The move towards teaching history as a discipline came as a result of teachers criticising existing teaching practice which bore ‘little relation to actual historical practice’ (Pickles, 2010: 41). This disciplinary approach allows pupils to understand – and engage with – the grounds on which historical claims are based (Ashby, 2011; Kitson et al., 2011). Today, almost all textbooks are littered with photographs and testimonies from the period of study, and are accompanied by questions and activities (Fienn, 1996). Teachers who incorporate these contemporary sources are, in theory, able to create a simulation for their students (McAleavy, 1998).

Issue 1: Context

Whilst Pickles (2010) describes how a historian – without detailed period knowledge – was able to use sources to build a sense of period through careful cross-referencing of sources, Ashby (2011) stresses that pupils cannot be expected to obtain their entirehistorical knowledge through source work alone. This point is crucial as it emphasises the notion that historical knowledge and discipline are inextricably linked. Without contextual knowledge – including an understanding of key words and concepts – pupils may struggle to both decipher and explain their evidential findings (Pickles, 2010). King argues that it is this contextual knowledge that drives higher-level answers (Sellin, 2018). Vast contextual knowledge, however, does not guarantee a high-level answer as there is the danger that pupils will either: forget to apply their contextual knowledge, or, allow it to consume their work (ibid.). Every enquiry, therefore, should begin with factual information – using what is already known and accepted as a starting point – as this ‘illuminates source material’ (ibid.; Kitson et al., 2011).

Prior to engaging with sources, pupils need to recognise that the sources they are working with were produced in a different world of ideas from our own (Pickles, 2010). Evans (1997: 91-92) argues that contextual ignorance ‘risk[s] violating the boundaries of possible meaning’.  Skinner endorses this view, proposing that it is necessary for us to temporarily detach ourselves from our own context, in order for us to determine rationality within the source’s context (Worth, 2016). Pupils, therefore, need to understand that neither the contemporary issues raised within a source, nor the authors attributed to them, should be judged against the ideals and standards of the present (Pickles, 2010).

After drawing upon their existing knowledge and cross-referencing with multiple sources, pupils should be encouraged to make decisions about evidence and ultimately construct what they believe to be an accurate account of the past. This is, in Kitson et al.’s (2011) opinion, the best way of helping pupils’ understand the role of the historian as the classroom has, in effect, created a simulation. It is important to note Pickles’ (2010) work, which shows that substantive knowledge does not necessarily lead to a more effective use of sources as some pupils fell into the trap of narrating their source instead of critically analysing it.

Issue 2: Questioning

Lang (1993) encourages History teachers to refrain from asking pupils to simply identify biased sources. All sources are arguably biased in one way or another, so it makes little sense to ask which ones are when even the most seemingly objective source contains unconscious bias seeping in from the creator’s personal background and the context in which they are writing (ibid.). Common consensus among history educators suggests that we should not be asking seriously misleading questions such as ‘Source X is biased. Does this mean it is of no use?’ (ibid.: 12). Pupils could see this question and automatically think that the word ‘bias’ means ‘untrue’, thus deeming the source not useful to historians and immediately discarding it because they perceive it to have no value due to its bias (Lang, 1993). Here, pupils are failing to realise that bias does not mean deliberate distortion or falsification of events (though this generally occurs as a result of bias), but rather a reflection of an individual’s or group’s beliefs (such as political views) (ibid.). As a result, pupils are missing out on a rich history of valid attitudes and opinions which can enhance contextual understanding of any given period. Indeed, historians may even be interested in the source because of its bias; for example, historians enquiring about propaganda (Kitson et al., 2011).

Ashby (2011) further questions why History teachers are requesting their pupils to judge the bias, usefulness and reliability of sources in the first place, as historians generally make no reference to these in their work. If history in the classroom is indeed trying to mimic historical method, then why are we asking our pupils to answer these questions (ibid.)? I somewhat agree with Ashby, although, I would argue that these are the questions historians instinctively and implicitly ask themselves when embarking on a thesis; it is only that they do not walk us through these thought processes in their publication.

On the one hand, Ashby (2011) cautions against questions regarding provenance such as ‘who?’, ‘what?’, ‘when?’ and ‘why?’, as these could encourage pupils to disregard a source immediately based on the perceived bias or unreliability of the author. On the other hand, Pickles states that ‘a higher conceptual understanding involves seeing sources as testimony, so that pupils realise that questions need to be asked about their provenance to establish reliability’ (Pickles, 2010: 44). I do agree that pupils can be biased against certain historical figures or groups, however, I also believe that knowing the provenance can provide us with an insight into the background of the author and offer suggestions as to why they have likely (or unlikely) obscured, fabricated or ignore ‘facts’. As a compromise, I propose that questions about provenance should not be completely ignored but merely be postponed, perhaps, until pupils have initially examined the source to avert pupils from instantly declaring bias upon noting the author.

Furthermore, generic questions regarding the usefulness of sources are too vague; if pupils do not know what they will be using the source for, how can they evaluate its usefulness (Lang, 1993; Ashby, 2011)? The diary of a woman in 1914 is not going to be as useful as, perhaps, soldiers’ letters for pupils wanting to know what life was like in the trenches, though it would be incredibly useful to pupils wanting to find out what women did whilst the men were away at war. Sellin (2018: 34) therefore, constructs questions with a clear criteria against which pupils can judge usefulness: ‘What counts as useful evidence for investigating the Blitz?’

Lang (1993) suggests that we should be asking: ‘What is the source’s bias, and how does it add to our picture of the past?’ This type of question encourages pupils to consider why the source is biased and what this can tell us about the author/period/event it relates to, thus providing criteria in which to judge usefulness. Just as with bias and usefulness, pupils need to know the criteria in which they are judging a source’s reliability against (Ashby, 2011). In my experience, pupils are quick to condemn a source (and its author) as unreliable because they find enjoyment in being critical and proving testimonies to be ‘wrong’. However, being critical is not the same as thinking critically (Wineburg, 2007). Pickles (2011) argues that in order to make sound inferences regarding the reliability of a source, pupils should be encouraged to consider – where a historical figure seemingly displays inconsistent attitudes – whether recent events may explain a sudden change in opinion, before using the author’s perceived inconsistency as evidence against their reliability.

Pickles (2011) further points out that pupils often evaluate sources as a whole, meaning they condemn the entire source as unreliable based on a small discrepancy. Pupils who have a better conceptual understanding of evidence, however, will also consider other sections of the source based on their use for it (ibid.). In order to facilitate this high-level thinking, Pickles suggests that pupils could be prompted to assess the degrees of certainty of statements within a source prior to making an overall judgement (ibid.). Wiltshire (2000) challenges pupils to do this by distinguishing between factual statements (‘the source tells me’) and inferences (‘the source suggests’) in their analysis.

Issue 3: Accessibility

Pupil’s naïvely assume that the only way of knowing the past is through a truthful eyewitness (McAleavy, 1998; Kitson et al., 2011; Ashby 2011). As a result, pupils do not think to go beyond eyewitness reports when building their historical account. This is problematic on two accounts: firstly, they are ignoring a wealth of sources such as newspapers and official reports which can help us check ‘facts’ from a witness’s statement and vice versa. Secondly, leading on from this, pupils are assuming that the statements of people who were witnesses to past events are automatically correct for no reason other than ‘they were there, so they would know’ (McAleavy, 1998). This presents us, as History teachers, with a challenge as there are ‘countless studies’ that highlight the fact that people are, for the most part, predisposed to choosing ‘the path of least resistance’ (Wineburg, 2007: 7).

In the context of the history classroom, this means that pupils will often choose to write about the source they find the most accessible or more obvious, as opposed to a source that would be considered more reliable but requires more effort to comprehend; consequentially, they have not truly utilised and developed their interrogation skills. Pickles agrees with this, stating that young people want quick and easy answers, thus they turn to accessible material (2010: 51). This provides a perfect explanation for why pupils will declare the eyewitness statement as most reliable: it is an obvious answer that required minimal critical thinking.

Whilst the accessibility of a source is certainly something that teachers should consider, Wooley (2003) argues that it is counterproductive to edit lengthier sources beyond recognition, as this often removes the context. She argues that pupils will benefit more from having ownership over a challenging source and working out how to select relevant detail for themselves (ibid.). This poses quite the balancing act for teachers to juggle a suitable level of accessibility and challenge in their selection of sources.

Issue 4: Conclusions

Ultimately, sources analysis is undertaken to enable historians, and pupils, to make substantiated conclusions about the past based on their understanding and interpretation of evidence (LeCocq, 2000). It is necessary to illuminate the difference between ‘source’ and ‘evidence’. Worth (2016) summarises this neatly, comparing the ‘source’ to a raw material, verses ‘evidence’ which is obtained from the interrogator’s utilisation of said source to substantiate a conclusion. As a result, pupils could reach different – yet justified – conclusions depending on their selection and interpretation of sources (Pickles, 2011). Therefore, sources are not automatically evidence but become evidence when used to support a claim (McDonnell, 2019). Hammond builds on this idea, arguing that the best essays are not ‘soaked with knowledge’, but ‘peppered with high quality evidence used purposefully to substantiate claims’ (Sellin, 2018: 33).  

Conclusion writing is something that I have found pupils generally struggle with. Riley (1999) argues that imaginative source analysis will both allow pupils to develop their historical knowledge and their literacy skills, allowing them to reach ‘balanced and rigorous conclusions’. Whilst I agree that source analysis enriches historical knowledge and may allow pupils to reach and verbally communicate a valid conclusion, I would argue that pupils would still struggle to develop their conclusions on paper without guidance on how to write a conclusion. By introducing – and encouraging the use of – phrases such as ‘evidence to back up my conclusion can be found in a source written by…, which says…’, pupils have been provided with the means to express their findings clearly, ensuring that they will not fall ‘at the last hurdle’ (LeCocq, 2000: 51). Having accepted that literacy is essential to history as a discipline, teachers should be aware of pupils who struggle with this and should provide a writing framework to give these pupils the opportunity to demonstrate high-level thinking.


Ashby, R. (2011). ‘Understanding historical evidence’ in Phillips, I. (Ed.) Debates in History Teaching. London, Routledge, pp.137-147.

Evans, R. J. (1997).  In Defence of History. London: Granta Publications.

Fienn, T. (1996) Russia & The USSR 1905-1941. London: John Murray.

Kitson, A., Husbands, C. and Steward, S. (2011). ‘Evidence and enquiry in history teaching’ in Teaching History (73), pp.55-64.

Lang, S. (1993). ‘What is Bias?’ in Teaching History (73), pp. 9-13.

LeCocq, H. (2000). ‘Beyond bias: making source evaluation meaningful to year 7’ in Teaching History (99), pp. 50-55.

McAleavy, T. (1998). ‘The use of sources in History’ in Teaching History (91), pp.10-13.

McDonnell, L. (2019). ‘Going way beyond the exam in order to do better in the exam: using an anthology of substantial sources at GCSE’ in Teaching History (175), pp. 51-63.

Pickles, E. (2010). ‘How can students’ use of historical evidence be enhanced?’ in Teaching History (139), pp. 41-51.

Pickles, E. (2011). ‘Assessment of students’ uses of evidence: shifting the focus from processes to historical reasoning’ in Teaching History (143), pp. 52-59.

Riley, C. (1999). ‘Evidential understanding, period knowledge and the development of literacy: a practical approach to ‘layers of inference’ for Key Stage 3’ in Teaching History (97), pp.6-12.

Riley C. (2000). ‘Choosing and Planting your Enquiry Questions’ in Teaching History (99) pp. 8-13.

Sellin, J. (2018) ‘‘Trampolines and springboards:  exploring the fragility of ‘source and own knowledge’ with Year 10’ in Teaching History (171) pp. 32-41.

Wiltshire, T. (2000). ‘Telling and suggesting in the Conwy Valley’ in Teaching History (100) pp. 32-35.

Wineburg, S. (2007). ‘Unnatural and essential: the nature of historical thinking’ in Teaching History (129), pp. 6-11.

Wooley, M. (2003). ‘‘Really weird and freaky’:  using a Thomas Hardy short story as a source of evidence in the Year 8 classroom’ in Teaching History (111) pp. 6-11.

Worth, P. (2016). ‘Evidential Thinking: Language as Liberator and Gaoler’ in Counsell, C., Burn, K. and Chapman, A. (Eds.) Master Class in History Education: Transforming Teaching and Learning. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp.77-104.

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