Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Critical Thinking, Textbooks and Primary Sources

This week my grade 6 students have continued to develop their critical thinking skills within the boundaries of our Social Studies curriculum.  Our final unit this year is on exploration.  In the past the learning goal would have been event and fact based and the main source of information would have been the textbook, because that is all we had to refer to. That, of course is no longer necessary. Access to primary sources of information is available to every elementary student.  Students can now read (in translation) the account of the first siting of land by Christopher Columbus' crew or view Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe.  Getting students to work with primary sources and asking them to adjust their thinking as they learn is central to developing good critical thinking skills but that doesn't mean that we need to discard our textbooks. 

Today, for example,  they were asked to consider the Treaty of Tordesillas.  We began with a whole class lesson during which we discussed possible outcomes of the race by various nations to claim lands.  It was not difficult for them to predict that conflicts would arise.

We then had a brief discussion on how those conflicts might have been resolved which led to learning about the man with ultimate power at that time: Pope Alexander VI and  his decision to divide the world in two. Below is the page from our textbook: Canada Revisited which briefly explains the event.

The students had strong reactions to this occurrence. We discussed fairness and then I introduced them to the idea that they were looking at the situation through 21st century eyes. They were considering this decision using their modern understanding of the world.  I showed them a primary source map that was drawn shortly after the signing of the treaty and asked "How did using a primary source affect your understanding of the Treaty?"

The map shows what became South America on the bottom left, the Caribbean at the top left and Europe at the right.

Some students had difficulty understanding the phrasing of the question so I met with them in small groups to discuss what we had learned, their reactions to the maps and the decision to divide the world in two.  I helped them by rephrasing the question:

"What did you think at first about the decision to divide the world in two?"

"What did you realize once you saw the primary source map"

Here are some sample responses:

1. Using a primary source sure affected my understanding of the treaty because seeing the map, it showed how little they knew of the world. They didn't know what was really out there.

2. The map from back then made me notice that all the value is in the land and that he should have explored more and found out what was really there before dividing it up.

3. Once I realized what the Pope's vision of the world was, I realized that the Pope's intention was to give Portugal more land, but once Spain started to explore, they got more land but never discovered Canada which gave England and the French an opportunity for land.

4. Once I realized the Pope's intentions were, it made me think that the Pope had better intentions for Portugal than I thought. In the textbook it looked like Portugal got nothing. On the primary source map the land was very close to even. When I looked on the real world map I understood that in the end Spain in a way had won.

5. Using a primary source affected my understanding because just looking at the world map of today, it makes it look fair landwise.  When you look at the primary source you can tell that the Pope just drew the line randomly not knowing what was out there.  At that point in time it may have seemed fair because that was all that was discovered.

6. It made me realized how little they knew about the world and that they decided to divide up the land before they really knew what was there. They made the decision too early.

7. Using primary sources affected my understanding because it confirmed what I was thinking - they didn't really know what was there.

8.  Using a primary source affected my understanding of the treaty by showing me that the Pope thought that both countries had an equal amount of land but they didn't.

Once again, the emphasis is on thinking about content, rather than memorizing facts. Clearly, there may be errors in the conclusions that they've drawn, but what I hope they gain is the ability to constantly adjust their thoughts and opinions as they construct their knowledge.

My job as an educator is to ensure that students are using primary sources and that they learn how to search for those sources. A good place to begin finding primary sources of information is the World Digital Library. Major institutions from around the world are uploading their historical treasures!


  1. This is an impressive lesson/experience. The insight the students gained are far more rich then facts and figures. Did you find the map online? Congratulations on leading the students through this learning adventure. As a grade 6 teacher myself I realize that it's not always easy to explain how education is changing and it's lessons like this that open people's eyes to 21st Century education.
    Rick McCleary

  2. Thanks for your comments. Prompting students to gain insight and construct knowledge has been the biggest shift in my practice. I am so grateful for my twitter PLN that has helped me develop a much better understanding of what my role as a teacher should be. Through these amazing educators - and people outside the field of education I have improved my practice. Being able to access information allows exceptional learning opportunities. I did find the map on the internet.


Heidi invites you to comment on your attempts to transform your teaching practice.


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