Sunday, February 1, 2009

What's Wrong with This Picture? Evaluating Historical Documents...

We teach the scientific method in school.  We teach how to read.  We teach how to write.  We teach how to do math.  In all of those disciplines, we merge content with method, so that students may learn not just the what, but the how, in the hopes that their learning will continue long past when they leave our classroom.

But not in social studies.  Social studies has long been so content-focused to the point of excluding the how of it.  Did you ever learn the historical method in schools?  I didn't.  The textbooks treat history as if it were a solitary, static thing.  

The history of the world is pretty long.  It's simply not possible to cover everything in 13 years of school.  Better to give our students the tools that they may learn the history we don't get to on their own.  Evaluating historical documents, distinguishing between primary and secondary sources, and establishing the veracity and reliability of these historical documents.

Technology is a great way for us to do that.  Take a look at this picture.  It's a women's suffrage parade in 1912. What's wrong with it?   

Let the students explore it.  This is a photograph I'd use when they were accustomed to doing this, starting with more obvious errors first.  But through the evaluation of this photograph, students can explore women's suffrage, life in the early 1900s, and the invention of the car.  

Photoshop Elements makes this relatively easy.  There's a host of historical photographs available online, through the Library of Congress's American Memory, and hundreds of digital archives.  We can teach historical skills while also teaching content, and putting historical events within a context: Students learning about women's suffrage will, through evaluating this photograph, learn a little bit about life in the early 1900s: cars were just becoming widely available (like Model Ts, not Mustangs!) , the dress typical of the era, and so on.  This is important, particularly in the elementary grades, because often pieces of history are taught in such a disjointed manner that few connections are made: the invention of the car would rarely be taught near women's suffrage, despite the fact that they were occurring largely within the same time period.  

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.  And who wouldn't want to hear their ten-year-old students pointing out, "Hey!  That's ridiculous - they were just starting to drive Model Ts back then!  Ford developed his assembly line only four years before that!"


  1. Of course, my question is... who composited this picture?

  2. I did! (Wasn't that what we were to be working on?)

    This is the one that took me the longest of the three posts on Photoshop.

  3. That's an excellent job! How many pictures are in there--I'm thinking at least three...

  4. Technically two photos, the original of the parade and the one of the single Mustang - just put the car in twice.

    I managed to trick a couple adults in my family so I was happy. I'd probably only use this in fifth grade or so, and even that after many times of evaluating photographs. Then again, kids are often more perceptive than we are. ;)

  5. I found the original hi-res picture on the Library of Congress site... even the original is weird. I guess the depth of focus was so limited back then, but those women are _so_ in focus while even the buildings _so_ aren't! Nice job matching the sizes and B&W bits.

    Now if you put a plane in the sky...

  6. Great job - I'm already thinking ahead to our class on Feb 17 when we look at using digital images for historical thinking and inquiry!

  7. Great idea ! Very original. "Correcting" history rather than passively learning facts. The student is part of critical process that is also fun. You might put a wrong building or monument in the back skyline. Empire State, Statue of Liberty.

    Once the first assignment is done, a next could be more difficult, the method having been experienced.

    At an higher grade level perhaps, the student could make his or her own picture. That would be fun.