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Building Research Skills Through Global Primary Sources

By Ann Marie Gleeson & Jennifer Hanson — May 12, 2015 5 min read
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Investigating the world through primary sources is a great way to build students’ research skills and global competence. Ann Marie Gleeson, Program Director, and Jennifer Hanson, Librarian, Primary Source, share primary source collections and project ideas to get you started.

Do your students know how to access global primary sources for research? Globally competent students need to know how to find, analyze, and use information to solve complex problems and investigate the world. The Common Core standards require that students “conduct original research” for short and sustained projects to build and present new understandings. Encouraging students to use primary sources is one way to support inquiry around global topics by engaging students with authentic voices and raw data. These original sources provide students with opportunities to construct their own interpretations and claims while corroborating their new knowledge with other secondary sources.

New initiatives and technologies have made global primary sources more accessible and readily available. In fact, students are often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information available to them and have difficulty finding or selecting source material to support their inquiry. One way to build students’ research skills in this area is to introduce various archival collections and tools that can be used to research a multitude of issues and topics around the world. Here are a few primary source collections and project ideas to support student research on global issues, topics, and histories.

Art and Artifacts
Works of art reflect the values, beliefs, interests, and/or the practices of the society in which they were created. Material culture such as paintings, literature, music, jewelry, and architecture, among others, can be used as evidence to support claims about a historical event or contemporary issue. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History comprises nearly 7,000 artifacts, detailed thematic essays, and extensive timelines from around the world, circa 8000 BCE to the present. Students can use the site to access works of art, place artifacts within their historical context, and consider broader connections between cultural practices and works of art.

For example, you might ask students to select an artifact related to a region or topic that they are researching and use resources from the site to consider how the artwork reflects cultural values or connects to a particular event. Students can find similar materials through sites such as Google Cultural Institute and MFA for Educators.

Data
As they research contemporary global issues, topics, or world regions, students can draw on a vast wealth of data compiled and published by various government and non-governmental organizations. Worldwide data collected by organizations such as the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) can be used to analyze trends within and across nations and regions on such topics as economics, health, education, and the environment, to name a few.

For a short research activity, assign students to different countries and ask them to find information about the country on two to three indicators related to a global issue from the OECD’s datasets. Use a shared Google Doc to compile the collected data from the different countries and, as a class, construct claims about the issue. Additional global datasets can be found through World Bank Data and UNData.

Maps
Maps tell stories about population, politics, the environment, and much more. Through map analysis, students can build visual, spatial, and critical thinking skills. The Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection from the University of Texas at Austin contains over 60,000 digitized map images and includes historical, thematic, topographic, and current issues maps (for example, maps of the Nepal earthquake). The collection provides access to government and military maps, current news maps, and digitized atlases.

Ask students to compare and contrast a political map and a thematic map (such as energy use, climate, or economic activity maps) from the same country or region. Have students observe the size and shape of the maps, the elements and features included on the map, and the perspective from which the map is drawn. Based on their observations and background knowledge, ask students to infer the purpose and audience of the map and reflect on what the maps convey about a particular place and culture. To further their map investigation, ask students to research the map creators and accuracy of the maps. For more mapping resources, visit Google Maps and Worldmapper.

Newspapers
Keeping up with current events is one of the best ways to increase students’ global knowledge and understanding. However, reading the news from US sources will provide a primarily Western, United States-centric viewpoint. To truly grasp the events and issues citizens in other countries are experiencing, students need to read news from other countries. Newspapermap uses Google mapping features to pin news sites from countries around the world. Color-coded pins identify the language in which the news is reported, and students can filter results by location and language.

To engage students with news from around the world, ask them to identify a global current event or news story that interests them. Then, have them select a country and find a newspaper from that country using Newspapermap. Using the news site they have selected, what can they learn about the issue or topic? Compare the coverage from the foreign news site to a US news site. How is the coverage similar? How is it different? From what perspectives is the story told? Then, ask students to return to their chosen country’s news site. What other stories are in the headlines in that country? Are they being reported in the United States? Discuss with students why news from other countries might or might not be reported in the United States. For more newspaper websites, visit World Newspapers.

The more students interact with art, artifacts, data, maps, and news from cultures and countries other than their own, the better they will understand the cultures, issues, and histories that shape the world in which they live. Using the collections mentioned above, students can access high-quality research materials while also developing global awareness and cultural empathy.

Follow Primary Source, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo: Primary Source.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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