NPS NPS TwHP Zumbrota Covered Bridge, Fire Island Light House, Mesa Verde, Charleston Market


Sample Methods Lesson Using Historic Places


Blue Ridge Parkway Historic Mill
Lesson Index:

Introduce Steps in the Inquiry Method
Highlight the Role of Evidence
Primary Documents
Case Study: A Lesson Using an Historic Place
Preparing to Use Place in Historical Inquiry
Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia
Courtesy of the National Park Service Archives



            There are many options for using historic places in methods instruction and a broad array of possible lessons/lectures professors might incorporate into their courses (see "'The Place of Place'" and a Sample Methods Course Outline). But thinking of historic places as 3-dimensional primary sources suggests the value of using places to prepare novice teachers to teach inquiry, also referred to as problem solving. The following sample lesson focuses most particularly on the inquiry process in history – a perennial methods topic across grade levels in U.S. methods courses (see Session Four in the Methods Course Outline).


1. To introduce a model of history/social science inquiry
2. To examine the role of evidence and the nature and use of primary sources in inquiry
3. To discuss historic places as sources of two-dimensional and three-dimensional primary sources
4. To consider what different primary sources contribute to building inferences and testing hypotheses in the inquiry process
5. To demonstrate the use of a historic place to carry out an inquiry exercise
6. To catalogue what a teacher needs to know and do to prepare for the use of places in historical inquiry



I.          Introduce Steps in the Inquiry Method

A standard model for inquiry in history/social science is as follows:

  A. Describe the Problem (What needs to be explained; the problem is often a puzzling question or other kind of       
    discrepant situation that must be resolved.
  B. Generate Hypotheses (Educated guesses that provide possible explanations)
  C. Test the Hypotheses (Use evidence to confirm or refute hypotheses and to generate new hypotheses)
  D. Formulate a Tentative Conclusion (What is our tentative explanation or resolution of the problem, based on the
    available evidence?)

II.        Highlight the Role of Evidence

  A. Key to the inquiry process is the search and analysis of evidence and the making of inferences based      
    on the evidence.
  B. Historians and other social scientists draw evidence from primary sources.
  C. Primary sources (“original sources”) are materials (documents, artifacts, buildings, and the like) that were
    produced during the historical time period being examined and provide first-hand descriptions of places
    and events; secondary sources provide commentary or interpretation of primary sources and are derived from
    original sources. Provide a couple of examples of each.
  D. Historic places offer a range of primary sources with which students can make inferences and draw
    conclusions about historical events and times.


III.       Primary Documents

  A. Traditional primary documents
  1. Letters, diaries, maps, newspapers, public records, artifacts
  2. Analyzing traditional primary documents: see
    for worksheets used to analyze documents

  B. Places as documents – what places can tell us about people and the times they lived in (White and Hunter, 1995
    Teaching with Historic Places: A Curriculum Framework, pp. 19-26)
  1. Spatial relationships: how elements within a place are distributed and related to each other
  2. Temporal relationships: what the place tell us about the time in which it was built or established, and the ways
    in which it has changed (or not changed) over time
  3. Humans and the natural environment: how humans adapted to the place in which they settled and how
    they changed the place to accommodate human needs
  4. Design: what values people embraced that were represented in the built environment of their time through
    design, use of space, building materials employed, and other attributes; how these characteristics reveal clues
    about innovation, about the economics of a particular time and place, about the intended function of the
    space(s), and about the cultural heritage from which they are drawn.
  5. Context: how a place sits in relation to other places, spatially and temporally, because where a place is
    located and what it shares visually with its surroundings provides evidence on which to base historical
  6. Artifacts: how the people of the time carried out the daily necessities of life and how these compare to
    the routines of life today.

IV.       Case Study: A Lesson Using an Historic Place

  A. Use an existing TWHP lesson plan to demonstrate how a variety of evidence types presented (2-D documents,
    maps, architectural drawings, and visuals of the place) work together to allow students to formulate and test
    inferences and draw tentative conclusions about a historical question. (List of all TwHP Lesson Plans)
  1. Present a photograph, map, or other piece of evidence from the historic place that generates a problem to be
    solved or a circumstance to be explained.
  2. Based on what students see/read, generate several hypotheses.
  3. Provide additional pieces of evidence from that historic place that allow students to test the plausibility of
    these hypotheses.
  4. Allow students to construct a tentative conclusion that solves the problem or provides a valid explanation
    based on the evidence.

  B.  At the end of the sample TWHP lesson, review the steps of the inquiry lesson that were illustrated in this lesson.

  C. Review how different types of evidence were drawn upon in the lesson, including those unique to “place” as a

V.        Preparing to Use Place in Historical Inquiry

Much of what a teacher needs to know in order to use place in the inquiry process is the same as for any inquiry lesson.

  A.    Here are questions that a teacher must ask in advance of an inquiry lesson:
  1. What is the problem to be solved, the situation to be explained, or the puzzle to be unraveled? For example,
    what explains the different street patterns in different parts of our city? Why were the earliest mills in America
    built where they were? What was daily life like in colonial New England village? How did towns and aspiring
    cities in the Midwest and Great Plains attract settlers and businesses?
  2. Based on current scholarship, what are reasonable conclusions one can reach with respect to the inquiry
    problem? What are competing conclusions about which historians disagree?
  3.  On what evidence are these conclusions based?
  4. How can I make this evidence accessible to my students, in the form of 2-D and 3-D primary documents –
    accessible in the multiple senses of “proximity” (is it a place that can be visited), “retrievable” (is it a document
    or an artifact that is available for examination/use) and “understandable” (for example, is the language of the
    document comprehensible to my students)?
  5. Is there an initial document, artifact, model, photograph, map, or physical setting can I present to students that:
  a. will generate an awareness of the problem,
  b. will spark interest in constructing an explanation that resolves the problem, and
  c. will prompt students to propose several testable hypotheses for which additional evidence can
    be brought to bear?
  6. How shall I make that additional evidence available to students in a way that will help them analyze the
    evidence, make inferences from the evidence, and test hypotheses leading to a well-reasoned tentative
  7. In short, the teacher works backwards from the tentative conclusions to the evidence that is accessible
    to students. The teacher makes that evidence available to students, who can use it to test hypotheses
    and develop tentative conclusions (and perhaps also generate additional questions worthy of further

  B.    Good resources for teaching inquiry using historic places:
  1. Check the TwHP website, especially the section on Lesson Plans. You may find an existing TWHP lesson
    plan that addresses a place of interest in your curriculum and provides the necessary materials to support
  2. The second source is the National Register of Historic Places, with offices in every state in the nation.
    Specifically, one can consult the nominations for historic places and districts in your local area. Nomination
    documentation contains evidence of historical significance, including references to (or actual examples of)
  3.  primary documents. Architectural style and other design data can provide visual clues, accessible to students,
    to the history of the place.
    accessible in the multiple senses of “proximity” (is it a place that can be visited), “retrievable” (is it a document
    or an artifact that is available for examination/use) and “understandable” (for example, is the language of the
    document comprehensible to my students)?

These materials are available from State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO) around the country. A visit to your state’s SHPO can put you in touch with a wealth of primary and secondary sources and with a collection of dedicated professionals.

You also can search online for National Register sites in your area by using the National Register of Historic Places online database.  From the National Register homepage, click on “Database/Research” in the lefthand menu, click on “National Register of Historic Places database,” and follow the instructions.

VI.       Extensions

  A. Have students search the National Register online database for local places on the National Register.      
  B. Students can search for TWHP lesson plans that might be appropriate to use or adapt for their final unit plans.
  C.    With a partner, identify a place in the community that may be historically significant (even if not listed in the
    National Register of Historic Places) and conduct a small research project on its history and significance.
    Include the kinds of evidence you examined and how they supported your conclusions.
  D.  Using the resources described above, and others, plan for a field study in your local area that demonstrates the
    kinds of evidence that place can provide in historical inquiry. This will allow your students to apply what they’ve
    learned about using place in the inquiry process.


VII.     Assessment

  A.  Provide students with two or three hypotheses about a given historic place and have students
  1. identify a variety of primary sources (both 2-D and 3-D) that could be used to test the hypotheses and
  2. explain how these sources could be used to support or refute each hypothesis.

  B.   Have students select a historic place, either locally or from the National Register database and construct an
    inquiry lesson that uses sources from that place to make inferences and test hypotheses.

  C.    Have students select a lesson plan from the TWHP lesson database and identify the steps of the inquiry
    process that are implicit in the lesson.



Prepared by Charles S. White, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, School of Education
Boston University
Boston, MA



NPS NPS TwHP Zumbrota Covered Bridge, Fire Island Light House, Mesa Verde, Charleston Market