Historic Places and the Inquiry Method: Analyzing Evidence from a Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plan

The following case study is intended for use by methods professors (and others) to demonstrate to their students how historic places can be used in the classroom to apply the inquiry method.

“Historic places – buildings, districts, and landscapes – can serve as the locus for study by pre-service teachers to demonstrate how significant concepts in the social sciences can be made accessible to their pupils.” --Charles S. White

Historic places have much to offer in teaching students about specific time periods, people, and events. Primary documents (the raw material of historical inquiry):

  • Primary documents associated with specific sites such as inventories, store logs/account books, diaries, letters, etc. help students imagine what life was like at that place, at that time, and for that person.
  • Historic maps, photographs, paintings, and drawings allow students actually to visualize lifestyles, customs, dress, furnishings, transportation methods, topography, settlement patterns, etc.
  • Although primary sources are often seen as illustrations or “extra” materials, their power to engage student interest and provide unique learning opportunities should not be overlooked.
  • On close examination, primary documents associated with historic places can provide answers to many important questions about the past.
  • Primary documents may spark additional questions that require students to consult secondary materials for the big picture.

Together, primary and secondary sources can provide inquisitive students with the tools they need to answer questions and form conclusions on their own. Being exposed to various forms of evidence related to a real historic place can capture student interest in a way a textbook account alone may not. In short, using sources as evidence for students to analyze rather than merely look at provides an opportunity for them to become actively engaged in the learning process.

  • Gathering and analyzing evidence, developing and testing hypotheses, and forming conclusions are key components of the inquiry method of learning.
  • By taking part in the inquiry process, students learn that history is not a static discipline or simply the memorization of facts.
  • The inquiry process permits students to take a primary role in their own learning.

In order for students to benefit from the inquiry method, however, their classroom teachers must first know how to teach it. The following case study takes an existing Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan and demonstrates how it can be used (in a methods course or other situation) to teach the inquiry method to pre-service teachers. By participating in the inquiry process themselves, pre-service teachers will gain the practice necessary to engage their future students in this approach to thinking and learning. The case study also may be useful as an in-service program for classroom teachers.

Begin the case study by describing to students the basic steps of the inquiry method as outlined below:

Step 1: 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.)

Step 2: Generate Hypotheses (Educated guesses that provide possible explanations)

Step 3: Test the Hypotheses (Use evidence to confirm or refute hypotheses and to generate new hypotheses)

Step 4: Formulate a Tentative Conclusion (What is our tentative explanation or resolution of the problem, based on the available evidence?)

Learning to apply this standard model for inquiry to historic places gives pre-service teachers a valuable tool to engage their future students in historical thinking.

Explain to students that they will be applying these steps using an existing Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan. TwHP is a National Park Service program that offers a variety of products and activities that help teachers bring historic places into the classroom. TwHP lessons are a wonderful tool for teaching the inquiry method because each one pulls together a variety of primary and secondary sources from a historic place.

The case study lesson used here is “The Rockets’ Red Glare”: Francis Scott Key and the Bombardment of Fort McHenry. This lesson focuses on how the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore led to the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and how Francis Scott Key’s song became a powerful symbol for Americans. Pre-service teachers will learn how multiple pieces of evidence work together to provide students with a whole picture from which they can draw conclusions.

Step 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. Without explaining the topic of the case study, provide students with a copy of Visual Evidence and present the following question: What is the historical context of this map and the significance of the event in American history? (This piece of evidence appears as Illustration 2: The Battle of Baltimore in the original lesson plan. For the case study, all other information including the title, caption, and questions have been removed so students must rely on the evidence itself.)

Step 2: Based on what students see/read, generate several hypotheses. Students should examine the map carefully and look for clues that will help them answer the questions. It might be helpful to instruct students to what they see/notice/discover from the map (e.g. map of Baltimore and surrounding area; dates/position of troop movement and battle; British vs. American troops; position of Francis Scott Key aboard ship). Based on these facts combined with prior knowledge, students should construct several possible hypotheses such as:
  1. This map depicts Baltimore and the surrounding area in 1814. It indicates where the Battle of North Point took place, and it shows a British naval fleet positioned near Baltimore and Fort McHenry. Based on the dates given, these events would have occurred during the War of 1812.
  2. These events probably occurred here because Baltimore must have been an important American city at the time, and the British have wanted to control it.
  3. Based on the map, it looks like the British tried to seize it through a combination of land and sea attacks. Fort McHenry and other nearby forts protected the city.
  4. According to the map, Francis Scott Key was aboard a U.S. truce ship in the midst of the main British fleet. Since he wrote the Star-Spangled banner, the song might be about what happened there.
Next, instruct students to consider what information the map does not provide that could help them better answer the questions. In other words, what questions does the map spark that might be answered by studying additional evidence? They should distinguish between which parts of the question they were able to answer directly from the map, and which required prior knowledge or supposition. For example, the map does not indicate why the British attacked Baltimore. It provides no information on who Francis Scott Key was or why he was on board a truce ship. There is also no mention of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Remind pre-service teachers that while they likely utilized prior knowledge in developing their hypothesis, their future students may not be familiar with the subject of a given inquiry lesson. In this case, a classroom student may have come up with a hypothesis such as:

This map shows that the British tried to attack Baltimore by land and sea in 1814. Baltimore must have been an important port city, and that is why these events occurred where they did. The battle could have impacted our nation if it was a turning point that allowed America to win the larger war. The battle also could have impacted our nation by introducing a new weapon or technology that became important in future warfare. It probably made Francis Scott Key famous.

Step 3: Provide additional pieces of evidence from that historic place that allow students to test the plausibility of these hypotheses.

Provide students with the following sections of the lesson plan and ask them to examine each piece in the order outlined below. For each piece of evidence, they should highlight elements that support, refute, or provide new information regarding their hypotheses. Have students refer back to the initial map as needed and note when they find answers to the questions they formulated in Step 2. (Students do not need to answer the questions that accompany each piece of evidence.)

Setting the Stage: This section provides information about why Baltimore was a target for the British (i.e. anti-British sentiment, home port of many privateers, not too far from nation’s capital).

Map 1: This section provides additional information about why Baltimore was a target for the British (i.e. 3rd largest city in the U.S. in terms of population and important shipping center).

Reading 1: This first-hand account of the battle gives the sequence of events and an understanding of what it was like to be there.

Reading 2: This section provides background information on Francis Scott Key and explains why he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry. It also describes why Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner and how it was first distributed.

Reading 3: This primary document provides the words to all four stanzas of the song Key wrote.

Reading 4: This section describes how the Star-Spangled Banner gained popularity and became our national anthem in 1931.

Photo 1: This photo gives a close-up view of the walls of Fort McHenry today.

Illustration 1 and Photo 2: These images help students understand the layout of the fort itself and better visualize the bombardment from the Americans’ perspective. Together, the images enhance the first-hand account of Major Armistead. Photo 2 provides a sense of the scale of the American flag that inspired Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner.

Illustration 3: This 1816 painting of the bombardment provides a contemporary view of what the battle may have looked like. It complements Major Armistead’s first-hand account and helps students visualize Key’s words.

Photo 3: This photo of the conserved flag today helps students understand its power as a national symbol, icon, and artifact.
Illustration 4: This 1943 poster demonstrates the flag’s continued use as a symbol and as a tool to foster patriotism.

Step 4: Allow students to construct a tentative conclusion that solves the problem or provides a valid explanation based on the evidence. Students should reread their original hypothesis and then construct a more thorough explanation that incorporates new information they learned from the additional pieces of evidence. Have them think about the accuracy of their original hypothesis. Alone or in pairs, have pre-service teachers write an extended paragraph that draws a tentative conclusion about the circumstances and significance of the event, based on the evidence they have examined. The revised explanation should reflect a deeper understanding of how and why an event that occurred nearly 200 years ago continues to impact our lives as Americans today. It should highlight the fact that this single event produced our national anthem as well as one of the most important artifacts in our nation. Have 1 or 2 pairs share their paragraph and critique their response as a class.

At the end of the sample TwHP lesson, review the steps of the inquiry process that were illustrated in this lesson. Reiterate the steps of the inquiry method, and relate them back to the exercises the students just completed.
  1. Describe the Problem: Students became aware of a problem and were asked to try to solve the problem based on examination of a single piece of evidence. The problem was: What is the historical context of this map and the significance of the event in American history? The piece of evidence was a map depicting Baltimore and the surrounding area in September 1814.
  2. Generate Hypotheses: Students attempted to answer the questions based on examination of the evidence and prior knowledge. They considered what additional information could have helped them construct a more complete answer.
  3. Test the Hypotheses: Students examined several additional pieces of evidence in an attempt to confirm or refute their original hypotheses and to generate new hypotheses. Additional evidence included primary and secondary accounts, photographs, a drawing, a painting, a map, and a poster.
  4. Formulate a Tentative Conclusion: Students reached a tentative conclusion by combining information gained from the additional evidence and testing it against their earlier inferences.

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

Now ask students to organize the evidence into categories (i.e. visual evidence vs. written evidence, primary vs. secondary sources, etc.).

Discuss as a class how each piece of evidence contributed to their overall understanding of the questions/problem.

Questions to consider include:
How was each piece of evidence unique? Why was it necessary to examine multiple pieces of evidence to arrive at your conclusion? Highlight the fact that historic places can serve as valuable resources even if students are not able to visit them in person.

Once the students have completed the case study and are comfortable with the inquiry process, discuss the following questions:

  • What benefits are there to having your future students analyze various types of evidence?
  • What do you think your students’ reaction to the various types of evidence might be?
  • How does this process promote active learning?

Conclude the exercise by summarizing how the inquiry method helps students develop the skills to analyze evidence, distinguish between types of evidence (primary, secondary, visual, written), combine various types of evidence to develop and test hypotheses, and ultimately form conclusions. All the while they are “doing” history by becoming involved in the process, putting facts together, and drawing conclusions about people, events, and time periods.

Last updated: June 4, 2021


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