What do historians do?

Discover this first lesson which lifts the veil on how historians work by inviting you to reflect on a history mystery.

This lesson encourages students to become history detectives. It helps them understand the work of historians.

Why is this lesson important?

Foster a historical mindset and cultivate historical inquiry skills

Students analyze and interpret primary sources. Similarly to historians, groups analyzing various sources can come up with different conclusions.

Initiate a love for history

The lesson is built around group work, with minimal lecturing from the teacher: students are active and engaged.

Nurture a sense of tolerance and an appreciation for cultural diversity

The selected sources originates from 3 different countries and periods. The focus is on understanding the principles of historical enquiry rather than learning historical facts on one country.

Cultivate “historical” empathy

Students interpret claims from 2 different rulers. They get acquainted with the challenging work of historians.

Subject History / Social Studies
Topic What do historians do?
Key idea Historians study sources to understand the past. Their interpretations change as they find new sources and
come up with new ideas.
Key concept Historian
Level Lower secondary
No. of periods / lessons 1 period (1 period is approximately 50 minutes)
Facilities needed Sources and handouts for distribution
Prerequisite knowledge No prerequisite knowledge is required.

Learning objectives: by the end of the lesson, the students will be able to…

  1. Describe about the sources that historians use.
  2. Explain the kinds of questions historians ask.
  3. Describe what a source can tell us about people and leaders in the past.
  1. Practice analysing multiple sources by engaging in an open-ended process of inquiry.
  2. Engage in cooperative group work.
  1. Cultivate openness to multiple perspectives.
  2. Demonstrate comfort with historical uncertainty.


1. Hook: Asking a historian’s questions

The teacher shows the image of a stone inscription and students share their thoughts on the history and meaning of this inscription.

2. Teacher talk

The lecture introduces the work of historians, finding various sources and evidence to find out what happened in the past although this job is difficult and historians sometimes interpret sources differently.

3. Group work: Analysis of sources

In groups of 4, students analyze 2 different sources, and compare their findings with those of historians.

4. Reflection: checking answers

Students identify what surprised them most about what other groups and historians believe about these sources, and why.

5. Concluding teacher talk

Just like in this exercise, historians analyze evidences to interpret the past. Their ideas can be different than other historians’ and can evolve as they find new sources.