History is not simply the recalling of past events. It is more complex. It is an attempt to look into the past and to try to understand it with all its complexities. The procedures that historians use to make sense of the past is historical thinking. In the last several decades, history teachers have continued to teach students on how to cultivate a historical sense. Though this has always been challenged by the pedagogy in which students are provided narratives that focus mainly on historical facts, some aspects of historical thinking have endured.
One such area is how we deal with sources. Even in survey level history classes, students are taught the difference between a primary source and a secondary source. Some even require students to write a paper that at least incorporate some primary sources. Primary sources are important because they are the evidence from the past that help us in our quest to make sense of it.
These sources from the past were created and preserved by someone. The authority behind these sources is important. In British imperial history, we use a lot of the dispatches and reports sent back and forth between the colonies and the metropole. Using solely these sources to tell a story of the past will not paint an accurate picture of what happened. A case in point is Mau Mau in Kenya. Most of the sources that were preserved in archives were those that did not incriminate the colonial government for its brutality. Many of such incriminating documents were incinerated and others locked up away from the archives. It took the painstaking work of other historians who carried out oral interviews, read private diaries and nationalists papers to reveal the atrocities and torture that was unleashed by the colonial government on the people. In history teaching, students are taught to question the sources that they have.
In history teaching, students are also taught how to use the variety of sources that they have accumulated to construct a chronological narrative about the past. They cannot have full knowledge about the past because it is removed from them. They are only taking a peak. This is because their knowledge of the past is limited by the sources from the past. It is impossible to have all the sources from the past. They become aware that history is dynamic. They might be new evidence that may show up that could change what they already know about the past.
In the face of new technologies, the way we think about the past will continue to change. These technological tools afford us the opportunity to look at sources from the past in ways that we could not have forty years ago. For example, we can use CartoDB to visualize WPA slave interviews or reconstruct everyday life in a small town 100 years ago. Tools such as this can transform the way our students learn and practice history.