What’s the difference between observation and inference? It’s an important distinction students can learn by using the Primary Source Analysis Tool, and it’s key to critical thinking.
I believe that if every student learns how to develop and defend his or her own ideas – and feels safe to share them, knowing that peers will respect those thoughts – it can be an exhilarating experience for both students and teacher. Helping educators use the “Reflect” column of the Analysis Tool to guide students as they learn to think critically and confidently is one of the most exciting parts of my job here at the Library.
What goes into the “Reflect” column? It’s the part of primary source analysis where students interpret what they see or hear (observations), consider what they already know (prior knowledge), and make inferences. To simplify, it’s where students answer the question, “What do you think is going on here?” As you’ll see on the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Primary Sources, it’s where teachers “encourage students to generate and test hypotheses about the source.”
You can begin to guide your students toward critical thinking when they are reflecting and making inferences with the Analysis Tool – especially when they mistakenly think they are making observations. A Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute participant said, “My students wanted to rush to a conclusion (generation of instant gratification)….” For example, instead of saying, “I see drawings of ships and cannons and smoke” (an observation), a student might say, “This is a war map” (a reflection). The Summer Institute teacher solved this problem by having her students “slow down and pull the details out before moving on to an inference based on [those details].”
When students learn to slow down and consider whether a thought is based in observation or is an inference, they begin to assume less and question more. I believe that as they learn to support their hypotheses with evidence, they feel safer to think outside the box and to share their thinking with their peers. After all, with a carefully-supported hypothesis, there is no right or wrong. Every student’s ideas have value and are worthy of further inquiry and research.
Strategies for using the “Reflect” column:
- Focus students with questions selected from the “Reflect” column of one of the Teacher’s Guides.
- Ask students questions such as, “What makes you say that?” or “What do you see (or hear) that makes you think that?” Such questions require students to provide evidence of their thinking, including clues from the primary source, information from the bibliographic record, personal experience, and prior knowledge on the topic.
- Encourage students to slow down and structure their thinking by using use a sentence starter, such as “I think … because …” (for primary grades) or “My hypothesis is … and the supporting evidence is …” (for upper elementary and secondary grades).
When students learn to form a hypothesis and support their views with evidence, they are thinking critically and are well on their way to deepening content understanding. I can’t think of anything more exciting. For an overview of ways to teach with the Primary Source Analysis Tool, check out the blog post The Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool: Helping K-12 Students Start Analyzing Primary Sources.
In a future blog post, we’ll share tips from teachers in the field about using the Primary Source Analysis Tool. What are some strategies you’ve used in your classroom to help your students distinguish between observation and inference, or to guide them in creating and supporting hypotheses? Let us know your grade level.